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Parents do not need to hire lawyers to litigate public school special education disputes involving their children, the Supreme Court ruled Monday. The 7-2 decision in Winkelman v. Parma City School District says parents have “independent, enforceable rights” in a free, appropriate education for their children under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act. As a result, they can pursue those interests not just at the administrative appeal stage, but into federal court as well. “It is not a novel proposition to say that parents have a recognized legal interest in the education and upbringing of their child,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority, adding that “a parent of a child with a disability has a particular and personal interest” in pursuing equal opportunities for the child. The opinion did not disturb the longstanding rule that pro se litigants can only represent themselves, not others. Kennedy said there was no need to rule on that issue because the Court was saying that parents, in pursuing these claims, are enforcing their own rights, not just the rights of their children. The ruling came in the case of Jeff and Sandee Winkelman, who were dissatisfied by the educational plan devised by the Parma, Ohio school district for their son Jacob, who has autism spectrum disorder. When administrative appeals ended, Sandee Winkelman, a nurse, schooled herself in legal procedure and took the case to federal court. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit ruled that parents could not litigate under IDEA, setting the stage for their high court appeal. School districts, claiming that the cost of special ed litigation goes up when parents rather than lawyers are involved, fought against parental representation. In some cases, local bar groups have also complained that parents without lawyers were engaged in the unauthorized practice of law. But parents said the high cost of legal fees, as well as the dearth of lawyers willing to take on these often-complex lawsuits, made self-representation necessary. “This is an unalloyed victory for parents,” says Georgetown University Law Center professor David Vladeck, who has represented parents in disputes over the issue. But he notes that two other recent decisions that went against parents “still make this very difficult litigation.” In Arlington Central School District v. Murphy last year, the Court ruled that prevailing parents in IDEA cases may not recover fees for expert witnesses. In the 2005 ruling Schaffer v. Weast, the Court said plaintiffs have the burden of proof in administrative hearings under the IDEA. School districts should brace for more litigation in the wake of Monday’s decision, says Kathleen Mehfoud, a Reed Smith partner who represents schools in special ed disputes. “There will be many more IDEA cases appealed to court by pro se parents.” But she added that parents in such litigation will “come up against experienced attorneys,” and school districts may now “more closely examine their right to recover attorneys’ fees in appropriate cases.” In dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia, joined by Clarence Thomas, said the right to an appropriate education belongs to the child, and parents should only be able to litigate on issues directly relating to parents, such as reimbursement of private school costs. Scalia also said complaints filed by parents without screening by “knowledgeable attorneys” are “much more likely to be unmeritorious.”
Tony Mauro can be contacted at [email protected].

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