In tackling the issue of a parent’s eligibility for attorney fees in access-to-education litigation against a school district after a settlement offer has been made, a federal appeals court ruled that a mother was entitled to more than she was given.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit reversed a district court’s decision to award attorney fees to plaintiff Rena Castrovillo up until the date a settlement offer was made by Colonial School District. The Third Circuit held that attorney fees continued to accrue after the rejected settlement offer was made.

Castrovillo’s case, involving her daughter’s access to appropriate education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), centered on the intersection of attorney fees and the act’s 10-day settlement window, which provides that a school district can offer to settle a case 10 days before it reaches a hearing.

According to the law, a parent who wins at a hearing can be eligible for attorney fees, but the 10-day offer clause allows a school district to limit its exposure to those fees by limiting a parent’s eligibility for fees accrued before the offer was made.

The offer made to Castrovillo did not include attorney fees and she therefore rejected it. A hearing officer awarded Castrovillo tuition for private schooling for her daughter. The district judge later awarded attorney fees, but held that Castrovillo was not justified in rejecting the offer and limited the award to work performed before the offer was made.

However, Third Circuit Judge D. Michael Fisher wrote in the court’s majority opinion that parents should not have to choose between settling a case and being able to pay for their lawyers.

“We do not read the IDEA to force parents to decide between the resolution of a placement dispute and paying for the attorney who assisted in achieving an appropriate placement for the student,” Fisher said. “A school district seeking to settle a dispute in which a lawyer has been involved should acknowledge that the parent has accrued attorney’s fees and should clearly state if its offer includes the payment of any fees. A parent is substantially justified in rejecting an offer that does not include the payment of reasonable attorney’s fees when the school district cannot reasonably believe that no attorney’s fees have accrued.”

In a concurring opinion, Judge Joseph Greenaway Jr. agreed with the ruling, writing separately to discuss the difficulties 10-day offers can create. He noted that the majority offered no clarity in how specific parties should be when crafting settlement agreements that call for “tuition,” which the judge called an amorphous term.

“I therefore would caution parties not to needlessly proceed to federal court based on the belief that our opinion here dictates the outcome in some future case involving some other kind of educational service or instruction,” Greenaway said. “Instead, I would suggest that parties in the future be clear and specific when crafting and discussing 10-day offers. School districts should be precise about what they are offering. Parents should be forthcoming about the services they are seeking or anticipate receiving for their children. And both school districts and parents should communicate throughout this process.”

Castrovillo’s attorney, David J. Berney, did not respond to a request for comment. The school district’s attorney, Karl A. Romberger, said the district is reviewing its options.