United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania
J. PAPPERT, J.
case requires the Court to decide whether a parent who
prevailed in a due process hearing against a public charter
school can recover attorneys' fees from the Pennsylvania
Department of Education when the Department was not a party
to that hearing and separately satisfied its obligations
under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act
(“IDEA”). The parties stipulated to all facts and
filed cross motions for summary judgment. The Court grants
the Department's motion for two related reasons: The
Plaintiff did not prevail against the Department at the due
process hearing and Congress declined to make fee shifting
integral to a free appropriate public education under IDEA.
requires states receiving federal funding to make a
“free appropriate public education available to all
children with disabilities.” 20 U.S.C. §
1412(a)(1)(A); see also Endrew F. ex rel. Joseph F. v.
Douglas Sch. Dist., 137 S.Ct. 988, 993 (2017); D.S.
v. Bayonne Bd. of Educ., 602 F.3d 553, 556 (3d Cir.
2010). A free appropriate public education “includes
both ‘special education' and ‘related
services.'” Endrew F., 137 S.Ct. at 994
(citing 20 U.S.C. §§ 1401(26), (29)). IDEA mandates
instruction that is “specially . . . designed to meet
the unique needs of the handicapped child, supported by such
services as are necessary to permit the child to benefit from
the instruction.” D.S., 602 F.3d at 556
(quotation and citation omitted); see also 20 U.S.C.
§ 1401(9). Under IDEA, states “must confer an
education providing ‘significant learning' and
‘meaningful benefit' to the child.”
Id. (quoting Ridgewood Bd. of Educ. v.
N.E., 172 F.3d 238, 247 (3d Cir. 1999)). IDEA thus
“ensures that students with special education needs
receive the type of education that will ‘prepare them
for further education, employment, and independent
living.'” Ferren C. v. Sch. Dist. of
Phila., 612 F.3d 712, 717 (3d Cir. 2010) (quoting 20
U.S.C. § 1400(d)(1)(A)).
seeking funding under IDEA must submit a plan of compliance
to the Secretary of Education. 20 U.S.C. §§
1412-14. IDEA then gives the State Education Agency
(“SEA”)-i.e., the state department of
education, id. § 1401(32)-the responsibility of
apportioning the funds to Local Education Agencies
(“LEAs”)-i.e. school districts or public
charter schools, id. § 1401(19)(A). See Id
. § 1413(a). “The SEA is responsible for
ensuring that LEAs comply with the mandates of the IDEA in
providing educational services to those eligible
students.” Charlene R. v. Solomon Charter
Sch., 63 F.Supp.3d 510, 513 (E.D. Pa. 2014) (citing 20
U.S.C. § 1412(a)(11)(A)). The LEA is the entity that
actually provides services to children under IDEA.
Id.; see also 20 U.S.C. §
1414(d)(1)(A). It is the SEA, however, that “retains
primary responsibility to ensure that all children with
disabilities receive the education that is their right under
the IDEA.” Charlene R., 63 F.Supp. at 513;
see 20 U.S.C. §§ 1412(a)(11)(A),
1413(g)(1); Kruelle v. New Castle Cty. Sch. Dist.,
642 F.2d 687, 696 (3d Cir. 1981); see also Pachl v.
Seagren, 453 F.3d 1064, 1070 (8th Cir. 2006); St.
Tammany Parish Sch. Bd. v. State of Louisiana, 142 F.3d
776, 784 (5th Cir. 1998); Gadsby v. Grasmick, 109
F.3d 940, 943 (4th Cir. 1997).
requires states to establish extensive safeguards to ensure
all disabled children receive a free appropriate public
education. See 20 U.S.C. § 1415(a). Three
primary mechanisms exist to settle such disputes: a due
process hearing, a state complaint and formal mediation.
process hearing provides an “opportunity for any party
to present a complaint . . . with respect to any matter
relating to the identification, evaluation, or educational
placement of the child, or the provision of a free
appropriate public education to such child.”
Id. § 1415(b)(6)(A). “In Pennsylvania,
the Commonwealth's Office of Dispute Resolution
(“ODR”) is responsible for conducting IDEA due
process hearings.” H.E. v. Palmer, 220
F.Supp.3d 574, 577 (E.D. Pa. 2016) (citing 22 Pa. Code §
14.162). Any party “aggrieved by” the hearing
officer's “findings and decision” may seek
review of the decision by filing a civil action in state
court or in a district court of the United States. 20 U.S.C.
parents may file a complaint directly with the SEA.
“Upon receipt of such a complaint, the SEA must
evaluate the complaint and carry out, as necessary, an
independent investigation before reaching a final decision
containing findings of fact and conclusions.” R.V.
v. Rivera, 220 F.Supp.3d 588, 591 (E.D. Pa. 2016)
(citing 34 C.F.R. §§ 300.151-.153)). The due
process hearing and state complaint process are parallel
proceedings, “either of which a parent may opt to
pursue in the first instance, ” however, “the due
process complaint procedure takes priority over the state
complaint procedure.” Id. (citing 34 C.F.R.
§ 300.152(c)(1) (explaining that an SEA must stay its
investigation when a due process complaint is filed)).
IDEA provides for formal mediation. States must “ensure
that procedures are established and implemented to allow
parties . . . to resolve such disputes through a mediation
process.” 20 U.S.C. § 1415(e)(1). This process
must be voluntary, cannot be “used to deny or delay a
parent's right to a due process hearing . . . or to deny
any other rights” and must be “conducted by a
qualified and impartial mediator who is trained in effective
mediation techniques.” Id. §
from the procedural protections described above, IDEA allows
prevailing parties the opportunity to recover attorneys'
fees. See Id . § 1415(i)(3). That provision
provides that in “any action or proceeding brought
under this section, the court, in its discretion, may award
reasonable attorneys' fees as part of the costs . . . to
a prevailing party who is the parent of a child with a
§ 1415(i)(2), which provides for court review of a
hearing officer's decision, and § 1415(i)(3),
providing for fee shifting, “contain separate
jurisdictional grants, and the weight of authority holds that
they create two distinct causes of action.” D.G. v.
New Caney Indep. Sch. Dist., 806 F.3d 310, 317 (5th Cir.
2015); see Zipperer v. Sch. Bd., 111 F.3d 847, 851
(11th Cir. 1997); Moore v. District of Columbia, 907
F.2d 165, 171 (D.C. Cir. 1990); see also B.K. Toms River
Bd. of Educ., 998 F.Supp. 462, 471 ...