Winkelman v. Parma City School District

U.S. Supreme Court (No. 05-983)

May 21, 2007

In a surprising reversal of a 6th Circuit decision, the United States’ Supreme Court held that parents may bring a pro se court action regarding any procedural or substantive claim arising under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA.) The Court rejected the view of some circuit courts that, under the statute, parents are “guardians” of their children’s right to an appropriate education, rather than “real parties in interest” themselves.

In this case, the parents of an autistic child claimed that the school district denied their child a free and appropriate public education and sought reimbursement for private school expenses. After losing their administrative complaints, the parents, without the assistance of a lawyer, sought review in the federal district court. The court dismissed their claims on the pleadings. On appeal, the Sixth Circuit Court also dismissed the parents’ case, holding that parents may not bring suits on their own or their children’s behalf without the assistance of counsel. Such suits violated the long-standing common law rule that parents may not legally represent the interests of their minor children.

The Supreme Court disagreed with the Circuit Court. Looking to the language and legislative framework of the statute, the Court noted that multiple provisions of IDEA indicate that parents are the co-owners of their child’s right to an appropriate education. The Court paid special attention to the sections of IDEA which provide that the parent may recover the costs of a private school education and, the court may award attorneys fees to a prevailing party “who is the parent of a child with a disability.” 1412(a)(10)(C)(ii); §1415(i)(3)(B)(i)(I) (emphasis added.) These provisions clearly endow the parents with substantive rights, for which the parents may seek redress in the courts.

Furthermore, the Court held that it would be inconsistent to interpret the statute as providing parents the right to pursue administrative remedies but not court remedies. The Court cited as examples section 1415(b)(8) (requiring a state educational agency to develop a model form to assist parents in filing a complaint); §1415(c)(2) (addressing the response an agency must provide to a parent’s due process complaint notice); and §1415(i)(3)(B)(i);(referring to the parent’s complaint).

Additionally, the Court noted that IDEA defines one of its purposes as seeking “to ensure that the rights of children with disabilities and parents of such children are protected.” §1400(d)(1)(B) (emphasis added.)

The Court also rejected the argument of certain circuit courts that parents may have standing to litigate only particular claims, such as procedural violations or reimbursement requests. The Court reasoned that the statute keeps parent in a central role, requiring schools to include parents in the substantive creation of the IEP and permitting parents to bring any due process claim related to the education of their child. The Court stated that “[w]ithout question a parent of a child with a disability has a particular and personal interest in fulfilling our national policy of ensuring equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for individuals with disabilities.”

The Court concluded that the provisions of IDEA, through both text and structure, create in parents an “independent stake not only in the procedures and costs implicated by this process but also in the substantive decisions to be made.”

Finally, the Court rejected the school district’s argument that the statute does not adequate put states on notice of additional costs they may incur as a result of parents’ pro-se litigation of educational claims. The school district cited Supreme Court precedent holding that pursuant to the Spending Clause, “when Congress attaches conditions to a State’s acceptance of federal funds,. . . the conditions must be set out unambiguously.” Arlington Central School Dist. Bd. of Ed. v. Murphy, 548 U. S. ___ (2006). The Court dismissed this argument, holding that the determination that IDEA grants 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 ancillary effect of potentially increasing states’ litigation costs (defending suits brought by parents alone) did not qualify as a “spending clause” concern.

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