The Third Circuit Court of Appeals Clarifies the IDEA Statute of Limitations

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals has put to rest the issue of how to apply the statute of limitations added to the IDEA in 2005 to claims that existed prior to its addition.  In the case of Steven I v. Central Bucks School District (3d. Cir. Aug. 18, 2010), the Court explained that the statute of limitations in the IDEA applies to all claims, including those that existed prior to the addition of a statute of limitations to the IDEA in 2005.

The Court, noting the numerous conflicting opinions among the District Courts of Pennsylvania on this issue, explained that the IDEA created a statute of limitations, but then gave a seven month grace period before it went into effect to allow litigants to bring claims that would become untimely under the new statute of limitations. The Court explained that retroactive changes to a statute of limitations are permissible so long as potential plaintiffs could reasonably be expected to learn of the change in the law and act to protect their ability to bring claims. The Court found the seven month grace period under the IDEA  was sufficient to do so.  


As a practical matter, this means that claims based on the IDEA from prior to July 1, 2005, are essentially dead, unless one of the two exceptions to the statute of limitations in applicable. Interestingly, there remains a dispute among the District Courts in Pennsylvania as to how to apply those exceptions and that issue was not addressed in Steven I. Perhaps the next case out of the Third Circuit will clarify that issue. 

Third Circuit offers a Lesson and Opportunity on IDEA Fee Demands

In an interesting but unpublished opinion out of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware, there is a lesson for parents’ attorneys and a possible opportunity for school districts involved in fee disputes under the IDEA. In the case of L.J. v. Audubon Board of Education (2010), after having successfully won an IDEA administrative hearing, parents’ counsel filed a fee demand of 235.8 hours at a rate of $400 per hour, which the court struck down to 177.2 hours at a rate of $250 per hour.

In reaching its conclusion, the court noted a couple of important issues. First, the fees must be reasonable and determined by the community market rate. Second, the rate needs be determined based upon the experience, skill and reputation of the lawyer involved. Finally, the court noted that the attorney petitioning for the fees has the burden of showing that the fees are reasonable and meet the standard.

For parents’ attorneys this may be a lesson to be more reasonable in fees or it may cost you, in the case of  L.J.’s counsel it cost over $50,000 in expected fees that were denied by the court. For school districts, this presents an opportunity in that perhaps sometimes it is worth challenging an unreasonable fee demand.  

And the impact of the Winkelman decision is. . . .

The U.S. Supreme Court’s May 21, 2007 decision in Winkelman v. Parma City School District says parents are permitted to represent their own special education interests in federal court.  Parents, schools, and the courts will, of course, feel the impact of this decision; only the degree of impact, particularly the amount of litigation, remains uncertain.

The Court’s actual pronouncement is not very remarkable. That parents have certain special education rights has never really been in doubt. All the decision adds is that parents have the right to enforce IDEA’s “other mandates” such as the child’s right to FAPE. “Parents may seek,” the Court wrote at page 15, “to enforce this mandate through the federal courts, we conclude, because among the rights they enjoy is the right to a free appropriate public education for their child.” (Emphasis added.)  

In other words, parents have the right to “enforce” a right, that is, the child’s right to FAPE. 

In my view, this is a case where the dissent got it right:

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