Katonah-Lewisboro school officials begrudgingly agreed Thursday to pay more than $150,000 to a Katonah law firm that won less than $25,000 for the parents of a onetime special-education student.
Calling the six-figure, court-ordered payment and other costs “simply outrageous,” school board President Mark Lipton decried “a defect in the law” that drains money that could otherwise be going to education. Peter D. Hoffman, the parents’ attorney, said district officials had refused the parents’ request for a simple accommodation and as a result had only themselves to blame for the lost money.
“What is really unfortunate,” Lipton told board members meeting in the John Jay Middle Schhol, “is existing law in these matters. Simple success on a $25,000 claim entitles the claimant to all legal fees, no matter how small the recovery.”
Children with disabilities are a major focus of Hoffman’s Katonah Avenue firm. In 2006, his clients—identified in court papers only as E.S. and M.S.—were unhappy with their son’s progress locally. They argued that Katonah-Lewisboro’s individualized educational program for the youngster was inadequate. Mandated by the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), an IEP, as it’s called, is a document tailored to meet the special educational needs of one child, in this case know only as B.S.
Seeking an alternative schooling berth for B.S., his parents inquired about a transfer to the Board of Cooperative Educational Services, Hoffman said, but they were rebuffed. “The parents only wanted a BOCES placement,” he said, suggesting that such an accommodation would have laid the matter to rest.
Instead, the family enrolled him, initially for the 2006-07 academic year and subsequently for 2007-08, at a private school upstate that caters to students with learning challenges.
Hoffman, on behalf of the parents, sued in federal court to recover the two years’ tuition at Maplebrook School in Amenia. In the end, however, after protracted litigation and an appeal, his clients got only half a loaf—$24,350—representing the second year’s tuition. Hoffman, for his part, got $156,976.84 in fees and costs. Lipton said the district faces another estimated $57,000 in appellate costs as well as its own legal bills.
Ruling in the original lawsuit, a New York federal district court rejected the parents’ assertion that the IEP drafted by Katonah-Lewisboro officials for their son’s 2006-07 academic year had been inadequate. It said the district “met the substantive requirements of the IDEA for the 2006-2007 school year.”
But K-L educators did come up short, the court said, in drawing an IEP for the 2007-08 academic year, failing to take into account “objective evidence that B.S. continued to make progress while at Maplebrook during the 2006-2007 school year.” It awarded the parents tuition reimbursement for that year only.
But the court brushed aside the school district’s contention that Hoffman’s fees should be reduced “by some percentage based on plaintiffs’ having attained only partial success when compared to the total relief sought.” The court agreed only to lower the hourly billing rates that were used to calculate the amount of Hoffman’s award. The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals subsequently upheld both of the lower court’s actions.
Lipton, the board president, still clearly chafes over the appellate court’s decision, which was handed down last month. Thursday night—after the board agreed, unanimously and with little further comment, to abide by the court’s order—Lipton read a prepared statement in which he decried, among other things, the sums a district must spend fighting lawsuits.
“The fact that someone can simply force a district to spend huge amounts of money in legal fees to defend its position represents, in my view, a defect in the law,” Lipton said. It takes “money from the classroom while diverting these scarce funds to legal fees.”