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M.R. v. Ridley School District

United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit

August 22, 2017

M.R.; J.R., Parents of Minor Child E.R., Appellants
v.
RIDLEY SCHOOL DISTRICT

          Argued: March 30, 2017

         On 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 Judge

          Alan L. Yatvin (Argued) Attorney for Plaintiff-Appellants M.R. and J.R.

          John Francis X. Reilly (Argued) Attorney for Defendant-Appellee Ridley School District

          Before: VANASKIE, KRAUSE, and RESTREPO, Circuit Judges

          OPINION OF THE COURT

          KRAUSE, Circuit Judge.

         Under 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.

         I. Background

         This 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.

         A. Statutory Context

         The 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).

         One 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), 1415(i)(2)(C).

         This 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)).

         School 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 below.

         B. Factual and Procedural Background

         1. IEP Litigation

         E.R. 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.

         The 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. See id.

         But the 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.

         2. Reimbursement Litigation

         E.R.'s 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. ยง 1415(j), seeking "to have the cost of ...


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