IDEA decision from US Supreme Court!


New Member
Hi all:

I just spotted the news that the US Supreme Court has decided the IDEA case where the issue was whether parents could represent their children rather than needing to hire a lawyer. The parents won! This is great news for those who can't afford lawyers to try to enforce our kids rights under IDEA.

Here is the opinion:

Here's a quote: "we find nothing in the statute to indicate that when Congress required States to provide adequate instruction to a child 'at no cost to parents,' it intended that only some parents would be able to enforce that mandate."



Access Eleanor's link at for internal links in the document. (Cut and pasted -- I hate to go back an look for docs when they change the we address. lol)

Reversed and remanded.

WINKELMAN, a minor, by and through his parents and legal guardians, WINKELMAN et ux., et al. v. PARMA CITY SCHOOL DISTRICT

certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the sixth circuit


No. 05–983. Argued February 27, 2007—Decided May 21, 2007


Respondent school district receives federal funds under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (Act or IDEA), so it must provide children such as petitioner Winkelmans’ son Jacob a “free appropriate public education,” 20 U. S. C. §1400(d)(1)(A), in accordance with an individualized education program (IEP) that the parents, school officials, and others develop as members of the student’s IEP Team. Regarding Jacob’s IEP as deficient, the Winkelmans unsuccessfully appealed through IDEA’s administrative review process. Proceeding without counsel, they then filed a federal-court complaint on their own behalf and on Jacob’s behalf. The District Court granted respondent judgment on the pleadings. The Sixth Circuit entered an order dismissing the Winkelmans’ subsequent appeal unless they obtained an attorney, citing Circuit precedent holding that because the right to a free appropriate public education belongs only to the child, and IDEA does not abrogate the common-law rule prohibiting nonlawyer parents from representing minor children, IDEA does not allow nonlawyer parents to proceed pro se in federal court.


1. IDEA grants parents 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. Pp. 4–17.

(a) IDEA’s text resolves the question whether parents or only children have rights under the Act. Proper interpretation requires considering the entire statutory scheme. IDEA’s goals include “ensur[ing] that all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education” and “that the rights of children with disabilities and parents of such children are protected,” 20 U. S. C. §§1400(d)(1)(A)–(B), and many of its terms mandate or otherwise describe parental involvement. Parents play “a significant role,” Schaffer v. Weast, 546 U. S. 49 , in the development of each child’s IEP, see §§1412(a)(4), 1414(d). They are IEP team members, §1414(d)(1)(B), and their “concerns” “for enhancing [their child’s] education” must be considered by the team, §1414(d)(3)(A)(ii). A State must, moreover, give “any party” who objects to the adequacy of the education provided, the IEP’s construction, or related matter the opportunity “to present a complaint … ,” §1415(b)(6), and engage in an administrative review process that culminates in an “impartial due process hearing,” §1415(f)(1)(A), before a hearing officer. “Any party aggrieved by the [hearing officer’s] findings and decision … [has] the right to bring a civil action with respect to the complaint.” §1415(i)(2)(A). A court or hearing officer may require a state agency “to reimburse the parents … for the cost of [private school] enrollment if … the agency had not made a free appropriate public education available to the child.” §1412(a)(10)(C)(ii). IDEA also governs when and to what extent a court may award attorney’s fees, see §1415(i)(3)(B), including an award “to a prevailing party who is the parent of a child with a disability,” §1415(i)(3)(B)(i)(I). Pp. 5–9.

(b) These various provisions accord parents independent, enforceable rights. Parents have enforceable rights at the administrative stage, and it would be inconsistent with the statutory scheme to bar them from continuing to assert those rights in federal court at the adjudication stage. Respondent argues that parental involvement is contemplated only to the extent parents represent their child’s interests, but this view is foreclosed by the Act’s provisions. The grammatical structure of IDEA’s purpose of protecting “the rights of children with disabilities and parents of such children,” §1400(d)(1)(B), would make no sense unless “rights” refers to the parents’ rights as well as the child’s. Other provisions confirm this view. See, e.g., §1415(a). Even if this Court were inclined to ignore the Act’s plain text and adopt respondent’s countertextual reading, the Court disagrees that sole purpose driving IDEA’s involvement of parents is to facilitate vindication of a child’s rights. It is not novel for parents to have a recognized legal interest in their child’s education and upbringing.

