Fee shifting is critical to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The IDEA promises all children with disabilities a free and appropriate public education, but absent the IDEA’s fee-shifting provision, many parents would be unable to enforce that promise. Parents raising a child with a disability must juggle not only the usual household expenses but also the costs of auxiliary aids, in-home services and caretakers. Adding attorney fees to the mix is often impossible. Fee shifting helps ensure that no child is denied an appropriate education simply because her parents can’t afford a lawyer.

In M.R. v. Ridley School District, No. 16-2465 (3d Cir. Aug. 22), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit recognized that fee shifting is critical to achieving the IDEA’s goals and embraced a pragmatic approach to fee-shifting disputes. Under M.R., courts must consider the practical consequences of withholding attorney fees when deciding IDEA fee-shifting cases.

Background

 Believing that Ridley School District was denying their daughter an appropriate education, the parents in M.R. removed her from Ridley and placed her in a private school. They then sued Ridley under the IDEA. They argued that the private school was the proper educational placement for their daughter and that Ridley should pay for the school. A state hearing officer ruled for the parents, but a district court overruled the decision. The court found that Ridley provided the daughter an appropriate education and that there was no need for a private school placement. The Third Circuit affirmed.

Throughout the district court and Third Circuit proceedings, the daughter “stayed put” at the private school. To avoid disruptions to a child’s education during IDEA litigation, the IDEA includes a “stay put” provision which requires the child’s school district to pay for her last-agreed-upon educational placement while IDEA proceedings are pending. Pointing to the stay-put provision, the M.R. parents asked Ridley to reimburse them for the private school tuition that they paid during the district court and Third Circuit proceedings. They asserted that, during the proceedings, the private school was their daughter’s last-agreed-upon placement because the state hearing officer decision endorsing the private school constituted state agreement to the school. Ridley, however, refused the parents’ request, and the parents were forced to sue again. They filed a stay-put claim in district court seeking reimbursement for the private school tuition.

This time the district court and the Third Circuit agreed with the parents. The district court ordered Ridley to reimburse the parents for the private school tuition, and the Third Circuit affirmed.

Following the Third Circuit’s affirmance, the parents filed a motion for attorney fees in district court, claiming that they were prevailing parties entitled to fee shifting. Relying on John T. v. Delaware County Intermediate Unit, 318 F.3d 545 (3d Cir. 2003), and J.O. v. Orange Township Board of Education, 287 F.3d 267 (3d Cir. 2002), the district court denied the motion.

In John T. and J.O., the parents obtained forward-looking injunctions requiring the defendant educational agencies to comply with the stay-put provision while the parties litigated the parents’ substantive IDEA claims. The parents then requested attorney’ fees, arguing that they were prevailing parties in light of the injunctive relief. But the Third Circuit denied the requests.  Prevailing-party status, the court held, requires a parent to obtain merits-based relief—that is, relief awarded after a ruling on the merits of an independent procedural or substantive claim.  And since the injunctive relief was merely a form of interim relief, it was not merits-based.

According to the district court, the M.R. parents’ tuition reimbursement award was no different than the injunctive relief in John T. and J.O.—it was a form of interim “stay put” relief. So the court held that the award was not merits-based and that the parents were not prevailing parties.

A unanimous panel for the Third Circuit reversed the district court.

The Third Circuit’s Decision

In a thorough and pragmatic opinion, the Third Circuit held that the M.R. parents were prevailing parties. The panel first distinguished John T. and J.O. It found that those cases were inapposite because the M.R. parents’ tuition reimbursement award was backward-looking compensatory relief obtained in an independent action. Such relief, the panel concluded, is far different from the relief in John T. and J.O.: forward-looking injunctive relief obtained as part of a larger action.

The panel then turned to the IDEA’s statutory text and context for guidance. Examining the IDEA’s statutory scheme, the panel recognized that fee shifting is critical to achieving the IDEA’s goals. The goals of the IDEA, the panel found, are “to make the education of children with disabilities more effective,” “to ensure that all children with disabilities have available to them a free and appropriate public education,” and “to ensure that the rights of children with disabilities and parents of such children are protected.” And fee shifting is critical to realizing these ambitious goals; Congress, the panel noted, enacted the IDEA’s fee-shifting provision specifically to ensure that all parents are able to secure a free and appropriate public education for their children.

Since fee shifting is critical to fulfilling the IDEA’s goals, the panel declared that, in cases like M.R., courts “must consider the practical consequences of withholding attorney fees.” And performing that pragmatic analysis, the panel determined that the district court’s decision was untenable. Under the district court’s decision, no relief obtained under the “stay put” provision would be merits-based since all “stay put” relief is temporary. The decision “would render it impossible in many cases for parents, who ordinarily cannot afford private counsel, to enforce their ‘stay put’ rights.” Therefore, the panel departed from the district court’s decision and, consistent with the IDEA’s “parent-friendly goals,” held that parents who obtain backward-looking compensatory relief in an independent stay-put action are entitled to attorney fees.

Because the M.R. parents’ tuition reimbursement award was that type of relief, the Third Circuit concluded that the parents were prevailing parties.

The Consequences

Pragmatism reigns.  M.R. not only recognizes the practical realities of IDEA enforcement but also requires courts to consider those realities when confronted with fee-shifting disputes. The decision signals that the Third Circuit is committed to pragmatic jurisprudence when it comes to IDEA fee-shifting.

Kevin Golembiewski is an associate with Berney & Sang. He focuses his practice on appeals, education law and employment law.