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LSEM granted fees, costs in IDEA lawsuit

Jessica Shumaker//July 15, 2020

LSEM granted fees, costs in IDEA lawsuit

Jessica Shumaker//July 15, 2020

In a first for a Missouri legal aid organization, a federal magistrate judge has granted attorneys’ fees and costs to Legal Services of Eastern Missouri after upholding a state administrative ruling for its client against St. Louis Public Schools.

On June 30, U.S. Magistrate Judge Patricia L. Cohen of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri entered a judgment for Carolyn Knox, who in 2018 initiated a suit seeking fees and costs under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act as a prevailing party in a due-process complaint before Missouri’s Administrative Hearing Commission.

Cohen entered a total judgment of $116,375 for Knox, including $115,206 in attorneys’ fees and $1,169 in costs.

Knox is the grandmother of J.D., a St. Louis Public Schools student who was born in July 2008 and later diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, and disruptive mood dysregulation disorder.

According to Cohen’s order, J.D. attended Peabody Elementary School from August 2013 to March 2017.

Knox filed a due-process complaint against the district in February 2017. In the complaint, she alleged the district denied J.D. a free appropriate public education in violation of the IDEA.

She also alleged the district violated a provision of the IDEA called the child-find obligation, which requires districts to identify all children in need of special education services.

The AHC found that the district had denied her grandson a free appropriate public education in violation of the IDEA and found that the student was entitled to the equivalent of four school months of compensatory education.

Knox then sought fees under the IDEA in federal court. The school district brought a counterclaim against Knox, seeking the reversal of the AHC’s decision. Cohen affirmed the AHC’s ruling and granted fees and costs to Knox.

Margaret G. LaMore, program director of LSEM’s Children’s Legal Alliance, represented Knox. She said she believes Knox’s case is the first time any legal aid organization in the state of Missouri has received an award of attorneys’ fees under the IDEA in federal court.

“This is really a first for us, and this is something that will allow us, moving forward, to continue to fund the work we’re doing,” she said. “This is a recognition by the Eastern District that the fee-shifting provisions in civil rights cases like this are not just for a parent who can pay, in order for that parent to be paid back. It’s also for nonprofit organizations who take on clients who may never be able to pay us back.”

She said Cohen’s judgment also affirms that all school districts have an obligation to act on information they receive from parents showing that a child needs to be evaluated for special education.

“This is sending a signal to this district and to all districts moving forward there is that affirmative obligation for districts to provide a free appropriate public education,” LaMore said. “We are extremely pleased that Judge Cohen affirmed everything that the administrative hearing officer found.”

The district was represented by John F. Brink of Thomeczek and Brink in St. Louis. He did not respond to an email seeking comment.

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Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

Venue: U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri

Case Number/Date: 4:18-cv-00216/June 30, 2020

Judge: Patricia L. Cohen

Caption: Carolyn Knox v. St. Louis City School District

Plaintiff’s Attorneys: Margaret G. LaMore, Daniel E. Underwood and Michelle Lyn Weltman, Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, St. Louis

Defendant’s Attorneys: John F. Brink, Thomeczek & Brink, St. Louis

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