Parents’ long battle with school district over special education services for child with Asperger’s syndrome ends in a hollow victory

Meridian Joint School District No. 2 v. D.A., No. 13-36200, 2015 DJDAR 7824 (9th Cir. July 6, 2015).

This case chronicles the efforts of the parents of a child with Asperger’s Syndrome to compel a public school district in Idaho, over the course of the child’s four years in high school, to conduct an “independent education evaluation” assessment pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (I.D.E.A.). The school district had refused to conduct the assessment because the child–like many with this syndrome–tested high for “intelligence,” and was “successful” in some academic areas. After numerous skirmishes with the district, and multiple administrative hearings followed by judicial review, the parents finally obtained a judgment from the district court compelling the school district to conduct an assessment, but the parents ultimately lost their appeals of the district’s subsequent decision not to provide any special education services.

The Ninth Circuit here agrees that their success in compelling the assessment qualified the parents as “prevailing parties” for purposes of attorneys’ fees under the I.D.E.A., and also affirms (over the district’s objections) that their fee petition was timely filed. However, the court ultimately denies the fee claim because the I.D.E.A. authorizes fees only for children who have been “determined to need special education services,” and in this case the child obtained only an assessment, and did not succeed in securing any special education services. The district court had awarded fees, a result which it viewed as more consistent with the remedial purposes of the I.D.E.A., but the Ninth Circuit reverses that decision based on its reading of the plain language of fee-shifting provision.