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Amicus Brief in Critical Special Education Case Regarding Attorneys Fees

During the Spring 2013 quarter, the Youth & Education Law Project ("YELP") co-counseled with Los Angeles-based Disability Rights Legal Center to submit an amicus brief to the 9th Circuit on behalf of a statewide coalition of advocacy organizations that represent low-income and traditionally under-served families in special education matters under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA").

The case, C.W. v. Capistrano Unified School District, concerned the circumstances under which a school district could recover its attorneys fees from the parents of a student with a disability.  Amici curiae argued that, although awarding attorneys fees against parents may be warranted in certain extreme cases, it is critical that courts follow the clear language and intent of the IDEA when awarding such fees, and apply the relevant standard established by the Court in Christianburg Garment with care.  Amici curiae asserted that the practice of awarding fees against parents in an unreasonable and unpredictable manner jeopardizes the structural integrity of the IDEA, which relies heavily on parental involvement and enforcement.  In addition, amici argued that such a practice would prevent special education advocacy organizations, such as amici, from representing parents in even the most important and meritorious special education matters, which is an important and necessary component in the continued advancement of civil rights.  Poor and minority populations, who are already disproportionately underrepresented in IDEA proceedings, would be particularly harmed by the unavailability of legal representation.

Almost seven months after the case was argued and about twenty-one months after YELP submitted the amicus brief, the Ninth Circuit issued an opinion.  Just as we argued in our amicus brief, the majority reversed the fees awarded under the IDEA, meaning that school districts should not be entitled to recover fees against parents and children in most special education disputes, except under the most egregious circumstances.  Nonetheless, the court went on to affirm the fees awarded under a number of other statutes under which the family’s claim was deemed frivolous.  Judge Reinhardt wrote an impassioned dissent, arguing that the entire fee award should be reversed. 

Lila Miller ('14) played a lead role in researching and drafting the brief on behalf of amici Public Counsel Law Center, Disability Rights California, Disability Rights Legal Center, Children's Rights Clinic at Southwestern Law School, Pepperdine University School of Law Special Education Advocacy Clinic, and University of San Diego Legal Clinics.

Read Alumna Lila Miller's blog about her experience with this case and her reaction to the Court's ruling: