A recent decision from the federal court in Beaumont illustrates what much of special education litigation is about these days. It’s not about services to the student. It’s about attorneys’ fees.
The basic rule is that parents who prevail in a special education due process hearing are entitled to then recover their attorneys’ fees. In this case, the parents won the due process hearing with regard to some of the key issues. The district chose not to appeal the decision, and thus was obligated to provide the relief that the hearing officer ordered. The subsequent lawsuit, then, had nothing to do with services to the student. It was about how much the lawyer should be paid.
The parents’ attorney, Dorene Philpot, sought recovery of fees in federal court in the amount of $101,843.44. The district was not willing to fork over that amount, and thus the case ended up in front of Judge Marcia Crone.
Judge Crone held that the parents had indeed “prevailed” in the hearing and thus, were entitled to recover attorneys’ fees. But she reduced that award from $101,843 to $6,500. In part, this was based on a finding that the reasonable hourly rate was $250 per hour, rather than the $295 Ms. Philpot sought. But the main reason for the reduction was based on the fact that the district had made a written settlement offer prior to the due process hearing that offered more relief than the parents obtained from the hearing officer. Thus the judge disallowed recovery of any fees after the date of the settlement offer. Not only did the district’s offer provide more relief to the parent than she ultimately obtained, it also offered more to the attorney. The offer included a payment of $10,000 to Ms. Philpot.
In short, the judge concluded that the parent—and her attorney—would have been better off with the district’s settlement offer than with what they got from the hearing.
The case is a reminder of the wisdom of districts obtaining a cold hearted legal analysis of their case before going to hearing. Here, the district anticipated some legal exposure and wisely put an offer on the table in an effort to resolve the matter. Everyone would have saved a lot of time and money if that offer had been accepted.
Nor did the district’s efforts to resolve this case end with that offer. The court noted:
Further, since this case was filed, the evidence and the record clearly show that the District has acted in good faith and attempted multiple times to resolve this case, including engaging in mediation and making repeated settlement offers after the case was filed in this court, including substantial settlement offers for attorneys’ fees far above the $6,500 awarded by the court.
FOOTNOTE: The court understands that Plaintiffs were not required to accept a settlement offer. The settlement offers are referenced because Plaintiffs have repeatedly alleged in their submissions to the court that the District has “stonewalled” them; however, Plaintiffs’ allegations of stonewalling are not supported by the evidence before the court.
The case is I.W. v. Hardin-Jefferson ISD, decided by the federal court for the Eastern District of Texas on January 3, 2017.
DAWG BONE: A GOOD SETTLEMENT OFFER CAN SAVE TIME AND MONEY.
File this one under: SPECIAL EDUCATION
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