When the fighting over the IEP, the IEE, the evaluation, the placement and all that is over, sometimes there is one more fight to be endured: who just won? That’s what was at stake in a case recently decided by the 5th Circuit.
The parents claimed that they were entitled to the payment of their attorneys’ fees because they were the “prevailing party.” The hearing officer who originally heard the case had ordered the school district to add “autism” as a disability category for the student. The hearing officer ruled in favor of the district on all other issues. The student’s IEP was good. She received FAPE. The district’s evaluation was properly done. The parents were not entitled to an independent evaluation at public expense. But the hearing officer did order the district to add “autism” as a disability category, and to review the student’s IEP in light of this change.
The district did that. The paperwork was changed to indicate that the student had autism, as well as an intellectual impairment. The ARD Committee reviewed the student’s IEP with this new diagnosis in mind and made the following changes: zero. The ARD Committee concluded that the new diagnosis did not warrant any changes to the IEP. The IEP already incorporated strategies from the “autism supplement.” School participants at the ARDC meeting felt that everything was good as it stood, and “Neither [the student’s] parents nor her counsel offered any suggestions for further altering her plan.”
The parents claimed that the hearing officer’s order made them the “prevailing parties” and thus the district should pay for their attorney. Nope. The 5th Circuit ruled that the hearing officer’s ruling was “the type of ‘de minimis’ or ‘technical victory’ that the Supreme Court has found so insignificant as to not create prevailing party status.”
Why would the court say that? The key point in this case is a familiar one in special education disputes: the label is not as important as the services that are provided. This is a great example of that. The district changed the label, which caused it to change nothing about the IEP. The IEP was good with the old label; and good with the new label. Key Quote:
“The IDEA concerns itself not with labels, but with whether a student is receiving a free and appropriate public education.” Heather S. v. State of Wisconsin, 125 F.3d 1045, 1055 (7th Cir. 1997). The order at issue concluded that Lauren’s existing plan provided precisely what IDEA promises—a FAPE—regardless of her diagnosis. We conclude that the order’s alteration of her diagnosis alone did not confer prevailing party status on Lauren.
The case is Lauren C. v. Lewisville ISD, decided by the 5th Circuit on September 14, 2018. We found it at 118 LRP 38037. I’m pleased to report that the district was represented by our firm in this case. Nona Matthews and Gigi Driscoll took the lead on this one at the local level, and Meredith Walker handled the 5th Circuit appeal.
DAWG BONE: IT’S IMPORTANT TO GET THE LABEL RIGHT. IT’S MORE IMPORTANT TO GET THE SERVICES RIGHT.
Tomorrow: just for laughs.