« Who the hell would fight over a Tommy Tutone song? | Main | Los Angeles Count v. Rettele »

Supreme Court Decision Update - Winkelman v. Parma City School District

school.jpgWinkelman v. Parma City School District (PDF of the Opinion) is a fairly straightforward IDEA case (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), which provides free appropriate public education (FAPE). The case concerned an autistic kid, Jacob Winkelman, from Ohio, whose parents wanted to sue under IDEA but were effectively barred from doing so because they could not afford a lawyer — they had already spent $30,000 of their own money on legal fees, and one of the parents had even taken a stab at writing legal briefs. The parents objected to the school’s plan, which would’ve put Jacob in public schooling. They wanted to enroll him in private school and wanted the school district to shell out the $56,000 enrollment costs the private school, which specialized in autism, charged.

So, the legal issue here is whether parents are required to hire a lawyer to sue the school district over their child’s special needs. To answer that question, one needs to first decide if IDEA applies only to the child, or if it covers the parents, as well.

Writing for the 7-2 majority, Justice Kennedy said that parents could sue without hiring a lawyer. He concluded that parents do, indeed, have administrative rights under IDEA:

These provisions confirm that IDEA, through its text and structure, creates in parents an independent stake not only in the procedures and costs implicated by this process but also in the substantive decisions to be made. We therefore conclude that IDEA does not differentiate, through isolated references to various procedures and remedies, between the rights accorded to children and the rights accorded to parents.

Scalia, just to be the contrarian, wrote a separate opinion, joining in part in Kennedy’s opinion but dissenting from another part (Thomas joined him — kiss up). Basically, Scalia said that parents do have the right to proceed pro se under IDEA “when they seek reimbursement for private school expenses or redress for violations of their own procedural rights, but not when they seek a judicial determination that their child’s free appropriate public education (or FAPE) is substantively inadequate.” So, in other words, Scalia asserts that IDEA applied to both children and parents, but that FAPE only applies to the child.