Special Education

Parents May Not Recover Expert Fees Under IDEA, Supreme Court Rules

By Mark Walsh — June 26, 2006 4 min read
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The main federal special education law does not authorize parents who prevail in a dispute over their child’s individualized education program to recover expert fees, a divided U.S. Supreme Court ruled today.

The court held 6-3 that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act does not authorize courts to make school districts reimburse parents for the fees of experts, such as consultants, even when the parents prevail in disputes.

The court said Congress, in its original passage and subsequent reauthorizations of the special education law, did not “unambiguously” alert the states that when they accepted federal money under the statute, they were obligated to provide compensation for expert fees to parents who win such disputes.

“The terms of the IDEA overwhelmingly support the conclusion that prevailing parents may not recover the costs of experts or consultants,” Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote for the majority on June 26 in Arlington Central School District v. Murphy (Case No. 05-18).

His opinion was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, and Clarence Thomas. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg filed her own opinion, concurring with Justice Alito’s opinion in part and concurring in the outcome of the case.

Justice Stephen G. Breyer, in a dissent joined by Justices John Paul Stevens and David H. Souter, said the legislative history of the IDEA indicates that Congress intended for expert fees to be recoverable, and that such an interpretation furthers the purposes of the special education law.

“The practical significance of the act’s participatory rights and procedural protections may be seriously diminished if parents are unable to obtain reimbursement for the costs of their experts,” Justice Breyer wrote.

Spec. Ed. Parents Lose Again

The decision was the second on a special education issue in this Supreme Court term, and it was the second time that parents lost.

In November, the court ruled 6-2 in Schaffer v. Weast that whichever party brings a challenge to an individualized education program, or IEP, under the federal law is the one that must prove its case. Since most challenges to IEPs come from parents, the burden of proof would most often be on them.

In the Arlington Central case, Pearl and Theodore Murphy, whose son has multiple disabilities, won their original suit against the 10,000-student Arlington Central district, in upstate New York, and asked a U.S. District Court judge in New York City to award them $29,350 in expert fees for the services of an educational consultant, Marilyn Arons. The judge concluded that the parents were entitled to recover part of that sum, or $8,650.

The school district appealed the fee award and lost last year in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, also in New York City. The Supreme Court agreed to review the case, with the school district arguing in part that federal appeals courts have taken several different tacks in interpreting a provision of the IDEA that authorizes the award of attorneys’ fees to the prevailing party in a special education dispute.

Ms. Arons, though not technically a party to the case, was at the center of it because she has long been an advocate for parents of children in special education, and she has been involved in several legal matters addressing whether nonlawyer experts and consultants such as her can ultimately recover their fees from districts. (“Advocacy for Parents Key to IDEA Case,” April 12, 2006.)

Justice Breyer, in his dissent, noted a potential imbalance when districts and parents battle over a child’s special education program.

“The costs of experts may not make much of a dent in a school district’s budget, as many of the experts they use in IDEA proceedings are already on the staff,” he said. “But to parents, the award of costs may matter enormously. Without potential reimbursement, parents may well lack the services of experts entirely.”

‘Decimating to Parents’

Maura A. Collinsgru, the director of the Parent Information Center of New Jersey, a Teaneck, N.J.-based advocacy organization for parents of children with disabilities founded by Ms. Arons, said the court’s ruling was “decimating to parents.”

“This decision renders IDEA meaningless for those who have no resources,” she said.

Ms. Collinsgru referred to Justice Alito’s conclusion that the spending clause in Article I of the U.S. Constitution required Congress to give the states clear notice of an obligation under the IDEA, such as reimbursing parents for the use of experts. “The majority speaks about our disabled children as though they are commodities under the spending clause,” she said. “It was very insulting to parents and those who work with them.”

Drew S. Days III, a Washington lawyer who filed a friend-of-the-court brief on the parents’ side for the National Disability Rights Network and the Center for Law and Education, said the text and the legislative history of the IDEA suggest that Congress wanted parents to be able to win reimbursement for experts.

“The fact they will not be able to hire educational consultants with the expectation that even if they are successful they could be reimbursed, will substantially limit the degree to which parents can represent their interests effectively,” Mr. Days, who was a U.S. solicitor general under President Clinton, said in an interview.

But Thomas Hutton, a staff lawyer for the Alexandria, Va.-based National School Boards Association, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief on the side of the Arlington Central school district, said the ruling represented the judicial branch being “willing to give the schools the benefit of the doubt on dealing with children in special education.”

“We don’t view this as a victory for school districts over parents,” Mr. Hutton said. “It is a victory for the collaborative approach over the litigation approach.”

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