Stories and Grievances: Special Education
Murphy v. Arlington case heads to the U.S. Supreme Court
The case involves an appeal of a lower court's award of $8,600 to an expert used by Pearl and Theodore Murphy of LaGrangeville in their effort to force the Arlington school district to pay for their son's special education at a private school. At issue is whether the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act authorizes payment of expert fees to parents who win their cases in court.
Special education case headed to top court
4/9/2006 1:23:37 PM
By: Associated Press
A legal battle over special education services between a Dutchess County family and a school district heads to the U.S. Supreme Court this month.
The case involves an appeal of a lower court's award of $8,600 to an expert used by Pearl and Theodore Murphy of LaGrangeville in their effort to force the Arlington school district to pay for their son's special education at a private school.
At issue is whether the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act authorizes payment of expert fees to parents who win their cases in court.
The high court agreed to review the case in January and will hear arguments April 19.
Though the case is narrowly focused on expert fees, it has wide implications for school districts and parents. School districts face the prospect of paying more money if fees for experts are found to be reimbursable.
Appealed From: 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals (April 15, 2005)
Oral Argument: 04-19-06
Subject: Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, expert fees
Question presented: Whether the fee-shifting provision of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), 20 U.S.C. 1415(i)(3)(B), which provides that the court may "award reasonable attorneys' fees as part of the costs" to a prevailing party, authorizes an award of expert fees?
BY GERRY SMITH, MEDILL NEWS SERVICE
In August 1999, Pearl and Theodore Murphy filed a complaint on behalf of their son Joseph Murphy, who has dyslexia and several other cognitive disabilities, claiming that the Arlington Central School District did not prepare a proper Individualized Education Program (IEP) for their son.
Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), local school systems are required to develop an IEP for each child with a disability. The Murphys alleged that the school district did not provide a free appropriate public education for their child as required by the law, and was therefore required to pay their childs tuition at a private school that specializes in educating children with learning disabilities. The Murphys won their case in district court and the decision was affirmed in the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, in New York.
When the case returned to district court in 2003, the Murphys sought $29,350 in fees for the services of Marilyn Arons, an educational expert and consultant they had hired for their case. While the IDEA authorizes that school systems reimburse parents for attorneys fees if they successfully prosecute a claim under the law, the statute makes no mention of awarding expert fees.
The school district opposed the Murphys claim, arguing that Arons was not eligible to receive attorneys fees because she is not a licensed attorney, nor eligible to receive expert fees because they cannot be recovered under the IDEA. In addition, the school district said Arons did not establish a rate for her services nor provide sufficient time records. (In 2000, the Delaware Supreme Court ruled that by representing families of children with disabilities in due process hearings, Arons had engaged in the unauthorized practice of law.)
In other cases addressing this issue, expert services have included observing the student in class, interviewing teachers and administrators, attending IEP meetings, preparing reports and advising parents. The district court ruled that Arons could collect fees for her expert consulting services, but could not collect attorneys fees for any of her work that was similar to that of an attorney, and awarded the Murphys $8,650.
The 2nd Circuit unanimously upheld the district court decision that expert fees were implicitly covered. Although it acknowledged that IDEA does not expressly authorize such fees, the 2nd Circuit found that to rely solely on the text of the statute and ignore the context in which it was created would cause an outcome not intended by Congress. The court found that the House Conference Committee Report on the IDEAs predecessor, the Handicapped Childrens Protection Act of 1986, briefly defined attorneys fees as a term of art that required a different interpretation from the text of the statute.
In so holding, the court noted that it was joining the 3rd Circuit in its ruling that expert fees warrant compensation, although the 3rd Circuits ruling did not directly address whether IDEA itself authorizes the award of such fees to prevailing parents. However its conclusion runs counter to decisions made by the 7th and 8th circuits that expert fees are not recoverable.
The District of Columbia Circuit agrees with the 7th and 8th circuit decisions, ruling in 2005 in Goldring v. District of Columbia that a sentence in a conference report cannot rewrite unambiguous statutory text.
Raymond Kuntz, an attorney for the school district, agreed. The 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals reached to find something in those congressional hearings that they didnt find in the statute and imported it into the statute. The question one must ask is what stayed Congresss hand in writing the words that parents wanted to see there?
Lawyers for the school district asked that the conflicting circuit court opinions be reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court because the 2nd Circuits decision could lead to increased litigation costs for parents and schools and divert attention and resources from the IDEA. They also said the rulings conflict with both the text of the IDEA statute and a 1991 Supreme Court precedent in West Virginia University Hospitals, Inc. v. Casey.
In Casey, the Supreme Court did not authorize awarding fees in civil rights litigation for experts who did not testify because it found that was not the intent of Congress. If attorneys fees included expert fees, the Court ruled, then dozens of statutes referring to the two separately become an inexplicable exercise in redundancy.
