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Playing Lawyers: The Implications of Endowing Parents with Substantive Rights under IDEA in Winkelman V. Parma City School District

Article excerpt

Congress has long struggled with how best to protect the educational interests of children with disabilities. (1) The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) (2) seeks to prevent discrimination against children with disabilities and to assist in providing them a free appropriate public education (FAPE) by authorizing federal grants to states. (3) The Act also supplies legal remedies if a child with a disability is not given a FAPE. (4) Until recently, courts of appeals have disagreed about whether parents of children with disabilities may prosecute IDEA claims pro se in federal court, (5) Last Term, in Winkelman v. Parma City School District, the Supreme Court held that parents of a child with autism spectrum disorder were "entitled to prosecute IDEA claims," including substantive claims to a FAPE, on their own behalf--effectively allowing parents to litigate their children's substantive interests. (6) The Court in Winkelman failed to consider the policies underlying the common law prohibition against non-attorney representation. An analysis of the relevant common law principles reveals that such representation compromises the state's interest in regulating the practice of law and the rights of the children themselves.

Between 2001 and 2003, Jeff and Sandee Winkelman worked in conjunction with the Parma City School District to develop an Individualized Education Program (IEP) that would allow their autistic son Jacob to attend a specialized, private preschool. (7) When Jacob was entering kindergarten, however, the school district's proposed IEP placed him in the special education room at a public elementary school. (8) The Winkelmans desired that he be placed in a private school specializing in autism. (9) Without an attorney, the Winkelmans, claiming that Jacob had been denied his right to a FAPE, proceeded through the various stages of administrative review provided for under IDEA. (10) Having lost at each stage of administrative appeal, the Winkelmans, "on their own behalf and on behalf of Jacob," sought a remedy in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio. (11)

The district court found that the school district had provided Jacob a FAPE. (12) The court reasoned that, although the school district had failed to provide "goals and objectives for occupational therapy" in Jacob's IEP, this "only constituted a procedural technical violation of the IDEA and not reversible error." (13) The court further reasoned that Jacob's placement in a public school was justifiable in light of the "overwhelming consensus that Jacob need[ed] more peer interaction and that he would receive some educational benefits from [the public school]." (14) Thus, based on the pleadings and records from the administrative hearings, the district court upheld the IEP and assigned the Winkelmans to bear their own costs. (15)

Continuing to proceed pro se, the Winkelmans appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. (16) Before reaching the merits of the case, the Sixth Circuit evaluated the plaintiffs' standing under IDEA to appear pro se on behalf of Jacob. (17) Citing its recent holding in Cavanaugh v. Cardinal Local School District, (18) the court held that the IDEA does not abrogate the common law rule preventing non-attorney parents from representing their minor children pro se. (19) Looking primarily to legislative intent, the court reasoned that Congress would have carved out an exception for parents to represent children in federal proceedings if it had intended them to have such a right. (20) The court further cited Cavanaugh for the proposition that "IDEA does not grant parents a substantive right to have their child receive a free appropriate public education." (21) The Sixth Circuit dismissed the appeal with the caveat that the Winkelmans could continue to pursue the claim if they obtained an attorney within thirty days of the entry of the opinion. (22)

The Supreme Court reversed. …