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When lawyers represent their own children in suits brought under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, they are not entitled to petition for attorney’s fees upon winning the case, a federal appeals court has ruled. In Woodside v. School District of Philadelphia, a unanimous panel of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that IDEA’s fee-shifting provisions are designed to encourage independent lawyers to take meritorious cases. Adopting the reasoning of the 4th Circuit’s 1998 decision in Doe v. Board of Education of Baltimore County, the panel found that when a lawyer-parent represents his or her own child, there is a danger of inadequate representation because such a task is “emotionally charged.” “The better rule is one which encourages parents to seek independent, emotionally detached counsel for their children’s IDEA actions,” visiting Judge Phyllis A. Kravitch of the 11th Circuit wrote in an opinion joined by 3rd Circuit Judges Samuel A. Alito and Theodore A. McKee. The ruling upholds last year’s decision by the late Judge Raymond J. Broderick, who refused to award fees to attorney J. Stephen Woodside after he successfully litigated an IDEA claim on behalf of his son, Robert Henry Woodside. Robert Woodside, who is now 8 years old, was born with Klinefelter Syndrome, a chromosomal disorder that causes speech and language delays and muscle development problems. Disputes between the parents and school officials began soon after Robert was enrolled in kindergarten. Specifically, the Woodsides objected to the frequency, duration, and delivery mode of their son’s physical and occupational therapy at school. As a result, the Woodsides requested an administrative due process hearing on their son’s behalf under the IDEA. Stephen Woodside represented his son throughout the hearing, which lasted seven sessions between September and December 1999. After the hearing, the school district was ordered to provide Robert with separate, hour-long occupational and physical therapy sessions each week — exactly the relief requested by the Woodsides. Woodside then filed suit under the IDEA in U.S. District Court, seeking attorney’s fees he said he earned representing his son throughout the administrative proceedings and in connection with filing the district court suit. Judge Kravitch found that the issue of a lawyer-parent’s seeking attorney’s fees for the work done on behalf of his own child was a question of first impression in the 3rd Circuit. But the 4th Circuit rejected an identical claim, Kravitch found, by reasoning that fee-shifting statutes are designed to encourage parents to obtain independent representation. In Doe, she said, the 4th Circuit explained that “like attorneys appearing pro se, attorney-parents are generally incapable of exercising sufficient independent judgment on behalf of their children to ensure that ‘reason, rather than emotion’ will dictate the conduct of the litigation.” The Doe court based its holding on the reasoning in a unanimous decision from the U.S. Supreme Court in Kay v. Ehrler, which held that a pro se plaintiff who is an attorney cannot be awarded attorney’s fees under the fee-shifting provision of the Civil Rights Attorney’s Fees Awards Act. In Kay, the justices cited the adage that “a lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client,” and reasoned that the statutory policy of furthering the successful prosecution of meritorious civil rights claims “is better served by a rule that creates an incentive to retain [independent] counsel,” rather than a rule that creates an incentive to represent one’s self. Woodside argued that Kay did not apply because he was not acting pro se when he represented his son. But Kravitch found that the 4th Circuit had rejected the same argument in Doe. “Because we agree with the Supreme Court’s reasoning in Kay and the 4th Circuit’s conclusion in Doe, we join the 4th Circuit in holding that an attorney-parent cannot receive attorney fees for work representing his minor child in proceedings under the IDEA,” Kravitch wrote. The School District of Philadelphia was represented in the appeal by attorney Glenna M. Hazeltine of the district’s Office of General Counsel.

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