Thursday, September 27, 2007

Attorneys' fees vacated in student disability case

When a high school student in City of Newburgh was suspended for his involvement in an altercation in the hallway, his lawyers went to court seeking a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction, arguing that the school district did not properly determine whether this misconduct was a manifestation of his disability. The district court granted the injunction in May 2004, agreeing that the student had a case under the law governing the treatment of special education students, the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act. Although the lawyers did not exhaust all state administrative remedies before bringing the lawsuit, the district court ruled that such exhaustion would have been futile because the state administrative process was not fast enough to allow the student to return to school and graduate on time.

The Court of Appeals reversed that determination on September 25. In Coleman v. Newburgh Enlarged City School District, the Second Circuit (Walker, Straub and Winter) held firm to the view that exhaustion of state administrative procedures is mandatory before the plaintiff can seek relief in court. The exception to that rule requires a showing that exhaustion would be futile or the case presents an emergency. Without addressing the district court's finding that the timeline governing the exhaustion of state administrative remedies was not fast enough to allow the plaintiff to graduate in time, the Court instead interpreted the IDEA to mean that students do not have the right to return to school while the state administrative process unfolds so long as the school provides home tutoring. The Court further held that students do not have the right under IDEA to graduate on time; they only have the right to a free and appropriate public education. The fact that plaintiff was due to miss graduation without injunctive relief does not create an emergency under IDEA since the "emergency exception" to that statute is limited to cases where the student will suffer physical or emotional injury without court intervention.

The irony of this case is that, after the district court granted the preliminary injunction, the student returned to school and graduated on time. The case wound up in the Court of Appeals after the district court granted plaintiff's motion for attorneys fees. The school district opposed the fee application on the basis that the failure to exhaust state administrative remedies meant that the district court had no jurisdiction to hear the case in the first place and that attorneys fees were therefore inappropriate. When the district court disagreed with that argument, the case went up to the Second Circuit, which vacated the attorneys' fee award and ruled that the district court should have dismissed the case from the outset.

Disclosure: our law firm handled the case on appeal.

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