Arlington Central School District Board of Education v. Murphy

Arlington Central School District Board of Education v. Murphy (2006) is the U.S. Supreme Court’s first opinion construing a controversial provision of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). At issue in Murphy was whether parents who prevailed in disputes with their school systems were entitled to reimbursement for costs associated with hiring expert witnesses and consultants who assisted them in litigation with their school boards over the educational placements of their children with disabilities.
The underlying dispute in Murphy involved parents of a student with disabilities who rejected a proposed individualized education program (IEP) for their son and requested a due process hearing. At the same time, the parents withdrew their son from his public school, unilaterally registering him in a private institution. After the parties exhausted administrative remedies via due process hearings, the dispute made its way to court. When the school board acknowledged that the parents were the prevailing party, it conceded that they were entitled to attorney fees under a provision of IDEA that authorizes a court to award “reasonable attorneys’ fees as part of the costs” to parents who prevail in their complaints against their school boards (20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B)). However, school officials urged the trial court to read the fee shifting provisions as applicable to recovery of attorneys’ fees only. The court rejected the board’s position and decided that consultant fees could be considered costs within the meaning of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
The Second Circuit affirmed, joining the Third Circuit in so ruling. In contrast, the Seventh and Eighth Circuits read the IDEA as limiting recovery to attorney fees, because other costs were not defined, and the statute did not explicitly award fees for expert witnesses and or consultants. In order to resolve the split among the circuits, the Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal.
Writing for the Supreme Court in its 6-to-3 decision, Justice Alito reversed in favor of the school board. The Court found that because the IDEA was enacted under the Spending Clause of the Constitution, school boards could be held responsible only for those fees about which the act provided clear notice. Insofar as the Court pointed out that the IDEA did not make any mention of fees for expert witnesses or consultants, the Court determined that states and school districts had not been given notice that they could be responsible for such costs. Further, the Court pointed out that although the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act contains provisions about how courts should calculate attorney fees to ensure their reasonableness, Congress included no analogous language for expert witnesses and consultants.
In its analysis, the Supreme Court rejected the parents’ claim that a notation in the conference committee report accompanying the bill that stated, “The conferees intend that the term ‘attorneys’ fees as part of the costs’ include reasonable expenses and fees of expert witnesses (Murphy, 2006, p. 2462)” revealed congressional intent that fees for expert witnesses should be recoverable to the same extent as attorney fees. The Court concluded that this mention of fees for expert witnesses was insufficient to counter what it considered to be “the unambiguous text” (p. 2563) of the IDEA, which led to its rejecting the parental claim for reimbursement.
Justice Ginsburg, although agreeing with the Court’s holding, disagreed with its reasoning as to the Spending Clause. She maintained that all that was necessary to resolve the dispute was to have noted that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act’s text omitted any reference to fees for expert witnesses and consultants.
Justice Breyer, joined by Justices Stevens and Souter, dissented. He argued that both the conference committee report and the fact that a provision of the Handicapped Children’s Protection Act, which amended the IDEA to add the fee shifting provision in question, that directed the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to conduct a study that included tabulation of statistics about the costs of experts, made it clear that Congress intended “costs” to mean more than attorneys’ fees. Breyer also thought that such an interpretation of Individuals with Disabilities Education Act more closely matched the act’s overall intent. Finally, Breyer expressed concern that barring the opportunity for recovery of fees for expert witnesses and consultants would have a chilling effect on the ability of parents to advocate for the interests of their children.
Justice Souter also wrote a short dissent to underscore the documentary evidence he believed Justice Breyer persuasively demonstrated revealed Congress’s intent to include expert fees as recoverable costs to prevailing parents challenging the sufficiency of a child’s IEP.
Julie F. Mead

See also Attorney Fees
Further Readings
Osborne, A.G., & Russo, C. J. (2006). The Supreme Court rejects parental reimbursement for expert witness fees under the IDEA: Arlington Central School District Board of Education. Education Law Reporter, 213, 333–348.
Wasserman, L. M. (2006). Reimbursement to parents of tuition and other costs under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act. Saint John’s Journal of Legal Commentary, 21, 171–238.
Legal Citations
Arlington Central School District Board of Education v. Murphy, 548 U.S. 291 (2006).