Attorney’s Fees and Frivolous Lawsuits
Several weeks ago, I talked about reimbursement for attorney’s fees and costs in special education matters. I explained that if a parent files a complaint for a due process hearing to litigate a special education matter–and the parent prevails–the school district may have to reimburse the parent attorney’s fees and costs.
This is a very important issue because if the parent prevails, she not only gets some or all of the remedies that she sought on behalf of her special needs child, but she also gets reimbursed for some or all of the legal expenses paid out of pocket.
Now, I want to talk about what could happen if the parent files a frivolous lawsuit.
Although it is not common, it is possible that if a parent files a complaint for a due process hearing against a school district, the school district can sue the parent for attorney’s fees and costs. Fortunately, however, the circumstances upon which the parent may be liable for attorney’s fees and costs are limited.
Perhaps the clearest circumstance in which the parent may be liable for attorney’s fees and costs is when the parent files a frivolous lawsuit. Simply stated, a frivolous lawsuit is a lawsuit that has no merit. Thus, in a situation where a parent files a frivolous lawsuit and loses the case, a court may order the parent to reimburse the school district for attorney’s fees and costs.
Even if a parent files a legitimate complaint, another scenario in which a parent could be liable for attorney’s fees and costs is when a parent continues to litigate the case long after the issues have been settled.
By way of example, there was a recent federal case where a school district filed a federal lawsuit seeking an award of attorney’s fees and costs. In that case, the attorney had continued to litigate the issues even after the school district had agreed to offer all of the relief that the parents sought. The district court determined that the school district was the prevailing party and awarded the school district $10,000. In 2010, the Fifth Circuit upheld the $10,000 award. See El Paso Independent School District v. Berry.
Although it is not common for school districts to seek attorney’s fees and costs from parents in special education matters, parents must nonetheless ensure that their complaints are legitimate and continue to be legitimate throughout the course of the litigation to avoid liability. It is critical to keep in mind all of the pieces of the puzzle and how these pieces fit together.
It is always a good idea to speak with an attorney to ensure that your case has merit. In special education matters, it is advisable to speak with an attorney who is knowledgeable about special education laws and regulations.