Friday, May 25, 2007

Supreme Court Holds that Parents Can Pursue IDEA Claims in Federal Court

The United States Supreme Court has held that parents seeking to enforce rights granted to their children under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) have independent, enforceable rights, which are not limited to procedural and reimbursement-related matters but encompass the entitlement to a free appropriate public education for their child and that these right may be enforced by the parents in the federal courts on their own behalf without the assistance of legal counsel.

In Winkelman v. Parma City School District, decided May 21, 2007, the Court reversed the order of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals dismissing the Winkelmans’ appeal unless they obtained counsel to represent their son, Jacob.

The Sixth Circuit relied on Cavanaugh v. Cardinal Local School Dist., 409 F. 3d 753 (2005), where the Court of Appeals had rejected the proposition that IDEA allows nonlawyer parents raising IDEA claims to proceed pro se in federal court. The court ruled that the right to a free appropriate public education “belongs to the child alone,” 409 F. 3d, at 757, not to both the parents and the child. It followed, the court held, that “any right on which the [parents] could proceed on their own behalf would be derivative” of the child’s right, ibid., so that parents bringing IDEA claims were not appearing on their own behalf.

The Supreme Court reversed, concluding that IDEA grants parents independent, enforceable rights. These rights, which are not limited to certain procedural and reimbursement-related matters, encompass the entitlement to a free appropriate public education for the parents’ child.

The Court stated that the Court of Appeals erred when it dismissed the Winkelmans’ appeal for lack of counsel. Parents enjoy rights under IDEA; and they are, as a result, entitled to prosecute IDEA claims on their own behalf.

View the Decision (Legal Information Institute - Cornell Law School)