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Legal Memorandum: IDEA's Attorney's Fees Provision in NJ

Issue: In New Jersey, whether a parent may recover attorneys’ fees following a stipulated settlement granting them the relief requested under the IDEA only after an attorney’s involvement.

Area of Law: Education Law
Keywords: Recover attorneys' fees; IDEA 2004; Fee-shifting provision
Jurisdiction: New Jersey
Cited Cases: 532 U.S. 598; 290 F.3d 159; 849 F. Supp. 312; 318 F.3d 545; 786 A.2d 907; 29 F. Supp. 2d 214
Cited Statutes: 20 U.S.C. § 1415; 1415(i)(3)
Date: 07/01/2006

While the catalyst theory formerly allowed for a fee award under circumstances in which the mere threat of litigation brought about the desired outcome, that theory was explicitly rejected by the United States Supreme Court in Buckhannon Bd. & Care Home v. West Va. Dep’t of Health & Human Res., 532 U.S. 598 (2001).

Since the 2001 Buckhannon decision, the Third Circuit, as well as most other courts across the country, have required some sort of judicial involvement to confer prevailing party status.  A review of the IDEA 2004 is necessary to determine whether Congress may disapprove of the treatment given § 1415’s fee-shifting provision.  Although IDEA 2004 contains some amendments to the fee-shifting statute, it has not changed the provision as it existed at the time of the Buckhannon decision, supporting the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the statute.

Concerning the intention that without a fee award in such situations, every attorney will clog up administrative and judicial dockets with unnecessary filings in order to recover their fees, the Third Circuit has addressed that point in John T. v. Delaware County Intermediate Unit, 318 F.3d 545 (3d Cir. 2003).  There, the court reasoned that every fee award is discretionary and that an unnecessary filing solely for the purpose of receiving a fee award can be denied by the court.

The following cases are also relevant:

E.M. v. Millville Bd. of Educ., 849 F. Supp. 312 (D.N.J. […]

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