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H.E. v. Walter D. Palmer Leadership Learning Partners Charter School

United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit

October 11, 2017

H.E., Individually and on behalf of H.F.; C.E., Individually and on behalf of D.E.; M.T., Individually and on behalf of T.T., Appellants
v.
WALTER D. PALMER LEADERSHIP LEARNING PARTNERS CHARTER SCHOOL; COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION

          Submitted under Third Circuit L.A.R. 34.1(a) on September 19, 2017

         On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (E.D. Pa. Civil Action No. 2:15-cv-03864) Honorable Wendy Beetlestone, U.S. District Judge

          David J. Berney Morgen N. Black-Smith Law Offices of David J. Berney Counsel for Appellants

          John G. Knorr, III Josh Shapiro Claudia M. Tesoro Office of Attorney General of Pennsylvania Counsel for Appellee Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Department of Education

          Before: AMBRO, KRAUSE, and SCIRICA, Circuit Judges

          OPINION

          KRAUSE, Circuit Judge.

         The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act contains a fee-shifting provision, which, provided that a parent of a child with a disability has emerged as "a prevailing party" in administrative or judicial proceedings challenging violations of the Act, renders the parent eligible for an award of attorneys' fees. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B). The parents in this case obtained a court order vindicating their right to an administrative due process hearing under the Act, see id. § 1415(f), but the District Court denied their request for attorneys' fees, reasoning that they had received only interlocutory procedural relief and, for that reason, were not prevailing parties. Because that conclusion is contrary to this Court's decisions in M.R. v. Ridley School District, 868 F.3d 218 (3d Cir. 2017), and Bagby v. Beal, 606 F.2d 411 (3d Cir. 1979), where we explained that success on a claim for procedural relief can constitute "a victory 'on the merits' that confer[s] 'prevailing party' status, " M.R., 868 F.3d at 226 (quoting Bagby, 606 F.2d at 415), we will reverse the District Court's denial of attorneys' fees and remand for proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         I. Background

         Plaintiffs in this case are the parents of three children with disabilities, each of whom attended Walter D. Palmer Leadership Learning Partners Charter School before it permanently closed in December 2014. This case relates to Plaintiffs' efforts to obtain compensatory education for their children under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400-1482. Before recounting the history of those efforts, we briefly review the statutory framework from which Plaintiffs' claims arose.

         A. Statutory Context

         The IDEA provides to children with disabilities "an enforceable substantive right to [a free appropriate] public education in participating States, " while conditioning federal financial assistance to those states on their "compliance with the substantive and procedural goals of the Act." Honig v. Doe, 484 U.S. 305, 310 (1988); see 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(1). Because Congress was aware that schools had "all too often" denied a free appropriate public education to children with disabilities "without in any way consulting" the children's parents, the Act also "establishes various procedural safeguards that guarantee parents both an opportunity for meaningful input into all decisions affecting their child's education and the right to seek review of any decisions they think inappropriate." Honig, 484 U.S. at 311. Those procedural safeguards allow parents to file an administrative complaint challenging "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, " 20 U.S.C. § 1415(b)(6)(A); they provide for "an impartial due process hearing" in response to such a complaint, id. § 1415(f)-(h); and they allow federal district courts to "award reasonable attorneys' fees as part of the costs" to parents who are "prevailing part[ies]" in the due process proceedings, id. § 1415(i)(3)(B). Should school districts and parents wish to sidestep this due process procedure for any reason, they may submit to the Act's statutory mediation procedures, see id. §1415(e), which, if successful, culminate in legally binding settlement agreements, see id. § 1415(e)(2)(F).

         The IDEA's "elaborate and highly specific procedural safeguards" provide parents with a means of enforcing the Act's "general and somewhat imprecise substantive admonitions." Bd. of Educ. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 205 (1982). For that reason, Congress "placed every bit as much emphasis" on school districts' compliance with those procedural safeguards as it did on their compliance with the Act's substantive standards. Id. at 205-06. As the Supreme Court has observed, "the importance Congress attached to [the IDEA's] procedural safeguards cannot be gainsaid, " for "the congressional emphasis" on those safeguards "demonstrates the legislative conviction that adequate compliance with the procedures prescribed would in most cases assure much if not all of what Congress wished in the way of substantive content." Id. at 206.

         The importance of an order enforcing those procedural safeguards is the subject of this appeal, the facts of which we recount below.

         B. Factual and ...


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