Law & Courts

Supreme Court to Decide Whether Nonlawyer Parents May Sue Under IDEA

By Andrew Trotter — October 27, 2006 2 min read
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The U.S. Supreme Court today agreed to decide whether parents who are not lawyers have a right to represent their child with disabilities, or themselves, in federal court under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The Bush administration had urged the justices to take up the issue, on which various federal appeals courts had issued conflicting rulings in recent years.

The appeal stems from a lawsuit by Jeff and Sandee Winkelman, two Ohio parents who challenged the appropriateness of a school’s educational plan for their son, Jacob, who has autism spectrum disorder.

After several administrative hearings at which the parents represented their son, the Winkelmans sued the 13,000-student Parma school district in U.S District Court in Cleveland, challenging the hearing officers’ decisions that the district had provided their son a free, appropriate public education as required under the IDEA.

The district court ruled in favor of the school system in June 2005. The family appealed, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati, ruled last November that the parents could not proceed in that court without a lawyer.

The parents appealed to the Supreme Court, and in May the justices asked the Bush administration to weigh in on Winkelman v. Parma City School District (Case No. 05-983).

Parents’ Derivative Rights?

In a brief filed Sept. 20, U.S. Solicitor General Paul D. Clement suggested that the 6th circuit holding, barring parents from representing themselves under the IDEA, was “inconsistent with the plain language, structure, and purposes of IDEA.”

“Resolution of this conflict is warranted in view of the critical interests involved in IDEA litigation, the recurring nature of the question presented, and the need to ensure IDEA’s uniform application,” the brief said.

The Parma school district, in a brief opposing Supreme Court review, argued that the IDEA allows parents to represent their children in state administrative proceedings under the federal law, but not in federal court proceedings.

At stake, the district argued in its brief, is the quality of representation of the child, because “minor children with disabilities cannot make an informed choice to assume the risk of proceeding without counsel.”

The Supreme Court has not addressed whether parents are entitled to sue on their own behalf under the IDEA or whether their right to file an IDEA lawsuit derives from their child’s rights under the law, according to solicitor general’s brief.

The issue of whether the right is derivative is key, Mr. Clement argued, because a nonlawyer parent can only represent himself or herself and not the parent’s child.

While the 6th Circuit court held that nonlawyer parents may not press an IDEA case in federal court under any circumstance, another federal appeals court has ruled that nonlawyer parents are not limited at all. Four other appeals courts have held that such parents need a lawyer to press a child’s substantive claims under the IDEA, but not the parents’ procedural claims.

The court granted review of the case on Oct. 27, and it will likely hear arguments in the case sometime early next year.

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