Attorney fees in IDEA due process cases are often the tail that wags the dog. Since pure money damages are often unavailable in IDEA cases, fee exposure is often the biggest out-of-pocket monetary item of exposure that school districts can face. At the same time, fee-shifting under 42 U.S.C. 1988 is, in many cases, what makes litigating due process hearings on the parents’ side financially viable. Thus, many IDEA due process hearing cases relate, not to questions about substantive and procedural compliance with the IDEA itself, but rather fee liability.
As under other federal civil rights statutes, the right to fee reimbursement hinges on a litigant’s attaining the status of a “prevailing party.” Now, the law in the Sixth Circuit and elsewhere makes it clear that one does not have to win on every issue raised in a suit to earn the right to reimbursement of attorney fees. Rather, a party must only prevail on a significant issue that results in some material benefit.
Notably, under the IDEA, the definition of a prevailing party is restricted to one “who is the parent of a child with a disability[.]” 20 U.S.C. 1415(i)(3)(B)(i)(I). Recently, the Sixth Circuit interpreted this language to hold that eligibility is required to establish “prevailing party” status in IDEA cases. In Burton v. Cleveland Heights University Board of Education, 119 LRP 25157 (6th Cir. 2019) the Court rejected a student’s fee petition since IDEA eligibility, and thus entitlement to tangible relief, had not been established. In that case, the parent filed a due process action alleging, among other things, that a student qualified as a “child with a disability” and was entitled to relief for an alleged denial of FAPE. After a full hearing, the state-level hearing officer ruled that the child had a qualifying disability, but was not in fact eligible under the IDEA for relief or services because the proof was insufficient to show a need for specially designed instruction.
The parents then appealed to federal court and sought fees. They argued that the finding that the child’s disability fell into a protected category under the IDEA was sufficient to qualify them as prevailing parties and fee reimbursement. Furthermore, they argued that the hearing officer ordered the school district to evaluate the student to determine her eligibility under the IDEA. Yet, both the Northern District of Ohio and, later, the Sixth Circuit rejected this argument. Although the parents arguably had succeeded on certain elements of their claims, the Court held that the record was insufficient to demonstrate the student’s eligibility under the IDEA. Citing the plain language of the statute and the decisions of several other Circuit Courts, the Court held that edibility was required to attain prevailing party status for purposes of recovering attorney fees.
Eligibility is often a central issue in IDEA cases. In such cases, the Burton decision could make it harder for parents to establish a right to fee reimbursement even when procedural violations occur. In other words, this decision is a good reminder for parents, school districts, and attorneys in the Sixth Circuit to never forget the fundamentals when litigating IDEA cases.