Prevailing School Districts Cannot Recover Attorney’s Fees Against Parents or Attorneys Unless IDEA Claims Are Frivolous or Improper

February 2011

On February 4, 2011, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed a lower court’s award of more than $140,000 in attorney’s fees and costs against the parents and their lawyer in an IDEA lawsuit.  (R.P. v. Prescott Unif. Sch. Dist. (9th Cir. 2011) 2011 WL 343966.)  Although the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling that the school district offered the student a FAPE, the Ninth Circuit disagreed with the court’s determination that the parents’ claims were frivolous, baseless or brought for an improper purpose, and reversed the of attorneys’ fees portion of the decision.

In this case, the parents of C.P., a student with autism, originally filed a due process complaint against the school district alleging a denial of FAPE.  The school district prevailed on all issues at the due process hearing.  The parents filed an appeal in federal district court, and the school district prevailed on all issues in the appeal as well.  In its opinion, the district court also found that the parents had failed to allege any remedy available under the IDEA with specificity in their complaint.  Thus, the judge held the parents “lacked a factual and legal basis for their IDEA claim” because even if they could “prove an IDEA violation, they were not entitled to any remedy under the IDEA.”  Thus, the court found their claim was frivolous and awarded fees against their counsel under the IDEA.  The court also found that the complaint was presented for an improper purpose – the parents’ anger at the school district – and awarded fees against the parents themselves as well.

The parents appealed the district court’s ruling to the Ninth Circuit.  Although the Ninth Circuit upheld the district court’s ruling that the school district had offered C.P. a FAPE, the Ninth Circuit reversed the award of attorney’s fees.  The appellate court opined, “just because the parents’ [IDEA] arguments were not successful doesn’t make them frivolous…[S]o long as the plaintiffs present evidence that, if believed by the fact-finder, would entitle them to relief, the case is per se not frivolous and will not support an award of attorney’s fees.”   The Ninth Circuit also held that the district court erred in holding the parents liable for bringing a suit for an improper purpose, noting that “a non-frivolous claim is never filed for an improper purpose.”  Moreover, the Ninth Circuit stated anger is not necessarily an “improper purpose” for bringing a lawsuit, but may be a “legitimate reaction” by parents.  “So long as the claim raised is not frivolous and the litigation is not pursued in order to achieve an illegitimate objective (such as harassment, delay or imposing unnecessary costs on the opposing party), an award of fees under [IDEA] is not justified.”  Finally, the Ninth Circuit held that the parents’ non-IDEA claims (under the Rehabilitation Act, Americans with Disabilities Act, and due process clause of the U.S. Constitution) were not frivolous because those statutes could have gained the parents’ additional remedies if they had been successful on their IDEA claim.  

Significantly, however, the Ninth Circuit also concluded that, because the parents weren’t entitled to relief on the merits of their IDEA claim, they were not a “prevailing party” entitled to attorney’s fees on appeal under the IDEA.  The appellate court also declined to impose sanctions against the school district’s lawyers, finding no evidence that they acted recklessly or in bad faith in seeking attorney’s fees and costs.

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F3 NewsFlash prepared by Howard Fulfrost and Lyndsy B. Rutherford.
Howard is a partner in the F3 Los Angeles office.
Lyndsy is an associate in the F3 Los Angeles office.

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