Award of counsel fees reversed in IDEA dispute.


Byline: Barry Bridges

The 1st Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed an order of the Rhode Island District Court that awarded attorneys' fees to plaintiffs who sought an Individualized Education Program for their daughter, M.S., while a student in the Westerly School District.

M.S. suffers from Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses, and receives educational accommodations for students with disabilities. For over two years, her parents unsuccessfully sought to have M.S. also deemed eligible for an IEP under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The parents and the school district could not agree on the evaluations needed for an eligibility determination.

The parents eventually obtained a court order forcing the district to make a decision on the IEP "post haste" based on the information and medical evaluations already presented. Westerly complied and concluded that M.S. was ineligible for special education services since in the district's view the evaluations provided by the parents were inconsistent with M.S.'s performance in the classroom.

Notwithstanding that determination, the District Court subsequently awarded $53,000 in counsel fees to the parents as the "prevailing parties" under the IDEA.

The school district thereupon appealed the order compelling an eligibility determination, as well as the fee award.

Writing for a three-judge panel, 1st Circuit Judge William J. Kayatta first ruled that any dispute over M.S.'s eligibility was moot since the family had moved out of the district.

Turning to the issue of attorneys' fees, Kayatta then wrote, "We note at the outset that, although the substantive question underlying the fee award is moot the fee-shifting issue is not."

And on that front...

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