The Act’s provisions also contradict the variation on respondent’s argument that parents can be “parties aggrieved” for aspects of the hearing officer’s findings and decision relating to certain procedures and reimbursements, but not “parties aggrieved” with regard to any challenge not implicating those limited concerns. The IEP proceedings entitle parents to participate not only in the implementation of IDEA’s procedures but also in the substantive formulation of their child’s educational program. The Act also allows expansive challenge by parents of “any matter” related to the proceedings and requires that administrative resolution be based on whether the child “received a free appropriate public education,” §§1415(f)(3(E), with judicial review to follow. The text and structure of IDEA create in parents an independent stake not only in the procedures and costs implicated by the process but also in the substantive decision to be made. Incongruous results would follow, moreover, were the Court to accept the proposition that parents’ IDEA rights are limited to certain nonsubstantive matters. It is difficult to disentangle the Act’s procedural and reimbursement-related rights from its substantive ones, and attempting to do so would impose upon parties a confusing and onerous legal regime, one worsened by the absence of any express guidance in IDEA concerning how a court might differentiate between these matters. This bifurcated regime would also leave some parents without any legal remedy. Pp. 9–16.

(c) Respondent misplaces its reliance on Arlington Central School Dist. Bd. of Ed. v. Murphy, 548 U. S. ___, when it contends that because IDEA was passed pursuant to the Spending Clause, it must provide clear notice before it can be interpreted to provide independent rights to parents. Arlington held that IDEA had not furnished clear notice before requiring States to reimburse experts’ fees to prevailing parties in IDEA actions. However, this case does not invoke Arlington’s rule, for the determination that IDEA gives parents independent, enforceable rights does not impose any substantive condition or obligation on States that they would not otherwise be required by law to observe. The basic measure of monetary recovery is not expanded by recognizing that some rights repose in both the parent and the child. Increased costs borne by States defending against suits brought by nonlawyers do not suffice to invoke Spending Clause concerns, particularly in light of provisions in IDEA that empower courts to award attorney’s fees to prevailing educational agencies if a parent files an action for an “improper purpose,” §1415(i)(3)(B)(i)(III). Pp. 16–17.

2. The Sixth Circuit erred in dismissing the Winkelmans’ appeal for lack of counsel. Because parents enjoy rights under IDEA, they are entitled to prosecute IDEA claims on their own behalf. In light of this holding, the Court need not reach petitioners’ argument concerning whether IDEA entitles parents to litigate their child’s claims pro se. Pp. 17–18.

Reversed and remanded.

Kennedy, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C. J., and Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Alito, JJ., joined. Scalia, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment in part and dissenting in part, in which Thomas, J., joined.


Hi everyone,

Here are some comments on the Winkelman case written by an attorney friend of mine who occasionally has lurked here. I thought you might find it interesting.

<span style="color: #FF0000">Atty: Here are some more comments about Winkelman.

I consider the Winkelman case quite important because it gives parents standing. Agencies love to shut people out of review proceedings by asserting they lack standing. The door is open now; there is no doubt about that</span>

<span style="color: #3333FF">Martie: You exceed my knowledge: I know what “standing” means, but is that the same concept as what I said about parents having rights under IDEA that are separate from their children’s rights?

<span style="color: #FF0000">Atty: Yes, you are on the right track. I know how lawyers think and the SD lawyers would have argued the act was intended to benefit children, not parents, and the children naturally could not assert their rights. How could they? They were mere children, and if the parents’ arguments were correct the children were [also] disabled. It would be a specious and cynical argument, but one that school board lawyers would have asserted. I have attached a printout of the Winkelman case with this message, and I have highlighted some of the arguments Justice Scalia makes in his dissent. He is presenting this specious and cynical argument in a veiled way. Notice that he believes parents might present meritorious appeals if they are seeking MONEY, but not if they are seeking a good education for their children :frown: . Justice Scalia argues, in effect, your work [as a advocate] inherently tends to be unmeritorious. What a loathsome person he is!</span>


Justice SCALIA, with whom Justice THOMAS joins, concurring in the judgment in part and dissenting in part:

I would hold that parents have the right to proceed pro se under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq. (2000 ed. and Supp. IV), 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

. . .

