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The 2d U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld the award of attorney fees to parents who succeeded in state administrative proceedings in obtaining compensation for educating their disabled children. Setting the standard for determining the award of fees to a “prevailing party” in an administrative setting under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the 2d Circuit also ruled that fees awarded under the act of up to $375 per hour were not unreasonable under IDEA. The circuit issued that guidance on appeals brought from district court rulings finding that parents were “prevailing parties” within the meaning of IDEA’s fee-shifting provision. The cases were A.R. v. New York City Board of Education, No. 02-9471 (three cases before Judge Constance Baker Motley) and S.W. v. Board of Education of the City of New York, No. 03-7258, (a case before Judge Shira Scheindlin). All four involved separate challenges under IDEA to the special education programs that the New York City Department of Education provided the children. At issue was the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Buckhannon Board & Care Home Inc. v. West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, 532 U.S. 598 (2001), and the circuit’s interpretation of Buckhannon in Roberson v. Giuliani, 346 F.3d 75 (2d Cir. 2003). Together, the cases say that to be considered a “prevailing party,” a plaintiff “must not only achieve some ‘material alteration in the legal relationship of the parties,’ but that change must also be judicially sanctioned.” But 2d Circuit Judge Robert Sack said that neither Buckhannon nor Roberson say how to apply the rule in state administrative proceedings in the appeal. Two of the proceedings ended with hearing officers entering a decision for the parents. The two others ended with settlement agreements between the parties that were signed by the hearing officers. The parents filed suit in the Southern District of New York seeking an award of attorney fees under the fee-shifting provision of IDEA, 20 U.S.C. 1415(i)(3)(B). The solution, the 2d Circuit said, was to recognize that an impartial hearing officer’s decision on the merits in an IDEA proceeding constitutes an “administrative imprimatur.” While this is not “judicial,” the circuit said that it is analogous because such an order changes the legal relationship of the parties and its terms are enforceable.

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