A Baltimore County attorney who successfully fought to get his son into a county special education program cannot collect attorney’s fees for his work, a federal appeals court ruled.
Paul Erickson said he is entitled to $150,000 for the time he spent on his son’s case.
But the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, upholding lower courts that have said the Ericksons can be reimbursed for expert witnesses they called in their son’s case but not for the services of the father.
“A parent who also happens to be a lawyer is not entitled to fees in a special education case,” said Leslie Robert Stellman, the attorney for the county school board.
The Ericksons, who have since moved to Asheville, N.C., were reimbursed more than $10,421 for the program that their son was in and $2,012 for expert witnesses in his case.
But Mr. Erickson said the school board also owed him for the legal work he did for his son under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
“The attorney’s fees would have been around $150,000 because it took three years and roughly 700 hours,” Erickson said Friday from his Asheville law practice.
The appeals court said that third-party attorneys are entitled to collect for work they perform on IDEA cases. But a three-judge panel of the court said paying a father/attorney might encourage “inexperienced attorney-parents, via a statutory fee award, to represent their own children,” with possibly disastrous results.
The court said that even if the parents are lawyers, they might not be able to represent their children to the best of their ability because of the automatic emotional involvement.
“To permit an attorney-parent to recover statutory fees for representing his child is not necessary to ensure a parent’s efforts on behalf of his child,” the court said. “It might well lessen the chance that a disabled child would have the benefit of legal services from an independent third party.”
The court said the Ericksons would have been better off getting an outside attorney. Stellman, the school board’s attorney, agreed.
“This particular parent [Erickson] was not familiar with the law,” he said. “His son’s rights were respected. You shouldn’t need the incentive of attorney’s fees when it is your own child at stake.”
Stellman said the case is the first of its kind and believed “it will set a precedent.”
But Erickson said he will do everything he can to get the decision reversed.
“I will petition the Supreme Court but I know that my chances of having the case heard are slim at best,” said Erickson. “It is a sad day, but these things happen.”