Federal appeals court removes obstacle to litigation for students with disabilities
The enduring legacy of the now-defunct Walter D. Palmer Charter School may be a significant federal appeals court ruling this month that could remove an important impediment from parents seeking an appropriate education for their children who have special needs.
On Oct. 11, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit awarded attorneys’ fees to parents of three students with disabilities in Palmer’s elementary school because the parents showed that their children had been denied the education that they are entitled to under the law.
Because the ruling says the parents were correct, they will have “prevailing party” status as the case moves forward — essentially, they have proved their case and the main question now involves the remedy for the problem.
The ruling also assigns to the state government the responsibility for fixing the problem resulting from the charter school’s failure.
The litigation, which is still ongoing, turns on several complex procedural issues, but the bottom line is that “families without means can get in the courthouse doors and protect their rights,” said Kevin Golembiewski, an attorney with the Berney & Sang law firm, which represents the parents.
And it could set an important precedent for future litigation under the landmark Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1974 (IDEA), which guarantees a “free and appropriate” education to students with special needs.
The prospect of potentially losing their case and then being held liable for attorneys’ fees, which can cost families tens of thousands of dollars, is a major deterrent to parents in asserting the rights of their children under IDEA.
“Denying attorneys’ fees has a chilling effect on parents pursuing claims to assure their children are receiving a free and appropriate education and that their rights are protected,” said Gabe Labella, an attorney with Disability Rights of Pennsylvania, which was not a party to the lawsuit.
In this case, parents of three students whose disabilities ranged from autism to language impairment filed a complaint against the Palmer elementary school for violating the children’s rights under IDEA. The parents won their case, and the school agreed to provide compensatory education and to pay the parents’ legal fees, which IDEA guarantees when parents are “the prevailing party.”
The students were to receive tutoring and additional services under their Individual Education Programs. For one student, Palmer agreed to “identify an approved private school placement” and even reimburse travel expenses.
But then the troubled charter abruptly closed in December 2014, unable to cope with a host of financial, operational, and academic problems and leaving these children and a thousand others searching for a new place to learn.
After Palmer closed, it was unable to uphold the deal.
The parents then filed a complaint against the Pennsylvania Department of Education, looking for it to “remedy that failure by providing compensatory education to their children.” Under Pennsylvania law, each charter school is basically considered to be its own district, or “local education agency,” so the Philadelphia School District cannot be held liable for the unpaid debts of closed charters.
“If the state’s not going to [take responsibility], then no one is going to pick up the tab,” said Golembiewski. “And the people left out in the cold are the kids and the families.”
The case went to federal court, which ruled in favor of the families, granting them compensation while a trial on the merits was underway. But the district court denied them the attorneys’ fees because they didn’t meet the IDEA’s requirement for plaintiffs to be a “prevailing party.”
The court ruled that the compensation the parents received was provisional, or “interlocutory,” because it hinged on the final outcome of the trial.
That finding was appealed to the Third Circuit panel, which ruled that a victory for interlocutory relief is enough to qualify the parents as a “prevailing party,” thus making them eligible for their attorneys’ fees.
The case is ongoing, with the plaintiffs and the state still negotiating over the value of the compensatory education and how it will be provided.
The parents’ attorneys declined to make them available for interviews, saying the entire case hasn’t been decided yet. The state also declined comment, citing the ongoing nature of the litigation.
Said Labella of the Disability Rights Project: “Not often do cases end up in federal court. When they do, it’s important for parents, because they set a precedent for hearing officers to follow.”