Parents Awarded $160,000 Attorney’s Fees in Special Education Dispute/Fees Awarded for Mediation

By September 29, 2014April 29th, 2015News

We have been following in the Extra Mile, the on-going litigation in Board of Education of Evanston-Skokie Community Consolidated School District v. Risen, in which the federal district court found that the school district “mainstreaming” policy went “a step too far” and violated the student’s right to a free, appropriate public education.

Now, the same trial court has ruled that the parents could recover attorneys’ fees for the time their counsel spent preparing for, traveling to and from, and attending a mediation session and the court awarded approximately $160,000 in attorneys’ fees.

The parents sought to recover attorneys’ fees for a mediation session conducted in connection with the case. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”) contains a fee-shifting provision that allows the court, in its discretion, to award reasonable attorneys’ fees to the prevailing party. 20 U.S.C. 1415(i)(3)(b). However, the law provides that fee awards may not include the time an attorney spends preparing for or attending a resolution session.

The district argued that the mediation was the equivalent of a resolution session, for which the parents could not receive attorneys’ fees. The court disagreed, finding that resolution sessions only include preliminary meetings that are geared toward an early resolution of the case.

IDEA defines a preliminary meeting as one held within 15 days of receiving notice of the parents’ complaint. The mediation in this case occurred 15 months after the initial request. Due to the lengthy delay, the court held that the mediation could not be considered “preliminary.”

Moreover, the court noted that while IDEA expressly excludes time spent on resolution sessions from awards of attorneys’ fees, the law is silent with regard to mediations. According to the court, if Congress had intended to exclude mediations, it could have explicitly done so. Therefore, the court included the cost of the mediation in the parents’ attorney fee award.

The court’s ruling emphasizes the high financial stakes for school districts in special education litigation and expands the potential financial exposure of school districts. Contact any of HLERK’s student/special education attorneys with your special education inquiries.