Pro se cases impose unique burdens on lower courts-and on defendants, in this case the schools and school districts that must hire their own lawyers. Since pro se complaints are prosecuted essentially for free, without screening by knowledgeable attorneys, they are much more likely to be unmeritorious.
And for courts to figure them out without the assistance of plaintiff's counsel is much more difficult and time-consuming. In both categories of pro se parental suit permitted under a proper interpretation of the statute, one or the other of these burdens is reduced. Actions seeking reimbursement are less likely to be frivolous, since not many parents will be willing to lay out the money for private education without some solid reason to believe the FAPE was inadequate.


I responded as follows:

<span style="color: #3333FF">Martie: Thank you for explaining Winkelman further to me. What Scalia is also saying is really grounded in a lot of case law about parent recovery after the fact for private tuition expenditures which are only available to a very limited set of parents. Saying a priori tuition expenditures by parents reduce the chances of frivolous lawsuits is just another way of saying that it is burdensome enough to have to put up with pro se litigants, but at least it can be limited to those rich enough to pay private tuition (sometimes for years) before we have to be “annoyed” by them. It is also true, however, that he values money more that FAPE, as you said. Sandra Day O’Connor shot this money before FAPE down hard in the Shannon Carter case—O’Connor was so sarcastic—it was GREAT… However, Scalia has forgotten what the court did in Weast because pro se cases are hardly free in that experts are not reimbursable and they certainly do not work for free. It is easier for a poor parent to get legal representation pro bono than it is to get expert evaluations and testimony pro bono. This is in part because law schools maintain legal clinics, and some of them are interested in Special Education law---psychiatric departments have no analog. The other reason is psychologists and M.D.s are insufficiently committed to social justice in my opinion. </span>

The bottom line here is I have been hearing from students since Monday with most of them asking if this will make a difference. It will not in practice because very few parents are capable of doing what the Winkelman's did. However, for the SC to have ruled the other way, would have just about gutted parents' rights--so the decision is very important AND it was 5-2 with Scalia and Thomas dissenting (of course.)

The important thing for most people is that SELF-EDUCATION is available to all parents and makes it more likely that difficult children will get FAPE without going to Due Process let alone court. In this area, we can all improve and hopefully, prevail in time to help our difficult children.

Best to you all,

Martie :warrior:


member since 1999
Too bad nobody bothered to point out to Justice Scalia that the SDs have the equal opportunity to represent themselves pro se. There's no burden under IDEA *requiring* SDs to hire these hot shot high priced attorneys, is there? Boy, wouldn't it be nice to have a level playing field, for once.

Scalia has obviously never had to fight for FAPE in LRE. Honestly, the emotional toll and amount of time spent trying to fight for the most basic of rights under IDEA with some SDs cannot possibly be compensated for in any currency.


I am still getting questions about this decision. It is MUCH more important psychologically than practically for most parents.

Most (myself included) would not want to go into Federal district court pro se. However, the decision ALSO says that parents have rights under IDEA that are independent of their disabled child's rights. This is important to all and gives parents "standing" to fight more effectively at every level.

Indirectly, it boosts parents' role as participating members of the IEP team which DOES affect everyone.



New Member
Martie: I agree with your point that the decision is maybe more important psychologically than as a practical matter. Still, I think it should give parents a sense of empowerment that they otherwise might not have had. I tend to think (color me cynical) that school districts will often resist providing what is required under IDEA with the understanding that they are dealing with a family with limited resources, and that the district can simply outlast the family in the dispute. While the Winkelman decision isn't going to undo that attitude, maybe the knowledge that they may end up dealing with parents representing themselves in federal court will encourage them to take more seriously the issues before the case gets that far. After all, the cost of litigation for the district remains as large (if not actually larger) when an unrepresented parent is pursuing the case.

With that said, though, I have to say that the chance of actually winning (or even getting a good settlement) probably isn't that great without a lawyer. So while the case is a major victory for parents, it sure doesn't solve our problems with the legal system, does it?