In C.W. v. Capistrano Unified School Dist., published March 2, 2015, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed in part and reversed in part a district court order granting attorney fees to a school district as the prevailing defendant in a special education case. After the district brought a due process hearing over a dispute concerning the subject child's occupational therapy assessment, and prevailed, the parent's attorney wrote the district that the parent would forego an appeal to the district court if the district agreed to fund an independent evaluation and pay the parent's attorney's fees and costs. The district responded that it reserved the right to seek sanctions against the parent and her attorneys if the parent appealed the administrative decision. The parent then brought both an appeal from the administrative decision, under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, in the district court; and a retaliation claim under the ADA, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and 42 U.S.C. section 1983 (under the First Amendment) based on the district's letter threatening sanctions. The district court affirmed the administrative decision, dismissed the retaliation claim, and awarded the district nearly $100,000 in fees and costs against the parent and her attorneys.
The Ninth Circuit ruled that fee awards to prevailing defendants under the fee provisions of the IDEA, 20 U.S.C. 1414(i)(3)(B)(i)(II)-(III), for frivolous claims should be governed by the standards of fee awards to defendants under 42 U.S.C. section 1988; the portion that allows fees against parents or parents' attorneys if a claim is brought for an improper purpose is governed by the standards of FRCP 11. A claim may be deemed frivolous only when the result is obvious, or the arguments are wholly without merit. Where there is very little case law on point and a claim raises a novel question, it is much less likely to be considered frivolous. A frivolous claim is brought for an improper purpose if brought, to harass, cause unnecessary delay, or needlessly increase the cost of litigation.
Under these tests, the appeal of the administrative decision was not frivolous. Although the parent's arguments were poorly pled and argued, according to the court, the outcome was not obvious and the arguments raised substantive issues, with little case law on point. The ADA intimidation claim and section 1983 claim were frivolous. Section 1983 claims for damages are not permitted against school districts, and no ADA intimidation claim is available regarding exercise of rights under the IDEA, the basis of the parent's claims in this case. The section 504 retaliation claim was not frivolous. The district court erred in finding the frivolous claims were brought for an improper purpose (purportedly to extort money the plaintiff would not otherwise be entitled to); the letters exchanged were insufficient to show an improper purpose. The court remanded the fee award for recalculation. A dissenting judge would have denied fees entirely.