After Casey, Congress considered but eventually rejected adopting the Civil Rights Act of 2004, which would have amended IDEA and numerous other civil rights statutes to authorize an award of expert fees.
On Jan. 6, 2006, the Supreme Court agreed to review the question of whether the fee-shifting provision of the IDEA, which provides that the court may "award reasonable attorneys' fees as part of the costs" to a prevailing party, authorizes an award of expert fees.
The 2nd Circuits ruling may have a significant impact on schools in that circuit, particularly in New York, which had the highest rate of due process hearings for students receiving special education benefits in 2003, according to a General Accounting Office report.
The most recent Supreme Court ruling on the IDEA was in Schaffer v. Weast in November 2005, in which the Court ruled 6-2 that the burden of proof in challenging an IEP is on the party seeking relief, and that the IDEA ensures that parents have access to the opinions of an independent expert who has the firepower to match the opposition. Chief Justice John Roberts, who said in confirmation hearings that civil rights statutes should be interpreted according to Congressional intent, recused himself from the case.
Attorneys in the case:
Raymond G. Kuntz
Kuntz, Spagnuolo, Scapoli & Schiro, P. C.
444 Old Post Office Road
P. O. Box 396
Bedford, NY 10506
Party name: Arlington Central School District Board of Education
Attorneys for Respondent:
David C. Vladeck
Institute for Public Representation
Georgetown University Law Center
600 New Jersey Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20001
Party name: Pearl Murphy, et vir
PAUL D. CLEMENT, Solicitor General
WAN J. KIM, Assistant Attorney General
GREGORY G. GARRE, Deputy Solicitor General
DAVID B. SALMONS, Assistant to the Solicitor General
DAVID K. FLYNN
CONOR B. DUGAN
Department of Justice
Washington, D.C. 20530-0001
KENT D. TALBERT, Acting General Counsel
Department of Education
Washington, D.C. 20202
Party name: United States
Feature: Navigating the special education maze
Amicus brief - U.S.
2nd Circuit amended opinion (April 15, 2005)
Earlier 2nd Circuit opinion (July 12, 2002)
1991 Supreme Court opinion in West Virginia University Hospitals, Inc. v. Casey
2005 Supreme Court case - Schaffer v. Weast
2005 Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit opinion in Goldring v. District of Columbia
Murphy v. Arlington case heads to the U.S. Supreme Court
Maura Collinsgru, Director
A PIC case that established several precedents in the State of New York Murphy v. Arlington is now pending before the U.S. Supreme Court. The case involves whether or not prevailing party fees are available for a nonlawyer representative who provided consultation services for the parents in a due process hearing. The parents, Pearl and Theodore Murphy, are represented by Brian Wolfman of Public Citizen Litigation Group and by David C. Vladeck, from the Institute for Public Representation, Georgetown University Law Center who argued the case before the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, in New York in mid-December.
In March the Second Circuit held for the parents finding that ...Congress intended to and did authorize the reimbursement of expert fees in IDEA actions. Applying the principle to this case the Court concluded that IDEA allows for parents to recover such costs as those incurred when accompanied by an individual with special knowledge such as Arons. Acknowledging parents of disabled children would be inhibited from pursuing due process if they were unable to recover expert fees and costs, the Court concluded, Prohibiting expert witness fees for prevailing parents would thus frustrate the purposes of the IDEA, resulting in fewer children receiving the education they deserve.
In June, Arlington School District appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Before deciding whether or not to hear the case, the Court has asked the Bush administration for its views on whether or not parents can recover fees for experts in due process proceedings, asking the U.S. Solicitor General for guidance. These events are strikingly similar to the events that evolved in 2000 when Arons v. Delaware was pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, a case concerning whether or not parents (in the State of Delaware) had the right to be represented by nonlawyers (those with special knowledge) under IDEA. An amicus brief supporting petitioners (Arons) was filed by the Administration. In that instance the Administration argued that IDEA clearly establishes that lay experts are entitled to advocate on behalf of parents at due process hearings. Further, they argued that barring such a practice could preclude parents from obtaining an impartial hearing guaranteed under the IDEA, a concern echoed by the Second Circuit.
If they are to be true to their previously stated position, the Administration would be bound to conclude that parents have an unequivocal right to recover expert fees and costs when they prevail in a due process proceeding. To advocate otherwise would be a complete betrayal of the spirit of IDEA and the parents and children it is intended to protect.
P.I.C. is preparing to bring you an interview with Pearl and Theodore Murphy, the courageous parents in this case. Their efforts, along with those of Marilyn Arons, founder of P.I.C., Public Citizen Litigation Group and the Georgetown Center for Public Representation, have implications for all of us interested in the appropriate education of our disabled children. Lets hope justice will prevail.
The court has accepted the case. Oral arguments will be scheduled for April with the decision anticipated sometime in June.