SLS and Mills Legal Clinic alumna, Lila Miller (JD ’14), writes below on a recent Ninth Circuit opinion in a case concerning an adverse award of attorney’s fees against a parent of a disabled child under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Lila authored an amicus brief in the case while enrolled in the Youth and Education Law Project during the winter and spring of 2013.
Since graduating, Lila has gone on to do full-time civil rights litigation at a non-profit firm in New York. She was the recipient of Stanford Law School’s Deborah L Rhode Public Interest Award in 2014.
As a student attorney in the Mills Legal Clinic, I had the opportunity to work with several special education advocacy organizations on an amicus brief for a case in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. The case, C.W. v. Capistrano Unified School District, pertains to an adverse award of attorney’s fees against a parent under the Individuals with Disabilities and Education Act (“IDEA”). In this case, the district court actually invited a school district to seek attorney’s fees against the mother of an eleven-year-old with cerebral palsy. We argued that such an invitation runs contrary to the letter and spirit of the IDEA, which deputizes parents as private attorneys general. Parental enforcement of the IDEA is crucial to achieving the statute’s remedial goals, and fee awards like the one in this case will chill meritorious litigation and, ultimately, harm the students most in need of help.
Last week, almost seven months after the case was argued and about twenty-one months after we 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. His opinion is worth a read, but one point in particular is worth highlighting:
By punishing a small firm for arguing a non-frivolous claim under the wrong sections of the United States Code, the precedent established by the majority opinion will discourage disability lawyers from taking on the very cases that the IDEA sought to encourage. In light of the majority’s opinion, small firms will have to weigh the risk that they will incur a costly sanction for a minor legal error intended to benefit a disabled child. This despite the fact that IDEA practitioners — indeed, nearly all civil rights practitioners — rarely have the time or the staff to handle the volume of cases for which they are responsible with the same attention or devotion of resources as their counterparts who represent the defense.
As someone who has gone on to work at a small civil rights litigation firm, I could not agree more. The majority’s piecemeal resolution loses sight of the forest for the trees. By awarding any fees at all, the decision subverts the remedial goals of the statutes under which C.W. and her mother sought relief and will deter attorneys from taking on cases like this one.
Working on this case meant a great deal to me. Not only did I develop practical skills that I’ve already put to use in my career, but I also gained a unique perspective. Namely, I had the rare opportunity to provide direct services to parents and students while simultaneously working on appellate litigation in the same niche area of law. The very people who will be affected by those decisions are the modest means clients YELP represents on a regular basis. But unless and until the Mills Legal Clinic and the handful of legal organizations that provide similar direct services grow large enough to serve all of the special education students in California, last week’s ruling risks gratuitously hobbling parental enforcement of the IDEA. Thank goodness future generations of YELPers are here to prevent that from happening.