5th Circuit Has an 'IDEA' about Prevailing Party Attorneys' Fees

By Robyn Hagan Cain on April 04, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) mandates that public educational institutions identify and effectively educate disabled children, or pay for their education elsewhere if they require specialized services that the public institution cannot provide. Schools must identify children in need of special education services, and provide a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) to disabled students. Parents can pursue administrative remedies, and eventually a lawsuit, to compel a school to comply.

Today, we're discussing a Fifth Circuit opinion addressing an attorneys' fees dispute stemming from an IDEA enforcement action.

The parents in this case have a child, C.C., enrolled in Texas' Alief Independent School District (AISD). They filed an administrative complaint against AISD with the Texas Education Agency, alleging multiple IDEA violations. When AISD requested a hearing and declaratory judgment, the parents voluntarily dismissed the complaint. AISD, however, proceeded with the hearing unopposed. After the hearing officer ruled for AISD, the school district sued the parents in district court for attorneys' fees alleging that the parents had filed the IDEA complaint for an "improper purpose."

The district court rejected AISD's argument and the fee request.

C.C.'s parents then petitioned for their own attorneys' fees. Their argument? By successfully defeating AISD's attorneys' fees claim, they became a prevailing party entitled to attorneys' fees. The district court summarily denied the parents' petition.

The parents appealed, but to no avail. This week, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court, finding that successfully defending an ancillary request for attorneys' fees, without more, does not qualify as the relief on merits necessary to create a "prevailing party" under IDEA.

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