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Parents Win in Spec.-Ed. Case

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Another federal appellate court has ruled that parents who win special-education disputes with school districts may be awarded legal fees, even if their cases do not go to court.

In a case involving two California school systems, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled unanimously this month that federal law entitles the parents to legal fees, even though their individual suits ended at the administrative-hearing level.

The court's decision in McSomebodies (sic) v. Burlingame School District brings to six the number of federal appeals-court decisions favoring the parents on this question.

Only one appellate court--a three-judge panel of the District of Columbia Circuit--has ruled the other way. That case, however, is being reviewed by the full court, according to lawyers following the cases.

At issue in all the cases is the interpretation of the Handicapped Children's Protection Act of 1986, a federal law that awards legal fees to parents who prevail over school districts in special-education "actions or proceedings." The question before the courts was whether the law applied to administrative hearings conducted by state school officials.

The California judicial panel's brief, two-and-a-quarter-page decision said that, in reaching their conclusion, the judges looked to the "overwhelming majority of cases that now support the awarding of fees from top to bottom."

The case involved the parents of two learning-disabled teenagers who won separate administrative hearings against school systems in Burlingame and San Mateo.

Diane Finkelstein, the lawyer for both districts, said she has asked the court to rehear the case before a full panel.

"It was a disappointing result to a very important issue," she said.--dv

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