Argued: March 30, 2017
Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern
District of Pennsylvania (E.D. Pa. Civil Action No.
2:11-cv-02235) Honorable Mitchell S. Goldberg, U.S. District
L. Yatvin (Argued) Attorney for Plaintiff-Appellants M.R. and
Francis X. Reilly (Argued) Attorney for Defendant-Appellee
Ridley School District
Before: VANASKIE, KRAUSE, and RESTREPO, Circuit
OPINION OF THE COURT
KRAUSE, Circuit Judge.
the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a parent of
a child with a disability can bring administrative and
judicial proceedings to challenge a school district's
alleged violations of the Act, and, if the parent emerges as
"a prevailing party, " the parent is then eligible
for an award of attorneys' fees. 20 U.S.C. §
1415(i)(3)(B). This case presents the question whether a fee
award is available to parents who, after unsuccessfully
challenging a school district's proposed educational
placement for their child, later obtain a court order
requiring the school district to reimburse them for the costs
of the child's "stay put" placement-the
"then-current educational placement" in which the
Act permitted the child to remain while administrative and
judicial proceedings were pending. Id. §
1415(j). We answer this question in the affirmative and
conclude, consistent with the Act's text and with the
opinions of this Court and the other Courts of Appeals, that
a court-ordered award of retrospective and compensatory
relief, even if awarded under the Act's "stay
put" provision, 20 U.S.C. § 1415(j), confers
"prevailing party" status. We therefore will
reverse the District Court's denial of attorneys'
fees and remand for proceedings consistent with this opinion.
case pertains to a long-running dispute between Appellants,
the parents of E.R., and Appellee, the Ridley School
District, concerning E.R.'s schooling and Ridley's
obligations under the Individuals with Disabilities Education
Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400-1482.
Before turning to the details of that dispute, we briefly
review the statutory framework from which it arose.
IDEA is a comprehensive statutory scheme enacted "to
ensure that all children with disabilities have available to
them a free appropriate public education." 20 U.S.C.
§ 1400(d)(1)(A). To that end, the Act allocates federal
dollars to assist the states' educational services for
children with disabilities. Id. § 1411(a)(1).
In return, recipient states must provide a "free
appropriate public education" to children with
disabilities residing in their states, an
"individualized education program"
("IEP") for each child with a disability, and
specified procedural safeguards for children with
disabilities and their parents. Id. §
1412(a)(1), (4), (6).
consequence of the IDEA's requirements is that school
districts must sometimes reimburse parents of children with
disabilities for educational expenses made on their
children's behalf. Specifically, because an IEP must
account for a child's "strengths, " the
parents' "concerns" about the child's
education, the child's most recent disability evaluation,
and the child's "academic, developmental, and
functional needs, " id. § 1414(d)(3)(A),
an IEP that meets the Act's requirements may require the
child to be placed in a private school. If so, the IDEA
obliges the school district, in providing the child with a
"free appropriate public education, " to reimburse
the parents for the child's private-school tuition and
related expenses. See Sch. Comm. v. Dep't of
Educ., 471 U.S. 359, 363, 369-70 (1985); see
also 20 U.S.C. §§ 1412(a)(10)(B),
reimbursement obligation exists not only when the school
district and the parents agree that the child should be in
private school but also sometimes when they do not. See
generally 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(10)(C). For example,
even when parents place a child in a private-school setting
to which the school district will not consent, the school
district remains liable for the private-school costs if an
adjudicator later determines that the private school was the
appropriate educational placement for the child. See Sch.
Comm., 471 U.S. at 372-74. And even if, on appeal, a
court were ultimately to determine that the private school
was not the appropriate educational placement, the child is
entitled to "stay put" in the "then-current
[private] educational placement" during the pendency of
the appeal. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(j). In that circumstance,
as long as the child is twenty-one years of age or younger,
see 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(1)(A); Lauren W. ex
rel. Jean W. v. DeFlaminis, 480 F.3d 259, 272 (3d Cir.
2007), the school district must continue reimbursing the
child's parents until the point, if ever, that the
"proceedings, " including on appeal, resolve in the
school district's favor, M.R. v. Ridley Sch. Dist.
(Ridley IV), 744 F.3d 112, 117-19, 124-28 (3d Cir. 2014)
(quoting 20 U.S.C. § 1415(j)).
districts have one more economic reason to adhere to the
Act's requirements: although under the "American
Rule" parties typically pay their own attorneys'
fees, district courts can order school districts that lose
IDEA disputes to pay "reasonable attorneys'
fees" to "a prevailing party who is the parent of a
child with a disability." 20 U.S.C. §
1415(i)(3)(B); P.N. ex rel. M.W. v. Clementon Bd. of
Educ., 442 F.3d 848, 852 (3d Cir. 2006). The scope of
school districts' potential liability for fee awards is
the subject of this appeal, the facts of which we recount
Factual and Procedural Background
attended an elementary school in the Ridley School District
for kindergarten and first grade. Ridley School District
v. M.R. (Ridley II), 680 F.3d 260, 264 (3d Cir. 2012).
After identifying E.R.'s learning disabilities during her
first-grade year, Ridley and E.R.'s parents agreed to an
IEP for the remaining months of that academic year.
Id. at 265-66. The parties' IEP negotiations for
second grade, however, were unsuccessful because they
disagreed about what reading aids would be appropriate for
E.R., so E.R.'s parents opted to enroll her in a private
school and to file an administrative complaint accusing
Ridley of "fail[ing] to develop an appropriate
IEP." Id. at 267-77.
administrative hearing officer agreed with E.R.'s parents
and, in a report dated April 21, 2009, opined that
Ridley's proposed IEPs "were inadequate and
therefore denied E.R. a free appropriate public
education." Id. at 267 (internal quotation
marks omitted). This decision in the parents' favor
during the administrative review process equated to "an
agreement between the State and the parents" and
rendered E.R.'s private-school placement her
"then-current educational placement" for purposes
of the IDEA's "stay put" provision. Ridley
IV, 744 F.3d at 119 (quoting 20 U.S.C. § 1415(j)).
Beginning at that point, therefore, Ridley was obliged to
reimburse E.R.'s parents for their private-school costs.
administrative ruling in E.R.'s parents' favor did
not fare well in the District Court or on appeal to this
Court. After Ridley petitioned for review of the
administrative hearing officer's decision, the District
Court rejected the parents' contention that the
challenged IEPs were "not based on peer-reviewed
research" and were therefore deficient, Ridley Sch.
Dist. v. M.R. (Ridley I), No. 09-2503, 2011 WL 499966,
at *12-15 (E.D. Pa. Feb. 14, 2011), and we affirmed,
explaining that "although schools should strive to base
a student's specially designed instruction on
peer-reviewed research to the maximum extent possible, the
student's IEP team retains flexibility to devise an
appropriate program, in light of the available research,
" Ridley II, 680 F.3d at 275-79.
parents did not pursue their IEP-related claims further, but
they did ask Ridley to reimburse them for their
private-school expenses between the administrative hearing
officer's decision in 2009 and the conclusion of the IEP
appeal in this Court in 2012. See Ridley IV, 744
F.3d at 116-17. When Ridley declined, E.R.'s parents
filed suit in the District Court under the IDEA's
"stay put" provision, 20 U.S.C. § 1415(j),
seeking "to have the cost of ...