In choosing between two different constructions of a federal statute, when and to what extent should courts look to legislative history and policy goals, in addition to the plain meaning of the statute? Specifically, does the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act’s fee-shifting provision cover certain expert fees?
In prior litigation the Murphys, parents of a disabled youth, were determined to be statutorily entitled to receive compensation from the Arlington Central School District Board of Education for the youth’s private school tuition for a certain period. The Murphys claimed the compensation should include $29,350 paid as fees to an educational consultant. Arlington objected, claiming that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act only allowed payment of attorneys’ fees and the educational consultant was neither an attorney nor an “expert” within the scope of the statute. The District Court held that the statute does not allow payment of fees to a non-lawyer doing work similar to that of an attorney, but does cover expert consulting services. The Second Circuit affirmed, and Arlington petitioned to the Supreme Court, which will consider the scope of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act’s fee-shifting provision.
Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties
In 2002, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed a decision requiring Arlington Central School District Board of Education (“Arlington”) to pay certain private school tuition fees for Joseph Murphy, a district student with a disability. Murphy v. Arlington Cent. Sch. Dist. Bd. of Educ., 297 F.3d 195 (2d Cir. 2002). This decision was rendered under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”). Under the IDEA’s fee-shifting provision, 20 U.S.C. 1415 (i)(3)(B), the District Court subsequently allowed Joseph’s parents, Pearl and Theodore Murphy (“the Murphys”), to recover fees and costs incurred in litigation. See Murphy v. Arlington Cent. Sch. Dist. Bd. of Educ., 402 F.3d 332, 334 (2d Cir. 2005). As part of the award, the Murphys sought to recover $29,350 in fees for the services of Marilyn Arons, M.S., an educational consultant. See Id. The district court decided that the Murphys could not recover for work Arons performed that was similar to that of an attorney, but could collect $8,650 for her work that could be classified as expert consulting services. See Id. The Second Circuit affirmed, finding that as a non-lawyer, Arons’ work is not covered as “reasonable attorneys’ fees,” but expert fees could be covered as “costs incurred in litigation” even if the expert did not testify as a witness. Id at 337. The Second Circuit acknowledged contradictory rulings from other circuits, but decided that a broader, contextual reading of IDEA was appropriate. Id. at 336. Specifically, the Second Circuit looked to the House Conference Committee Report on IDEA, and dicta in the Supreme Court’s decision in West Virginia University Hospital, Inc. v. Casey, in making its decision. Id. The Court granted certiorari to resolve the issue of whether IDEA should be read to allow recovery of expert fees.
In this case, the Court must decide whether the fee shifting provision of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. 1415 (i)(3)(B), applies to expert services used by a prevailing party. Many statutes have fee-shifting provisions which establish a “loser pays” system whereby the losing party in a given suit pays the costs of the prevailing party. This particular statute states that:
“In any action or proceeding brought under this section, the court, in its discretion, may award reasonable attorneys’ fees as part of the costs to the parents of a child with a disability who is the prevailing party.” 20 U.S.C. 1415 (i)(3)(B) [Emphasis added].
The parties in this suit disagree over whether fees attributed to expert services are covered by the phrase “reasonable attorneys’ fees.” Before exploring the various canons of statutory construction, one must understand the policies underlying IDEA.
IDEA was passed by Congress to ensure that children with disabilities receive a free and appropriate education that is uniquely tailored to their individual needs. 20 U.S.C. 1401(d)(1)(A). The statute grants parents numerous rights to ensure that they raise complaints about the adequacy of their child’s education, as well as keeping them involved at every stage of the process if their child needs a new individualized program. 20 U.S.C. 1415 (b)(6), (f)(1). In creating a fee-shifting provision, Congress wanted to ensure that parents’ ability to provide their child with an appropriate education was not inhibited by financial restraints. However, Congress was also concerned about ensuring that parents did not abuse this provision by seeking unnecessary legal or expert services in presenting their case. This concern is addressed by the statute’s use of the term “reasonable” in describing the attorneys’ fees for which the prevailing party would be reimbursed.
Statutory construction analyses begin with a look at the language of the statute at issue. If the language of the statute is unambiguous, then the statute must be analyzed by the courts according to the plain meaning of its terms. Brief of Petitioner at 14. Only when the language of a statute is ambiguous or when a provision is omitted from the language of a statute may courts analyze the legislative history to determine the legislative intent of a statute. Id at 14. The analysis must occur in this order because legislative history cannot override the plain language in a statute. Id at 14.
The U.S. Supreme Court must reconcile IDEA’s “reasonable attorneys’ fees” provision with another IDEA provision conferring on parents the right go before administrative judges with individuals with special knowledge or training. 20 U.S.C. 1415(h)(1). The two parties in this suit are at odds over the plain meaning of “reasonable attorneys’ fees” in the IDEA statute. Petitioner argues that although IDEA grants parents the right to seek the assistance of specialists, these individuals cannot be compensated under the fee-shifting provision because they are not attorneys. Petition for Writ of Certiorari at 25. Petitioner relies heavily on the “plain meaning” statutory construction rule arguing that the statute contains no express language about recovery of expert fees. Brief of Petitioner at 17.
In West Virginia University Hospital, Inc. v. Casey, the U.S. Supreme Court described thirty-four statutes containing fee-shifting provisions which expressly permit reimbursement of expert costs. 499 U.S. 83 (1991). Had Congress wished to extend parents a similar reimbursement right under the IDEA, it would have done so. Although Ms. Arons performed many lawyerly functions at both the hearing and before the District Judge, petitioner maintains that Ms. Arons was not an attorney, hence the costs of her services cannot be recovered. Petition for Writ of Certiorari at 5. Petitioner denies that a disabled child’s right to a free and appropriate public education is not dependent upon his/her parents’ ability to recover expert fees. Brief of Petitioner at 15.
On the other hand, respondents adopt a broader approach to statutory interpretation. They emphasize context and the importance of policy in interpreting the plain meaning of statutory language. Respondents contend that expert services should be covered by the fee-shifting provision because without them, parents would be unable to determine what appropriate public education their child would need, thereby undermining the very goal of the IDEA. Brief of Respondents at 20. Respondents believe that the plain meaning of “reasonable attorneys’ fees” is not exclusive and has been interpreted to include non-lawyer fees. For example, respondents show that Congress once asked the General Accounting Office (GAO) to include in “attorneys’ fees to prevailing party” the number of hours worked by personnel and consultants. Id at 18. They further contest that petitioner’s interpretation of the fee-shifting provision directly conflicts with the underlying goal that parents have a right to provide their disabled child with a free, appropriate public education. Id at 21.
Fee-shifting provisions exist in a variety of statutes ranging from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to the Civil Rights Act. This case with therefore have important implications, particularly for suits in which experts are integral to presenting one’s case. In making its decision, the Supreme Court must keep two policy goals in mind: (1) protecting parents’ ability to bring suits and challenge school programs for their disabled children under IDEA, and (2) ensuring that disabled students are properly placed in individualized programs where they can continue to receive a free and appropriate public education. In reaching its decision the Court may provide guidance and insight regarding the propriety of courts’ using the legislative history as a factor in interpreting statutes.
Nina Jenkins - Johnston