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American Bar Association

ABA Section of Litigation
Children's Rights Litigation

Case Notes

Winkelman v. Parma City School Dist.

550 U.S. __(2007)

On May 21, 2007, the United States Supreme Court decided in Winkelman v. Parma City School Dist., No. 05-983 (May 21, 2007), 550 U.S. __(2007), that parents of children with disabilities may bring suits under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq., without representation by counsel.

The Winkelmans have a disabled son, Jacob, who, under the IDEA, is entitled to a “free appropriate public education” and an individualized education program. Parents also have a statutory right to contribute to the education program and if a parent does not agree with the school’s program, to participate in an administrative hearing. The Winkelmans worked with the school district to develop their son’s program, but could not agree. Op. at 1. Thus, pursuant to IDEA, the Winkelmans sought administrative review and after losing at the administrative level and exhausting their administrative remedies, filed suit in federal district court on their own and their son’s behalf. Op. at 2-3.

The Winkelmans challenged the administrative decision, specifically alleging that (1) their son had not been provided with a “free appropriate public education,” (2) their son did not receive a satisfactory individualized education program, and (3) the school district had failed to follow proper procedures under IDEA. Op. at 3. The district court found for the school district on the pleadings, finding that the Jacob received a free appropriate public education. The Winkelmans appealed to the Court of Appeals and the Sixth Circuit, relying on its own recent precedent, Cavanaugh v. Cardinal Local School Dist., 409 F.3d 753 (6th Cir. 2005), entered an order dismissing the appeal unless the Winkelmans obtained counsel to represent their son.

In Cavanaugh, the Sixth Circuit had found that the IDEA did not permit parents raising IDEA claims to proceed in court without counsel because the right to a free appropriate public education belonged to the child alone and not to both the parents and child. Thus, the Sixth Circuit concluded that parents bringing IDEA claims were not appearing for themselves, but for the child, which they were not permitted to do as non-lawyers. Op. at 3 citing Cavanaugh, 409 F.3d at 757. The Sixth Circuit’s decision was in conflict with a decision by the First Circuit, which found that parents had “statutory joint rights” that permitted them to assert IDEA claims on their own behalf. Op. at 4 citing Maroni v. Pemi-Baker Regional School Dist., 346 F.3d 247, 249, 250 (1st 2003). After the Sixth Circuit dismissed their appeal, the Winkelmans sought review and the Supreme Court granted certiorari to resolve the conflict in the circuits.

The Winkelmans argued that, as parents, the IDEA made them the real parties in interest in challenges to IDEA sand not merely guardians of their children’s rights. Op. at 4. As real parties in interest, they would be entitled to represent themselves in court without counsel. The parents argued that based on a “comprehensive reading of IDEA,” one must conclude that they have enforceable rights independent from their children. Op. at 5. The school district argued that there are no provisions in IDEA that provide parents with rights separate from their children and thus that “any redressable rights under the Act belong only to the children.” Id.

The Court found that “parents enjoy enforceable rights at the administrative stage, and it would be inconsistent with the statutory scheme to bar them from continuing to assert these rights in federal court.” Op. at 9. Such enforceable rights included (1) procedures to be followed to develop the child’s individual education program, (2) criteria set forth regarding whether the child’s education is sufficient, (3) mechanisms for review when the parents do not agree with the school’s plan under IDEA and (4) requirement for state to reimburse parents for certain expenses. The Court concluded that “[n]othing in these interlocking provisions excludes a parent who has exercised his or her own rights from statutory protection the moment the administrative proceedings end.” Op. at 9-10.

The Court held that “the Act does not sub silentio or by implication bar parents from seeking to vindicate the rights accorded to them once the time comes to file a civil action.” Op. at 10. Rather, because these rights, including parental involvement and review mechanisms, were available at the administrative phase, it follows that they would continue to the judicial phase. Thus, the Court interpreted the IDEA’s “references to parents’ rights to mean what they say: that IDEA includes provisions conveying rights to parents as well as to children.” Op. at 11. Accordingly, the Court reversed and remanded the Sixth Circuit’s decision.

Justice Scalia and Justice Thomas concurred in the judgment in part and dissented in part. They agreed that the parents may proceed pro se in certain circumstances, but limited to when the parents are seeking reimbursement of private school costs or when the parents are seeking review of procedural protections. The dissent found that the Court went too far “concluding that parents may proceed pro se not only when they seek reimbursement or assert procedural violations, but also when they challenge the substantive adequacy of their child’s [free appropriate public education]—so that parents may act without a lawyer in every IDEA case.” Dissent at 3.

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