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Due to an educational disability, Rena Castrovillo asked the Colonial School District to place her daughter in private school.
District officials were unwilling, at first, so the mother filed for an administrative hearing. Before the hearing, however, they offered to make the placement.
The problem was, they weren't going to pay her attorney's fees. In Rena C. v. Colonial School District, the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals said that was a mistake.
It came down to a matter of money and timing.
Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a school district can make a "ten-day offer," which is an offer at least 10 days before a hearing that limits parents' ability to receive attorney's fees if they prevail at the hearing.
If a parent rejects an offer and prevails at the hearing, fees are limited for work done after the time of the offer. It depends on whether the hearing results are better than the offer and whether the parent is "substantially justified" in rejecting the offer.
After prevailing at her hearing, Castrovillo made a claim for attorney's fees in federal court. The trial judge said she was not entitled to fees after the offer because the hearing results were not better.
The appeals court reversed and remanded the matter to the trial judge to calculate attorney's fees. The panel said that Castrovillo was subtantially justified in refusing Colonial's offer.
In its offer, the district agreed to pay for tuition and transportation to private school. Castrovillo rejected this because the offer had not been approved by the school board and it did not include attorney's fees.
In court, Castrovillo requested about $70,000 in fees for all the work her attorney had done. But the trial judge granted only $7,438, limiting the award to fees earned before the district's offer.
The Third Circuit, however, said Castrovillo justifiably rejected the offer because parents shouldn't have to choose between settling and paying their lawyers.
"A school district seeking to settle a dispute in which a lawyer has been involved should acknowledge that the parent has accrued attorney's fees and should clearly state if its offer includes the payment of any fees," Judge D. Michael wrote for the court. "A parent is substantially justified in rejecting an offer that does not include the payment of reasonable attorney's fees when the school district cannot reasonably believe that no attorney's fees have accrued."
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