Result Is That Matter Is Remanded So Post-Offer Reasonable Fees Can Be Awarded; Both Majority and Concurring Opinions Suggest School Districts Need To Make Their Offers Clear In Nature.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”) is a boutique practice involving a federal statute under which parents and school districts can resolve disputes over a disabled/special-needs child’s educational placement and schooling needs. IDEA also has a fee-shifting provision which allows the prevailing party parent to recoup reasonable attorney’s fees and costs, given that the parent is usually the person prosecuting a matter on behalf of his/her child. The school district can extend a settlement offer to the parent at least ten days before the dispute reaches an administrative hearing (known as the “ten-day offer”). The ten-day offer allows a school district to limit its exposure to fees by limiting a parent’s eligibility for fees to those accrued before the time of the ten-day offer. If the parent rejects the ten-day offer, the parent may only receive post-offer fees if the administrative hearing leads to more favorable relief than that expressed in the offer or the parent was substantially justified in rejecting the offer.
These ten-day offer principles fully were in play in Rena C. v. Colonial School Dist., No. 17-1161 (3d Cir. May 14, 2018) (published as precedential).
What happened in Rena C. was that the school district extended a 10-day offer in this form: “This offer is also being made in order to further limit the School District’s possible prevailing party attorney fee attorney liability. The School District offers to pay private school tuition and transportation for Parent’s unilateral placement at Delaware Valley Friends School.”
Rena C. (the parent) rejected the offer but moved to later recover $70,000 in IDEA fees before the district court, after the parent failed to “beat” the ten-day offer based on the result in the administrative hearing, as later interpretations by the district judge and circuit court of appeals confirmed. The district judge, however, only awarded parent $7,438 in pre-offer fees because she did not receive more favorable relief at the administrative level and she was not substantially justified in rejecting the offer.
Parent appealed to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals (based in Philadelphia), and obtained a 3-0 reversal so that she could seek post-offer fees too—with the majority opinion authored by Circuit Judge Fisher and a concurring opinion authored by Circuit Judge Greenaway, Jr.
Lots of arguments were raised by parent, some of which did not resonate and some of which did.
Although disturbed by the terseness of the ten-day offer, the Third Circuit found that the “tuition” offer did include the cost of one-on-one instruction and “stay-put” rights at the private school, meaning the offer was valid and parent did not receive more favorable relief before the administrative law officer. Nonetheless, and in an important holding, the circuit court found parent was substantially justified in rejecting the ten-day offer because the absence of language dealing with attorney’s fees in the offer provided justification for rejection. In doing so, it agreed with reasoning from the D.D.C. and did not adopt the rationale from a Fifth Circuit decision.
In his concurring opinion, Circuit Judge Greenway, Jr. had two main points to make: (1) school districts need to extend offers with more clarity than the one in the case before the circuit court, especially defining exactly what “tuition” means and making clear whether fees and costs are encompassed; and (2) parties in IDEA disputes should communicate more effectively regarding ten-day offers so as to facilitate clarification and possibilities of reaching a resolution based on those post-offer discussions.
BLOG OBSERVATION—Co-contributor Mike attended Rutgers-Camden School of Law which is across the Delaware River and nearby Philadelphia, the base of the Third Circuit. He externed his third year for Circuit Judge (now deceased) Arlin M. Adams, who on two occasions was on the short list of putative SCOTUS candidates. Mike remembers him as a very smart, sincere, interactive jurist who he recalls very fondly.