Judge's decision rejects payment of attorney's fees in special education case

September 20, 2012

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio Eastern Division issued an opinion and order dismissing a case in which a school district was attempting to collect attorney's fees from her parent and the attorney who represented the student and parent during the student's special education due process hearing. Oakstone Community School filed the complaint after prevailing in a case brought against it by the student, through her parent, who claimed a denial of a free appropriate public education (FAPE) under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Oakstone sought reimbursement of attorney's fees stating that the parent's claim was frivolous and the result of improper motive.

The court correctly applied the existing law in that it upholds the appropriate standard that school districts should not seek an award of attorney's fees from parents under the IDEA except when a parent or parent's attorney engages in egregious conduct that is motivated by improper purpose. In particular, the court ruled that Oakstone's allegations, even if true, did not amount to frivolousness or improper purpose. The Judge reviewed the due process decision and the transcript of the due process proceedings, and determined that the parent's claim was not frivolous as she supported it with some evidence. The Judge further held that since the parent's claim was not frivolous, it was necessarily not brought for an improper purpose. Therefore, Oakstone could not assert a set of facts that gives rise to a plausible claim for attorney's fees against the parent or her attorney under the IDEA.

Congress intended that parents should have access to a due process hearing to resolve disputes with their child's school over special education services. Congress also intended that fee shifting to the school should only occur when parents intentionally abuse that process. The Court's decision in this case upholds Congress' intent in passing the IDEA.

Read the decision: Oakstone Community School v. Cassandra Williams, et al. (PDF file)

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