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Renshaw v. Black

October 16, 1998


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Kuehn


Appeal from the Circuit Court of Jackson County.

No. 93-L-199

Honorable David C. Nelson, Judge, presiding.

Plaintiffs, James and Sharmon Renshaw, appeal the trial court's September 26, 1997, order denying their motion to reconsider the trial court's August 4, 1997, summary judgment order entered against them. We reverse and remand for further proceedings.

This is a story of legal malpractice in a highly specialized area of law--education law. The Renshaws are parents of a daughter with special educational needs as a learning disabled student. She was enrolled in the third grade during the 1989-90 school year in the Giant City School District. During that school year, she was identified as a student with special learning disabilities. The child's problems include attention deficit disorder, an auditory processing disorder, a sensory motor processing disorder, a visual spatial deficit, and severe anxiety and self-esteem issues. She is of normal to above normal intelligence.

The Education of the Handicapped Act (EHA), now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, mandates that school districts must provide students with such learning disabilities with a "free appropriate public education." 20 U.S.C. §1400(c) (1988); 20 U.S.C. §1400(c) (1994). The educational needs of the student must be addressed in writing. 20 U.S.C. §1401(a)(19) (1988) (now 20 U.S.C. §1401(a)(20) (1994)). This written document is called an individualized education program (IEP). 20 U.S.C. §1401(a)(20) (1994). The IEP is prepared following a meeting between school officials and the student's parents. 20 U.S.C. §1401(a)(20) (1994). If the parties cannot agree upon the student's IEP, the parents are entitled to an impartial due process hearing to resolve their complaints. 20 U.S.C. §1415(b)(2) (1988); 13 Ill. Reg. 15784-87 (adopted September 26, 1989) (now 89 Ill. Adm. Code §510.70 (1996)). This evidentiary hearing is conducted before a hearing officer. 13 Ill. Reg. 15789 (adopted September 26, 1989) (now 89 Ill. Adm. Code §510.90 (1996)). The hearing officer's determination is called a Level I decision. 20 U.S.C. §1415(b)(2) (1988); 13 Ill. Reg. 15784 (adopted September 26, 1989) (now 89 Ill. Adm. Code §510.70 (1996)). The Level I decision can be further appealed to a Level II hearing officer, who enters a Level II decision. 20 U.S.C. §1415(c) (1988); 13 Ill. Reg. 15788 (adopted September 26, 1989) (now 89 Ill. Adm. Code §510.80 (1996)). A Level II decision is appealable in the federal courts for a limited administrative review. 20 U.S.C. §1415(e) (1988); 13 Ill. Reg. 15792 (adopted September 26, 1989) (now 89 Ill. Adm. Code §510.110 (1996)).

In this case, the Giant City School District prepared an IEP for the student in February 1990. The Renshaws did not believe that this IEP adequately addressed their daughter's educational needs. They hired defendant Katherine M. Black, an attorney who specializes in educational law, to represent them in their dispute with the Giant City School District. In July 1990, the Renshaws believed that they had reached an agreement with the district. When the changes to the original IEP were not implemented at the school year's beginning, the Renshaws requested a due process hearing.

In preparation for the hearing, the Renshaws hired various professionals to examine their daughter and to provide their expert opinions regarding her educational needs. Upon a review of these evaluations and after consultation with their attorney, Katherine Black, the Renshaws withdrew their daughter from public school and enrolled her in a private school in Carbondale.

At the due process hearing, the Renshaws sought reimbursement for the evaluation expenses, as well as for the private school tuition they were incurring. The Level I hearing officer determined that the Giant City School District violated the Renshaw student's rights. The officer ordered the district to reimburse the Renshaws for the evaluation expenses, but the officer concluded that he could not order the district to pay for the private school tuition because that particular school "is not authorized for payment by the Governor's Purchased Care Review Board as of Fall[] 1990." The Level II hearing officer essentially agreed with the lower level and affirmed this decision with some minor modifications, stating that no evidence had been introduced at the Level II hearing that the particular private school at issue was on the approved list. Simply stated, the hearing officers found that there was no legal basis for awarding tuition at a non-approved private school.

The Renshaws sought review in the federal district court by filing a lawsuit pursuant to the EHA on July 19, 1991--three days after the statute of limitations for such an action expired. A summary judgment on this sole issue was ultimately entered against the Renshaws on July 30, 1992.

Without addressing the specifics, it is sufficient for us to say that the state of the law at the time that the hearing officers entered their decisions and as of the date when the Renshaws filed their federal EHA claim was against the reimbursement of tuition for a non-approved private school. However, the law is an ever-changing entity, and a mere four months after attorney Black filed the Renshaws' federal case, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled that parents can recover tuition from a non-approved private school. Carter v. Florence County School District Four, 950 F.2d 156, 161-62 (4th Cir. 1991). The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari in order to resolve this issue. Florence County School District Four v. Carter, 507 U.S. 907, 122 L. Ed. 2d 649, 113 S. Ct. 1249 (1993). On November 9, 1993, the Supreme Court affirmed the Fourth Circuit's decision. Florence County District Four v. Carter, 510 U.S. 7, 9-10, 126 L. Ed. 2d 284, 290, 114 S. Ct. 361, 363 (1993).

After the July 30, 1992, dismissal of their federal lawsuit, the Renshaws hired a new attorney to represent them in their ongoing dispute with the Giant City School District. This attorney worked on the case beginning in late 1992 and continuing for not quite one year. The Renshaws allege that if their federal lawsuit had not been dismissed, they would not have sought alternate representation.

On December 23, 1993, the Renshaws filed their complaint in this case alleging legal malpractice against attorney Black. The complaint was subsequently amended twice. The crux of their complaint involves the dismissal of their federal suit and their claims that had the complaint not been dismissed, it would have been pending until November 1993 when the Supreme Court decided the Florence County District Four case. The Renshaws point to the initial November 1992 trial setting of this case for support to their claim that the suit would still have ...

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