• Student Not Prevailing Party Even With Finding That District Denied FAPE
  • October 14, 2003
  • Law Firm: Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo, A Professional Corporation - Cerritos Office
  • Student. v. Capistrano Unified School District

    The U.S. District Court, Central District of California recently issued an order that a student was not the prevailing party in a case, even though the student successfully argued that the District had denied the student a free appropriate public education ("FAPE") for 1 ½ years.

    In Student v. Capistrano Unified School District, the student asked the federal court to review a California Special Education Hearing Office ("SEHO") decision, which found that Capistrano Unified School District ("District") denied the student a FAPE for one full school year and half of another. In the SEHO case, filed by the student's parents at the end of the 2000-01 school year, the parents alleged that the District denied their learning disabled daughter a FAPE during the 1998-1999, 1999-2000 and the 2000-2001 school years. The family sought compensatory education and reimbursement for the Lindamood-Bell program the family had funded. SEHO issued a decision that the District did not offer the student a FAPE for the 1998-1999 school year. Moreover, SEHO found that the District did not offer the student a FAPE prior to January 14, 2000, during the 1999-00 school year. SEHO found that the District had offered FAPE during the balance of the 1999-00 school year and during the 2000-01 school year. SEHO granted compensatory education, but denied reimbursement for the Lindamood-Bell program, instead ordering that the IEP team should determine the appropriate compensatory education.

    The parents sought the court's review of the SEHO decision and petitioned the court for reimbursement of their attorneys' fees. They argued that SEHO should have also found a denial of FAPE for the balance of the 1999-2000 school year and for the 2000-01 school year. The parents also argued that SEHO erred in not awarding reimbursement for the Lindamood-Bell program. The District filed a counterclaim, arguing that it had offered a FAPE for the entire period at issue.

    The federal court affirmed the hearing office's decision in its entirety, denying the relief sought by both the plaintiffs and the District. The court also found that the plaintiffs were not the prevailing parties, and thus were not entitled to attorneys' fees under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act or 42 U.S.C. §§1983 and 1988 (federal civil rights statutes which also allow for attorneys' fees with prevailing party status).

    In determining that the plaintiffs were not the prevailing parties, the court applied the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal's two-part analysis set forth in Fischer v. SJBP. D., Inc. The Fischer court found that 1) a plaintiff prevails when actual relief on the merits of his claim materially alters the legal relationship between the parties modifying the defendant's behavior in a way that directly benefits the plaintiff; and 2) a material alteration of the legal relationship occurs when the plaintiff becomes entitled to enforce a judgment, consent decree, or settlement against the defendant. In this case, the court determined that because SEHO found that the District provided FAPE to the student for half of the time in dispute, and because the plaintiffs' request for reimbursement of the Lindamood-Bell costs was denied, they were not the prevailing parties. According to the court "although compensatory education was awarded to Student, this award does not constitute a material alteration in the legal relationship between the parties. Therefore, the Court, in its discretion, finds that an award of attorneys' fees and costs to Plaintiffs is not appropriate."

    This federal court case is a favorable one for school districts, in that it offers support for school districts when negotiating attorneys' fees at the conclusion of a special education hearing or during settlement negotiations. The court's analysis was somewhat surprising in that it did not include even a partial award of attorney's fees, even though the Plaintiff's prevailed on some of the issues before SEHO. It should be cautioned that this decision would not be binding on most school districts, and may be appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. However, other federal courts in California may look to this case for guidance when analyzing attorneys' fees in other cases.