S.M. is a minor with a disability under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). His school, St. Tammany Parish (Louisiana), proposed changing S.M.'s Individualized Education Program so that he would no longer attend classes at the school and instead receive at-home tutoring. S.M.'s mother refused to consent to the change. S.M.'s parents requested a due process hearing challenging the school's decision and argued that S.M. should be permitted to attend classes at the school pending resolution of the dispute pursuant to the IDEA's stay-put provision. The stay-put provision guarantees an order that prohibits a school from removing a child from his or her current placement during the pendency of due process proceedings.
The Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) granted Plaintiffs' request for a stay-put order, explaining that under the IDEA, a stay-put order is not a decision on the merits of the case. Instead, it maintains the status quo during the pendency of the due process proceedings. The parties subsequently reached a settlement and the ALJ terminated the pending administrative hearing. Plaintiffs then filed suit in district court seeking attorneys' fees related to the administrative proceedings. Under the IDEA, a court may award reasonable attorneys' fees to a prevailing party who is the parent of a child with a disability. The district court held that Plaintiffs were the prevailing party for this purpose and St. Tammany Parish appealed.
On appeal, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals explained that for purposes of obtaining attorneys' fees under the IDEA, a prevailing party must have "obtained a judgment on the merits, a consent decree, or some similar form of judicially sanctioned relief." It found that the ALJ's stay-put order was not a ruling on the merits. Rather, the order is automatic. The Court noted that the ALJ's order itself stated that there was no determination on the merits of the case.
The Court also found that the stay-put order is not a "similar form of judicially sanctioned relief" because that requires the prevailing party to achieve a "material alteration of the legal relationship of the parties." The Court reasoned that the stay-put order was automatic and did not permanently alter the legal relationship of the parties. Instead, it merely provided that S.M. could continue with his prior educational program until a decision on the merits was made.
The Court, therefore, found that Plaintiffs were not entitled to attorneys' fees.
Tina M. and Shannon M. v. St. Tammany Parish School Board (2016) 816 F.3d 57.