Parents who refused to attend meeting to effectuate settlement offer were prevailing party under IDEA and did not unreasonably protract the litigation

Ector County Indep. Sch. Dist. v. V.B., No. 10-50709 (5th Cir. Mar. 25, 2011)

Abstract: A three-judge panel of the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit (LA, TX MS) in a per curiam (unsigned) opinion has ruled that a special education student and his parent, who refused to attend a meeting to effectuate a settlement offer discussed at a prior resolution meeting, were the prevailing party under the Individuals with Disabilities Education act (IDEA) because no settlement had been offered. The panel also concluded that the parent had not unreasonably protracted the litigation and it, therefore declined to reduce the amount of the attorney’s fees awarded by the district court.

[Together, VB and his parent are termed “VB.”]

Facts/Issues: VB, a special education student, attended Nimitz Junior High School. VB’s parent became concerned about VB’s individualized education plan (IEP) and met with the Admission, Review, and Dismissal Committee (ARDC), which develops and administers a student’s IEP, and Ector County Independent School District  (ECISD) administrative staff without satisfactory results. The parent then requested a due process hearing. Prior to the hearing, the parent participated in a resolution meeting during which EISD officials discussed a settlement offer. ECISD subsequently scheduled an ARDC meeting  to effectuate the offer made at the resolution meeting, but VB’s parent refused to attend the meeting on the advice of VB’s attorney. After the due process hearing was held, the hearing officer found in favor of VB.

ECISD appealed the hearing officer’s decision in a Texas state court, which was later removed to a federal district court. It requested: (1) a declaratory judgment that ECISD has provided VB a free, appropriate public education and that the complaints brought against ECISD are not well taken; and (2) an award of attorney’s fees and costs. ECISD argued that VB should be denied prevailing party status because he had never presented his complaints to ECISD before filing a state due process complaint, or in the alternative because VB unreasonably and needlessly protracted the litigation by refusing to attend the ARDC meeting that would have implemented an alleged agreement made at the meetings. VB responded that ECISD had only offered another ARDC meeting at the resolution meeting, and had not offered any sought-after services; therefore, no legally binding agreement resulted from the resolution meeting. VB additionally argued that the SEHO’s order provided more relief than was offered at the resolution meeting. VB requested that ECISD’s claims be denied and that he be granted attorney’s fees.

The district court denied ECISD’s request for attorney’s fees and declaratory judgment, determined that VB was the prevailing party, and granted in part and denied in part his application for attorney’s fees. The district court also found that VB  did not unreasonably protract litigation because he had no obligation to sign a proposal that was not a real agreement between the parties. It found no other reason to reduce fees except that the hourly rate should be calculated using the hourly rate prevailing in the community; the district court awarded $39,470.

Ruling/Rationale: The Fifth Circuit panel affirmed the lower court’s decision. It stated that two issues had been raised by ECISD: (1) whether VB is a prevailing party, and (2) whether the award should be reduced because VB unreasonably protracted litigation. First, the panel found VB fits the definition of “prevailing party” under IDEA.   He satisfied the two requirements for prevailing party status by obtaining:  (1) “a remedy that alters the legal relationship between the parties and fosters IDEA’s purposes” (through the hearing officer’s favorable ruling); and (2) “some judicial imprimatur on a material alteration of the legal relationship” (the hearing officer’s order).

The panel rejected the ECISD’s arguments against VB’s’ prevailing party status.  First, it found that VB had no duty under statute or regulations to notify the school district of a request for relief before filing a request for a due process hearing. Second, the panel found no evidence that  ECISD was willing to provide all of the relief that the hearing officer granted if VB’s parent attended the scheduled March 22 ARDC meeting. Finally, the panel rejected ECISD’s argument that designating VB a prevailing party would not promote the purposes of the IDEA because VB did not give ECISD the opportunity to resolve VB’s parent’s concerns before initiating the due process proceeding, and because VB’s parent protracted litigation.  The proper inquiry, explained the panel, was whether the remedy the party obtained fosters the IDEA’s purposes, which the hearing officer’s decision did. The court considers whether a party unreasonably protracted the litigation only when it considers attorney’s fees.

On the attorney’s fees, issue, the panel rejected ECISD’s assertion that th Texas Administrative Code establishes a framework for determining if a party has unduly protracted litigation, and that VB’s parent’s attendance at an ARDC meeting was essential. The panel concluded, “ECISD had the opportunity to come to the resolution meeting with a settlement offer that covered all requested relief, … [it] did not do so here; instead, ECISD offered yet another meeting to discuss vague recommendations concerning VB’s educational relief.”

The panel upheld the district court’s order that: (1) ECISD offered no “resolute actions” at the resolution meeting, but merely offered to refer all actions to the ARDC for discussion; (2) VB “had reason to believe that a ‘discussion’ of behavioral assessment might not ever lead to actuality”; and (3) VB did not lack “good faith in his dealings with [ECISD].”

Ector County Indep. Sch. Dist. v. V.B., No. 10-50709 (5th Cir. Mar. 25, 2011)

[Editor’s Note: In November 2010, a Fifth Circuit (LA, MS, TX) panel ruled that a school district, which had offered a student all requested relief under IDEA, was a prevailing party for purposes of recovering attorneys fees under IDEA from the student’s attorney, and was entitled to such fees because the attorney “continued to litigate claims after they clearly became frivolous, unreasonable, and without foundation.” The panel concluded that because the attorney had conceded in the district court that the school district was a prevailing party under IDEA, it had waived this threshold issue on appeal.  A summary of the opinion is available at the first link below.

In February 2011, a Ninth Circuit (CA, OR, WA, AZ, MT, ID, NV, AK, HI, GU, MP) panel ruled that an Arizona school district was not entitled under IDEA to attorney’s fees of $140,000 as a prevailing party on the basis that the parents’ claims under IDEA and related federal disabilities laws were without foundation and brought for an improper purpose. The panel concluded that although the parents failed on the merits of their IDEA and related claims, they were seeking legitimate relief in the form of compensatory education. A summary of that opinion is available at the second link below.]

NSBA Legal Clips archive on EPISD v. Berry

NSBA Legal Clips archive on R.P. v. PUSD

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