The District Court for the District of Columbia recently issued a decision awarding attorneys’ fees to a charter school (that operates as its own local education agency), finding that the parent’s attorney filed and continued to litigate a complaint that was frivolous, unreasonable, and without foundation. The case demonstrates that although the standard that a school district or charter school must meet to be awarded its attorneys’ fees after prevailing at a due process hearing is high, where a parent’s attorney brings a claim based on allegations known to be false or without evidence to support a finding of a denial of a free and appropriate public education (FAPE), such fees are available.
In litigation generally, parties pay their own attorneys’ fees. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), however, provides that a court may order a school district to pay the attorneys’ fees of a parent who is the prevailing party in an IDEA proceeding. Additionally, if the school district is the prevailing party and the complaint is “frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation,” a court may order the parent’s attorney to pay the school district’s attorneys’ fees. This second provision was added when the IDEA was amended in 2004, and only a handful of cases have addressed it.
In Capital City Public Charter School v. Gambale, the underlying due process complaint alleged that the charter school unreasonably delayed placing the student in a residential placement and failed to provide appropriate IEPs, specifically that the transition plans were inadequate. After a two-day hearing, the hearing officer found that the delay in placing the student was caused by the parent, not the charter school. The hearing officer also found that the student’s IEPs were appropriate and that he received extensive instruction and training in all transition areas while attending the residential placement. The complaint was therefore dismissed with prejudice.
The case then went to the D.C. trial court to determine whether the charter school was entitled to attorneys’ fees. The court first determined that the charter school was the prevailing party because the hearing officer reached a decision on the merits dismissing the complaint with prejudice and the parent did not appeal the decision. Next the court asked whether the complaint was, or later became, “so lacking in arguable merit as to be groundless or without foundation.” In considering this question, the court explained that “so long as the [parents] present evidence that, if believed by the [hearing officer], would entitle them to relief,” the school district is not entitled to attorneys’ fees—even if, after weighing the evidence, the hearing officer finds in favor of the school district.
In this case, the facts were undisputed that the charter school did not cause the delay. The allegations in the complaint related to the events leading up to the student’s residential placement were inaccurate and incomplete. Further, the parent’s attorney had been directly involved in those events and therefore had full knowledge that the allegations were false and that the claim was meritless. With respect to the student’s transition plans, the court found that the parent presented no evidence that any of the goals or services alleged to be missing were actually needed. Where the charter school presented uncontested evidence that the student received life skills and post-secondary training, the parent’s complete lack of evidence to support her claim led the court to conclude that the claim was frivolous, unreasonable, and without foundation.