School District Granted Substantial Attorneys’ Fees Award For Its Defense Of Frivolous Lawsuit Brought By A Student’s Parent

A federal district court found in favor of a school district in a lawsuit filed by a student’s parent under the Individuals with Disabilities Act (“IDEA”) to appeal a decision of an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”).  The district court found that the school district was entitled to attorneys’ fees because the parent’s action was frivolous and brought for an improper purpose.  The district court ordered the parent and the attorney representing parent on appeal to pay over $94,600 in attorney fees and costs.  (C.W. v. Capistrano Unified School District, (Not Reported in F.Supp.2d, C.D.Cal., December 5, 2012).

Note

For a discussion of the referenced Corales case, please see our Legal Alert dated June 7, 2009.

What This Means To You

District counsel should conduct an early analysis of whether a parent’s due process filing is frivolous or is brought for an improper purpose.  If, after careful evaluation, school district legal counsel finds there is a strong legal basis to demonstrate that an action meets one or both of these standards, legal counsel should create a paper trail by notifying the parent's representative (or parent if self-represented) of this fact early in the litigation process.  Establishing a paper trail of district legal counsel’s effort to accurately convince parent and/or the parent attorney of the frivolity or improper nature of the due process complaint is important.  Such efforts will serve to assist a school district in attempting to recover its attorneys’ fees in the event it prevails at hearing and parent’s action is shown to be unreasonable.

In addition, when a parent disagrees with a school district’s assessment and requests an Independent Educational Evaluation (“IEE”), school districts are encouraged to communicate with parent regarding the basis of the disagreement, even though parent failure to provide an explanation is not a basis to deny an IEE request.  While a school district must either fund the IEE at public expense or file for due process “without unnecessary delay” to show that its assessment was appropriate, the term “without unnecessary delay” has been determined to include a period of up to 60 days.  (J.P. v. Ripon Unified School District (E.D. Cal. 2009) 2009 WL 1034993.)  However, we advise that school districts err on the side of caution and file for due process to defend an assessment 30 days after the IEE request whenever possible.

Facts

C.W. (“Student”) and K.S. (“Mother”) sued the Capistrano Unified School District (“District”) in federal district court under the IDEA to appeal the decision of an ALJ that found in favor of District.  Student and Mother also brought three other claims against District under the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. Section 1983, and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.  The district court affirmed the ALJ’s decision, denied Student’s and Mother’s appeal, and denied their other requests for relief.  The court stated it was willing to entertain a motion for attorneys’ fees from District. 

District filed a motion in which it sought $94,602.34 in attorneys’ fees and $2,058.21 in costs  incurred in the due process hearing phase and defending itself from Student’s and Mother’s claims on appeal.  Pursuant to 20 U.S.C. Section 1415, a school district that is a prevailing party in an action brought under that section may recover attorneys’ fees (1) “against the attorney of a parent who files a complaint or subsequent cause of action that is frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation, or against the attorney of a parent who continued to litigate after the litigation clearly became frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation” (the “frivolousness” prong), or (2) “against the attorney of a parent, or against the parent, if the parent’s complaint or subsequent cause of action was presented for any improper purpose, such as to harass, to cause unnecessary delay, or to needlessly increase the costs of litigation” (the “improper purpose” prong). 

Decision

The district court found that as a result of Mother’s filing of the lawsuit and her attorney’s continued litigation of the action on appeal, District was entitled to fees and costs under both prongs.  The district court concluded District was entitled to fees under the frivolousness prong because Mother sought a remedy for a harm she caused and the remedy “was well beyond any measure of relief Student could possibly obtain.”  Mother also adopted legal theories that were contrary to the plain language of the applicable statute and were also contrary to the record and controlling authority from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.  The court concluded that the legal theories advanced by Mother would also undermine the policy behind the fee-shifting statutes of the IDEA.     

District’s counsel advised Mother that the litigation had no merit.  Mother’s causes of action under the Americans with Disabilities Act appear to be based on her theory that District intimidated her by notifying her attorney that her appeal was frivolous and that District would seek sanctions.  Mother cited no case in support of her legal theory.  In fact, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that such statements, if accurate, do not give rise to a retaliation claim.  In Corales v. Bennett, 567 F.3d 554 (9th Cir. 2009), the Court of Appeals held “that a school district’s accurate statements to students about ‘the legal consequences of [their] actions’ do not give rise to a retaliation claim.”  The court found that here, as in Corales, District’s statement was accurate regarding the merits of Mother’s appeal and District’s ability to obtain sanctions.  District was correct in its statement that Mother’s appeal was frivolous and that it was entitled to recover attorneys’ fees from Mother.  Also, Mother’s claims under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act are barred by the IDEA.

The court found that District was also entitled to fees under the improper purpose prong.  The court stated, “Mother’s improper purpose of harassment, unnecessary delay, and needlessly increasing litigation costs is shown by Mother’s attempt to extort fees from District to which Mother was not legally entitled in exchange for Mother foregoing an appeal.”  Mother was represented at the administrative level by a non-attorney advocate who also happened to be the spouse of the attorney who represented Mother for the appeal in the district court.  The attorney performed no services at the due process hearing.  Therefore, the only person who incurred fees at the administrative level was the non-attorney advocate.  A non-attorney advocate cannot recover fees because even an attorney who is not licensed to practice law in the state where he or she performs services is not entitled to attorney fees under the IDEA. 

Mother was attempting to recover fees to which she was not legally entitled.  The court found that “Mother’s offer to ransom her child’s IDEA appeal in exchange for money to which her non-attorney advocate was not entitled shows that the purpose of this appeal was not to vindicate the rights of her disabled child.”  Instead, the purpose of the appeal was “to harass and unnecessarily increase the litigation costs incurred by District until it acquiesced to lining the pockets of her non-attorney advocate.” 

Mother asserted that District unnecessarily delayed its request for a due process hearing.  District claimed the delay was caused by Mother’s failure to identify the basis for her disagreement with District.  Mother argued District’s request for a “due process hearing was made with unnecessary delay” because District filed its request 41 days after Mother disagreed with a disputed assessment report.  The court noted that the ALJ found the 41 day period of delay to be reasonable under the circumstances because, although she sent a letter stating she disagreed with the report, Mother failed to identify a basis for the disagreement.  District was required to reevaluate the entire disputed report because Mother failed to provide a specific objection.  

Mother relied on an irrelevant provision of the Code of Federal Regulations, “which provides that a school district ‘may not require the parent to provide an explanation’ for the parent’s demand of an independent education evaluation.”   The court concluded, “Simply because District may not require Mother to provide an explanation for her disagreement does not mean that Mother is entitled to sue District for a purported delay caused by Mother.”

The court found the amount of attorneys’ fees sought by District was reasonable.  The number of hours billed by District’s attorneys, approximately 440 hours, for litigating the due process hearing and the lawsuit were reasonable because Mother refused to provide a basis for her disagreement with District during the due process hearing phase and filed incoherent motions at the district court level.  The court found that the hourly rate charged by District’s attorneys was reasonable because it was below the market rate.

We will update you about any further developments as this case moves through the appellate process.

Questions

If you have any questions concerning the content of this Legal Alert, please contact the following from our office, or the attorney with whom you normally consult.

S. Diane Beall | 925.395.2380

Meghan Covert Russell | 916.321.4500

Topics:  ALJ, Attorney's Fees, Disability, Frivolous Lawsuits, IDEA, Independent Educational Evaluation

Published In: Civil Procedure Updates, Civil Remedies Updates, Education Updates

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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