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THIRD CIRCUIT DECIDES ATTORNEY'S FEES ARE AVAILABLE IN SPECIAL EDUCATION CASE

On April 5, 2006, the Third Circuit decided P.N. v. Clementon Board of Education, a case in which ELC co-authored an amicus brief with pro bono counsel Drinker, Biddle & Reath, on behalf of ELC and a coalition of other organizations. 1 ELC also played an extensive role in directly assisting plaintiffs' counsel in writing the plaintiffs’ briefs and presenting oral argument to the Court.

The case presented the critical issue of whether “prevailing party” attorney’s fees are available to students with disabilities who resolve their educational disputes with districts via a stipulated settlement agreement entered into by an administrative law  judge.  As numerous cases are resolved favorably in this manner for students with disabilities, the Court’s ruling in the affirmative will have broad impact in special education cases. 

The Third Circuit also underscored that, whether a plaintiffs’ success in litigation is “substantial” is “largely irrelevant to a determination of whether or not they were prevailing parties.”  Rather, plaintiffs must merely succeed on any significant issue in the litigation which “achieves some of the benefit the parties sought....” (emphasis added).  The Third Circuit applied this standard to overrule the trial judge who found that Plaintiffs’ victory was too minimal to warrant an award of attorney’s fees.  The Circuit recognized that Plaintiffs had received all the relief they sought, and it was “particularly troubl[ed]” by the District Court’s holding that reimbursement of a $425 psychologist fee was “de minimis.”  Citing to the Amicus brief which detailed the important role the fee provision plays for poor parents, the Court stated that special education claims “often involve low income families raising handicapped or otherwise troubled children receiving some kind of public assistance,” and that the special education fee provision is “specifically designed to protect those families for whom $425 is not a de minimis amount of money.”

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1 The Alliance for the Betterment of Citizens with Disabilities, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, ARC of New Jersey, Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, Becoming Educated and Motivated about Education, the Center for Law and Education , the New Jersey Center for Outreach and Services for the Autism Community, Disability Rights Advocates, the Essex County Bar Association , International Dyslexia Association the National Association of Protection and Advocacy Systems, the New Jersey Coalition for Inclusive Education, Inc., New Jersey Protection and Advocacy, Inc., the Rutgers School of Law-Newark Special Education Clinic, the Special Education Leadership Council, the Statewide Parent Advocacy Network, and United Cerebral Palsy Associations.