Families & the Community

High Court Backs Parents’ Rights to Argue Cases Under IDEA

By Mark Walsh — May 21, 2007 5 min read

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled today that parents have their own broad, enforceable rights under federal special education law, and thus they may represent themselves in federal court without the assistance of a lawyer.

The decision in Winkelman v. Parma City School District (Case No. 05-983) was unanimous on the idea that parents have some rights to represent themselves without a lawyer under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. But it split 7-2 on the idea that parents have substantive and procedural rights that encompass their child’s right to a free, appropriate public education under the law.

“Parents enjoy rights under IDEA; and they are, as a result, entitled to prosecute IDEA claims on their own behalf,” said the majority opinion by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy. “The decision by Congress to grant parents these rights was consistent with the purpose of IDEA and fully in accord with our social and legal traditions.”

“It is beyond dispute that the relationship between a parent and child is sufficient to support a legally cognizable interest in the education of one’s child,” Justice Kennedy added.

His opinion was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, and Samuel A. Alito Jr.

Justice Antonin Scalia wrote an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part that was joined by Justice Clarence Thomas.

Justice Scalia said he would hold that parents have the right to proceed pro se, or for themselves, under the IDEA in federal courts when they seek reimbursement for private school expenses for their child or for certain of their own procedural rights. But he would not let them proceed without a lawyer on the basic question of whether their child’s free, appropriate public education was “substantively inadequate.”

Justice Scalia also warned that cases pressed by parents without a lawyer would burden the court system.

“Since pro se complaints are prosecuted essentially for free, without screening by knowledgeable attorneys, they are much more likely to be unmeritorious,” Justice Scalia said.

Expense Cited

The case was brought by Jeff and Sandee Winkelman, who are not lawyers and want to represent their son in a lawsuit against the 13,000-student Parma, Ohio, school district, near Cleveland, over the child’s educational placement.

They cannot afford a lawyer, and they argued that the special education law allows them to represent their son, Jacob, who has a form of autism. The Winkelmans also contended that they may argue for their own rights under the federal law.

Although the parents lost on both issues in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati, other federal appeals courts have recognized the right of nonlawyer parents to represent themselves, at least on procedural issues.

The Winkelmans say that requiring parents to get lawyers means that many families are shut out of federal court because of the expense, and because of a shortage of lawyers willing to take on special education cases. Supporting the family’s position are a number of disability-advocacy groups, as well as the Bush administration, which argues that parents themselves can be aggrieved parties in special education cases “who may pursue their own procedural and substantive claims in court.”

The school district argued that there is no language in the special education law that supports a departure from the basic procedural rule that a nonlawyer cannot represent another party’s interests in court. Parents don’t have the legal skills to represent their children in court, in contrast to less formal due-process hearings, where hearing officers may give them deference, the district said.

More IDEA Lawsuits?

The district developed an individualized education program for Jacob for the 2003-04 school year. The Winkelmans contended that he needed more support than the district was willing to provide. The family sought a determination that Jacob did not receive a free, appropriate public education under the IDEA, that his IEP was inadequate, and reimbursement for the tuition they spent at a private school where they have enrolled Jacob, who is 9 years old. That school, the Monarch School in Shaker Heights, Ohio, charges tuition of about $50,000 a year.

Christina Henagen Peer, a lawyer representing the Parma district in the case, said in a statement that “at every level, the administrative judges and the courts have concluded that the school district fully complied with the requirements of IDEA, offering a free, appropriate public education to Jacob Winkelman. The district looks forward to having the case heard on the merits so that this case can come to closure for the Winkelman family and the school district.”

Sandee Winkelman said the high court’s decision left her feeling “overwhelmed.”

“It’s a good day for parents,” Ms. Winkelman said. “Tomorrow we have to go back to Jacob. But today is parents’ day.”

Ms. Winkelman, who consulted the library at Cleveland State University and prevailed on sympathetic law students to help her find materials on special education law, now says the publicity has prompted lawyers to come forward and offer their assistance with the family’s case. After winning the right to argue the case on their own, it is unlikely the Winkelmans will end up doing so, she said.

“I always believed that everyone needs an attorney. You always have a better chance with one, let’s face it,” Ms. Winkelman said. “I hope parents don’t have to go without, but they can do it, now.”

Francisco M. Negron Jr., the general counsel of the National School Boards Association, said he was concerned that the court’s ruling would prompt more parents to consider filing special education lawsuits against districts on their own, without the assistance of legal counsel.

“Lawyers often serve as gatekeepers,” said Mr. Negron, whose Alexandria, Va.-based organization had filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case on the side of the Parma district. “Lawyers have an obligation not to bring forward cases that are frivolous or without merit. Parents are undoubtedly emotionally involved in their children’s cases. They might not be able to bring the same kind of legal analysis to bear.”

Selene Almazan, a Towson, Md., lawyer who often represents parents in IDEA matters, said it was significant that the Bush administration had entered the Supreme Court case on the side of the Winkelmans, arguing that the text of the IDEA supported parental rights.

Ms. Almazan is a board member of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, a Towson-based group that filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the Winkelmans.

“Families proceed to litigation in very few cases,” she said. “I don’t think this is going to release a glut of lawsuits.”

Staff Writer Christina A. Samuels contributed to this report.

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