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Monday, February 7, 2011

District Court awards attorney fees to prevailing school district; 9th Circuit reverses

R.P. v. PRESCOTT UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT, __ F. 3d. __, #09-15651 (9th Cir. 2-4-2011): The IDEA authorizes a court to award attorney fees to a prevailing school district “against the attorney of a parent who files a complaint or subsequent cause of action that is frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation, or against the attorney of a parent who continued to litigate after the litigation clearly became frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation” and “against the attorney of a parent, or against the parent, if the parent's complaint or subsequent cause of action was presented for any improper purpose, such as to harass, to cause unnecessary delay, or to needlessly increase the cost of litigation.” (20 USC §1415(i)(3)(B)).

In this case, the District Court saddled the parents and their lawyer with a $140,000 fee award to the district. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and made clear that a District Court must be very careful about awarding attorney fees against a parent or the parent’s attorney for “lawyers would be improperly discouraged from taking on potentially meritorious IDEA cases if they risked being saddled with a six-figure judgment for bringing a suit where they have a plausible, though ultimately unsuccessful, argument.” Specifically, the 9th Circuit held that the parents’ claim was not “without foundation” as they had sought compensatory education, they had made plausible arguments as to why they should have prevailed, and “the fact that the arguments were not successful does not make them frivolous.” The Court also held that “the district court erred in holding that anger is an improper purpose that could justify an award of attorney's fees” noting that “anger is a legitimate reaction by parties who believe that their rights have been violated or ignored. One of the roles of the adversarial system is to peaceably resolve disputes that give rise to personal animosity by channeling that indignation into a lawful resolution in lieu of feuding or personal violence.”

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