• Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Rules that Attorney Fees are Recoverable for Attorney's Attendance at IEP Team Meeting Convened for the Purpose of Resolving a Complaint Filed with the State Department of Education
  • August 26, 2003
  • Law Firm: Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo, A Professional Corporation - Cerritos Office
  • In a case that will likely impact California school districts, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Lucht v. Molalla River School District, 2000 Daily Journal D.A.R. 9805 (09/06/00), that parents may recover attorney's fees incurred for their lawyer's attendance at IEP team meetings held at the direction of a state Department of Education, to resolve compliance complaints which allege violations of the IDEA. Previous decisions have allowed parents to recover attorney's fees only when the IEP team meeting is held pursuant to an order by a hearing officer or a court.

    The plaintiffs in this case, Dale and Terry Lucht, were the parents of an autistic child served by the Molalla River School District in Oregon. After making several informal complaints to the District regarding their son's educational program, the parents filed a complaint with the Oregon Department of Education pursuant to Oregon's Complaint Resolution Procedure (CRP). The parents' complaint alleged that the District had committed several violations of the IDEA in the course of educating their son. The Department investigated the complaint and determined that the District had violated several provisions of the IDEA. As corrective action, the Department ordered the District to convene an IEP team meeting to address the errors identified by the Department. The parents attended and were represented by an attorney at three (3) subsequent IEP team meetings. After the IEP process concluded, the parties agreed that the IEP corrected the deficiencies and the parents consented to the IEP. The parents then brought an action in federal court seeking to recover the attorney's fees that they incurred in the Department-ordered IEP meetings attended by their attorney. The District Court granted the Plaintiff's request and the Defendant District appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The Ninth Circuit affirmed the District Court's ruling.

    The Ninth Circuit ruled that there are two remedial forums sanctioned by the IDEA which permit parents to receive attorneys fees for bringing attorneys to IEP team meetings. The first avenue is an impartial due process hearing that results in a hearing officer or subsequent court order to hold an IEP team meeting. In those instances, parents who bring an attorney to participate at the ordered IEP team meeting are entitled to recover attorney's fees. The second method, the one at issue in this case, is an IEP team meeting ordered pursuant to a state's complaint resolution procedures. Once a complaint is filed, the state educational agency must carry out an independent, on-site investigation, give the complainant an opportunity to supply additional information, determine whether the District is violating the IDEA and, within 60 days of the filing of the complaint, issue a written decision containing factual findings, conclusions, and procedures for effective implementation of the state's final decision, which frequently includes the holding of an IEP team meeting to resolve improprieties identified by the compliance investigator.

    In this case, the Court reasoned that it would be inconsistent with the spirit of the IDEA to restrict attorney's fees to only those cases in which an IEP team meeting is ordered by a hearing officer or a court. Thus, the Court ruled that in addition to attorney's fees being available to parents who attend IEP team meetings ordered by a hearing officer or a court, attorney's fees are also available where parents bring an attorney to an IEP team meeting convened as a result of a compliance complaint that addresses a dispute which would also be subject to a due process hearing.

    This case provides solid authority for parents in California to ask districts for attorney's fees incurred at IEP team meetings that are convened at the direction of the CDE. For school districts, this case presents yet another reason why it is important to timely hold IEP team meetings, make legally sufficient offers of placement, and to comply with all parent rights and procedural safeguards.