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Supreme Court Decision Update - Arlington Central School District Board of Education v. Murphy

supreme2.jpgIn the first of five decisions handed down to us by the Supreme Court today, the Supremes tackle the issue of who should pay for expert fees under the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) in Arlington Central School District Board of Education v. Murphy (PDF of the opinion).

QuizLaw Analysis: In the first of many cases expected this week, the Supremes further signal their shift to the right, as newly appointed Justice Alito sides with the Man, holding that expert fees in IDEA cases are to be borne by the parents, even if they prevail in their case.

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Act, parents are permitted to sue a school board to recover tuition and other fees for students who need additional assistance because of disabilities. Here, the Murphy family sued the Arlington Central School District Board of Education (Arlington) and successfully forced Arlington to pay for their son’s private school education for a specified number of years. As prevailing parents, the Murphys were also entitled to attorneys fees, which they were awarded. However, the Murphy’s also sought nearly $30,000 for expert fees.

The question posed to the court, then, was whether IDEA authorized prevailing parents to recover expert fees. In a 6-3 decision, the Supremes decided that it does not. In an opinion written by Justice Alito, the court’s majority held that, though IDEA does provide for “reasonable attorneys’ fees” it doesn’t even “hint that acceptance of IDEA funds makes a State responsible for reimbursing prevailing parents for the services of experts.” According to the Court, the Spending Clause — which IDEA was enacted pursuant to — requires that the terms of funding be “unambiguous,” and that spending must be specifically authorized. Under IDEA, there is no provision allowing for “expert fees.” Indeed, the use of “costs” in the language of IDEA, instead of “expenses,” strongly suggests that Congress did not intend for states to pick up the bill for expert fees. In other words, for the majority, it came down to the difference of meaning between the terms “costs” and “expenses.” Attorneys’ fees apparently fit under the term “costs,” and expert fees fit under the term “expenses,” for which there is no recovery under IDEA.

Justice Ginsberg filed a concurring opinion, agreeing with the Court’s decision but disagreeing with its reliance on the Spending Clause. Ginsberg would read the language of IDEA not to allow for expert fees, but she just would not rely on the Spending Clause to come to that conclusion.

Justice Breyer wrote the dissent, which Stevens and Souter joined. In the dissenting opinion, Breyer agreed with the majority’s reading of IDEA, but concluded that expert fees would fall under “costs” because there is no clear definition for that term in IDEA. Breyer offered an abundance of legislative history to support Congress’ intent to have expert fees paid for by the state (but, as we know, the right side of the court doesn’t like legislative history). Furthermore, even disregarding the statute’s legislative history, he noted that paying for expert fees is within the sprit of the IDEA’s intent, which is to provide for a free and public education. If parents have to pay for expert fees, then — even when they prevail in their case — public education is not free, particularly where (as in this case), the prevailing parents have to pay $30,000.

Justice Souter wrote another dissenting opinion, basically just to give a shout out to Breyer and applaud him for his reasoning.