Arlington Central School Dist. Bd. of Educ. v. Murphy

U.S. Supreme Court

___ U.S. ___, 126 S. Ct. 2455, 165 L. Ed. 2d 526 (2006)

June 26, 2006

The omnipresent and always controversial issue of attorneys’ fees in special education found a path all the way to the Supreme Court this past term. In Arlington Central School Dist. v. Murphy, the plaintiffs sought fees for services rendered by an educational consultant used during legal proceedings held pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”). Despite their status as the “prevailing party” in the lengthy litigation, the Supreme Court overturned the Second Circuit Court of Appeals by holding that 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B) does not authorizing prevailing parents to recover expert fees.

The Murphys (Pearl and Theodore) filed an action in United States District Court on behalf of their son, Joseph, seeking the school district and Supreme Court petitioner (Arlington Central) to pay for Joseph’s private school tuition for specified school years. The Murphys prevailed in District Court and the Second Circuit affirmed the decision. As a prevailing party pursuant to IDEA, the Murphys sought $29,000 in fees paid to an educational consultant, who assisted them throughout the proceedings. The Second Circuit affirmed the District Court’s ruling that the educational consultant’s fee could be reimbursed, but only for $8,650, which represented the time actually spend after the request for an administrative had been filed.

The Supreme Court granted review in an attempt to resolve a split amongst the Circuits with respect to whether Congress authorized the compensation of expert fees to prevailing parties in IDEA actions. In its reversal of the Second Circuit, the Supreme Court relied on two grounds:

First – by way of background, the Court noted that Congress enacted IDEA pursuant to the Spending Clause of the Constitution, which requires that acceptance of federal funds by states, must be set out “unambiguously.” Thus, the question in this case is whether IDEA furnishes clear notice regarding expert fees. And here, while IDEA provides an award of “reasonable attorneys’ fees” for prevailing parties, the text of § 1415(i)(3)(B) does not authorize the award of additional expert fees, and it “fails to provide the clear notice that is required under the spending clause.”

Second, the Court relied on Crawford Fitting Co. v. J.T. Gibbons, 482 U.S. 437 (1987) and West Virginia Univ. Hospitals, Inc. v. Casey, 499 U.S. 83 (1991) – both cases interpreting federal rules and statutes (Fed. R. Civ. P. 54(d) and 42 U.S.C. § 1988 respectively). The thrust of the analysis rests on the analogies in the respective cases – where witness fees and attorneys’ fees were denied because they were not enumerated in the analogous statutes.

In an interesting dissent, Justice Breyer, joined by Justices Stevens and Souter, argued that Congress’ intent, as evidenced by a 1986 conference report, was to include reasonable expenses of expert witnesses and reasonable costs of any test or evaluation which was found to be necessary for the preparation of the parent or guardian’s case “in the action or proceeding.” Based on this section of H.R. Conf. Rep. No. 99-687, p.5 (1986), Justice Breyer finds “no good reason for [the Court] to interpret the language of [IDEA] as meaning the precise opposite of what Congress told us it intended.”

The case may be found by going the Supreme Court’s website at

Filed in Tags:

« Back to Case Library

Donate Now »