Winkelman v. Parma City School District

PETITIONER: Jacob Winkelman, a minor, by and through his parents and legal guardians, Jeff and Sandee Winkelman, et al.
RESPONDENT: Parma City School District
LOCATION: United States District Court for the District of Colorado

DOCKET NO.: 05-983
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2006-2009)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit

CITATION: 550 US 516 (2007)
GRANTED: Oct 27, 2006
ARGUED: Feb 27, 2007
DECIDED: May 21, 2007

ADVOCATES:
David B. Salmons - Assistant to the Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the United States, as amicus curiae, supporting the petitioners
Jean-Claude Andre - for the petitioners
Pierre H. Bergeron - for the respondent

Facts of the case

Jeff and Sandee Winkelman claimed that Parma City School District failed to give their disabled son Jacob a "free appropriate public education" as required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Despite the Winkelmans' opposition, the school district planned to place Jacob in a public elementary school. After a preliminary school district hearing affirmed Jacob's placement, the Winkelmans placed Jacob in a private school at their own expense and petitioned a federal District Court for reimbursement.

The District Court ruled for the School District. On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit dismissed the suit because the Winkelmans lacked a lawyer. The Winkelmans argued that according to the IDEA, "any party aggrieved by the findings" of a preliminary school district hearing may appeal in a federal court. Also, because the IDEA demands active parental involvement in order to enforce proper child placement, the parent should be able to appear in court "pro se" - without a lawyer. The Sixth Circuit rejected both arguments and held that the IDEA does not establish any right of a non-lawyer parent to represent his disabled child in federal court. Non-lawyer parents cannot represent themselves either, the Circuit Court ruled, because the IDEA protects the rights of the child, not the parents.

Question

In a lawsuit under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), may a non-lawyer parent of a disabled child argue in federal court either on his own behalf ("pro se") or on behalf of his child?

Media for Winkelman v. Parma City School District

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - February 27, 2007 in Winkelman v. Parma City School District

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - May 21, 2007 in Winkelman v. Parma City School District

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Kennedy has our opinion this morning in case No. 05-983, Winkelman versus Parma City School District.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

The petitioners in this case are Mr. and Mrs. Winkelman and their young son Jacob.

Some four years ago the senior Winkelman sought review relating to concerns they had over whether Jacob would progress well at the Elementary School to which he has been assigned.

Jacob who has Autism Spectrum Disorder is covered by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act called IDEA.

This is a federal law, it entitles Jacob to certain protections and remedies including the ability to bring suit into Federal Court to ensure his school district have provided him with what the statute calls a free appropriated public education.

The question here is whether IDEA also entitles Jacob’s parents to certain protections and remedies so that they too may bring suit in Federal Court.

Jacob’s parents seek to sue on their own behalf because if they are permitted to do so, they would be allowed to proceed in court without an attorney.

The Parma City School District in Parma City, Ohio is the respondent in the case.

The School District argues that IDEA accords the rights here and question is only to children not to their parents as well.

We find that text of this statute forecloses this interpretation.

IDEA defines one of its purposes as seeking to ensure that the rights of children with disabilities and parents of such children are protected and that word writes in this language refers to the rights of parents as well as the rights of the child otherwise the grammatical structure would make no sense.

The School District nevertheless claims that the sole purpose driving IDEA’s involvement of parents is to facilitate vindication of a child’s rights so the District would have us read the statutes many references to parents’ rights as referring an implicit terms to the child’s rights alone.

Even if we were inclined to ignore the planed text of the statute in considering this theory we disagree that this is IDEA’s only purpose.

It’s hardly a noble proposition to say that parents have a recognized legal interest in the education and upbringing of their child.

Without question of parent of a child with a disability has a particular and personal stake and so felling what IDEA identifies as our national policy of insuring equality of opportunity for participation independent living and economic self-sufficiency for individuals with disabilities.

We find no reason to read into this statute an implicit rejection of the notion that Congress would accord parents’ entitlements concerning the education of their children.

But the contrary we conclude the statute grants parents independent enforceable rights.

In light of ideas, text and structure moreover we find that these rights are not limited to certain procedural and reimbursement related matter but rather encompass the entitlement to a free appropriate education for the parents’ child.

The parents may therefore bring suit under IDEA on their own behalf in Federal Court and then they do so without the assistance of an attorney.

In light of our holding we need not decide whether the parents acting for sake could have sought redress on behalf of their child.

We reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

Justice Scalia has filed an opinion concurring in part in the judgment and dissenting in part and Justice Thomas has joined that opinion.