C.W. v. Capistrano Unified School District, __ F.3d __ (9th Cir. 2015) [2015 WL 1566942].
C.W. was eligible for special education services, and her parent, K.S., agreed to an occupational therapy (“OT”) assessment following a triennial assessment. During the IEP meeting to review the OT assessment, the Parent called the assessment “stupid” and then later sought an independent educational evaluation (“IEE”) at public expense. The District initiated a due process hearing 40 days later concerning two issues: whether the OT assessment was appropriate; and whether the District unnecessarily delayed filing its due process complaint. The ALJ concluded that the District’s OT assessment was appropriate, and that the District had not delayed in filing for due process; therefore the District was not obligated to publicly fund the IEE.
After losing the hearing, the Parent’s attorney wrote the District’s attorney indicating that the Parent would forego an appeal if the District agreed to fund the IEE and pay $12,500 in attorneys’ and costs for legal representation. The District declined the offer, and expressed its opinion that any appeal would be frivolous and that it reserved its right to seek sanctions. The Parent filed an appeal anyway, claiming that the assessment failed to comply with Education Code section 56327 because it did not explicitly state that C.W. was eligible for special education and related services. The Parent’s suit also included claims for intimidation under the ADA; retaliation under Section 1983; and retaliation under Section 504, all based on the District’s attorney’s letter. The District Court dismissed all of the non-IDEA claims with prejudice, and also granted summary judgment in favor of the District on the IDEA appeal. The Court then invited the District to file a request for attorneys’ fees because the “bases for appeal [were] frivolous,” and ultimately awarded the District $96,660.55 in fees and costs. The Parent appealed the District Court’s decision to the Ninth Circuit.
The Ninth Circuit affirmed in part and reversed in part, and remanded to the District Court to determine the appropriate amount of fees for the time attributable to defending against solely the frivolous claims. The Court emphasized that for a claim to be frivolous, the “result [must be] obvious” or the arguments “wholly without merit.” “Moreover, when there is very little case law on point and a claim raises a novel question, the claim is much less likely to be considered frivolous.” The Court ruled that because there was “some basis” for the Parent’s belief that the OT assessment was inappropriate, the claim was not frivolous under the IDEA. In addition, her retaliation claim under Section 504 was not frivolous because there was at least some factual and legal basis for this theory, according to the Court.
However, the Court found that the claims under the ADA and Section 1983 were frivolous from their inception. Specifically, the Court agreed that “[b]y its own terms, protection under the ADA against intimidation does not extend to a plaintiff’s attempts to exercise rights granted or protected by the IDEA – the basis of [the Parent’s] claim in this case.” In addition, there was never a claim for damages under Section 1983 because such claims are not available against California school districts, and there was never a basis for injunctive relief either “because K.S. failed to indicate what she sought to enjoin or what injunctive relief would be possible in this case.”
This decision reinforces the high threshold that a district must cross in order to obtain attorneys’ fees against a parent or her attorney under the IDEA, particularly given that IDEA claims are so fact-intensive and often turn on the question of what is “appropriate” for a child. But, the decision also sends a strong message to parents’ attorneys to think carefully about the claims they include in lawsuits challenging districts’ actions, and whether a legal and factual basis exists to support those claims. The decision also clarifies that no cause of action under the ADA exists for pursuit of IDEA rights.