(CN) – An Arizona family does not have to pay $130,000 in legal fees to the school district they sued unsuccessfully over their autistic son’s education, the 9th Circuit ruled Friday. “They shouldn’t have to face financial ruin for attempting to vindicate the rights of their disabled child,” Chief Judge Alex Kozinski wrote for the court’s three-judge panel.
The federal appeals panel in San Francisco reversed a District Court’s ruling that the parents, who sued the Prescott Unified School District anonymously, should pay legal fees for the defendants over their allegedly frivolous lawsuit.
Calling the District Court’s interpretation of the section of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) related to legal fees “procrustean,” Kozinski warned that such an arbitrary reading could have far-ranging and negative effects on future IDEA lawsuits.
“Lawyers would be improperly discouraged from taking on potentially meritorious IDEA cases if they risked being saddled with a six-figure judgment for bringing a suit where they have a plausible, though ultimately unsuccessful, argument, as here,” he wrote.
C.P., who is autistic, attended public school in the small town of Prescott, Ariz., about two hours north of Phoenix. His parents filed an administrative complaint against the school district under IDEA in 2003, because they were unhappy with the child’s progress. They alleged that the district had failed to provide C.P. with a proper education as required by the act.
An administrative law judge found for the school district, and the District Court both upheld the judge’s ruling and slapped the parents and their lawyer with more $130,000 in legal fees, calling the lawsuit unfounded, frivolous and improperly motivated by anger.
The 9th Circuit on Friday upheld the District Court’s findings in favor of the school district on the IDEA claims, but came down squarely on the side of the parents on the legal-fees issues.
“In fact, anger is a legitimate reaction by parties who believe that their rights have been violated or ignored,” Kozinski wrote. “One of the roles of the adversarial system is to peaceably resolve disputes that give rise to personal animosity by channeling that indignation into a lawful resolution in lieu of feuding or personal violence. So long as the claim raised is not frivolous, and the litigation is not being pursued in order to achieve an illegitimate objective (such as harassment, delay or imposing unnecessary costs on the opposing party), an award of fees … is not justified.”
Kozinski added that the parents’ complaint was not unfounded or frivolous because the problems they had with their child’s education could have been fixed by the district if the decision had gone the other way.
“Here, the parents had a statutory remedy available that would arguably have provided additional educational benefit to C.P., had they prevailed,” the ruling states. “They made plausible arguments as to why they should prevail; the fact that the arguments were not successful doesn’t make them frivolous.”