Collinsgru v. Palmyra Bd. of Educ., 96-5807

CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (3rd Circuit)
Citation161 F.3d 225
Docket NumberNo. 96-5807,96-5807
Parties130 Ed. Law Rep. 1054 Robert COLLINSGRU; Maura Collinsgru, on behalf of their son, Francis Collinsgru, Appellants, v. PALMYRA BOARD OF EDUCATION.
Decision Date23 November 1998

Page 225

161 F.3d 225
130 Ed. Law Rep. 1054
Robert COLLINSGRU; Maura Collinsgru, on behalf of their
son, Francis Collinsgru, Appellants,
No. 96-5807.
United States Court of Appeals,
Third Circuit.
Argued Nov. 6, 1997.
Decided Nov. 23, 1998.

Page 227

Paul A. Levy (Argued), David C. Vladeck, Public Citizen Litigation Group, Washington, DC, for Appellants.

Joseph F. Betley, Craig D. Bailey (Argued), Capehart & Scatchard, P.A., Mt. Laurel, NJ, for Appellee.

Eric R. Neisser, Constitutional Litigation Clinic and Special Education Clinic, Rutgers Law School, Newark, NJ, for Amici Curiae.

Before: BECKER, * ROTH, Circuit Judges, and DIAMOND, District Judge. **


BECKER, Chief Judge.

Robert and Maura Collinsgru ("the Collinsgrus"), acting on behalf of their son, Francis Collinsgru ("Francis"), appeal from the district court's dismissal of their son's complaint against the Palmyra Board of Education ("Palmyra"). The Collinsgrus sought to represent Francis in a civil suit following a state administrative decision to deny their son special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq. (1994 & Supp.1997) (the "IDEA"). 1 The district court found that it was bound by our decision in Osei-Afriyie v. Medical College of Pa., 937 F.2d 876, 882 (3d Cir.1991), in which we held that a non-attorney parent could not represent his children in a tort action in federal court. After holding that the Collinsgrus could not represent Francis themselves, the court gave the parents thirty days in which to hire an attorney for him. When they failed to do so, the district court dismissed Francis's claims without prejudice for failure to prosecute. On appeal, the Collinsgrus contend that Osei-Afriyie does not control because: (1) the IDEA creates the same rights in parents that it creates in children; (2) the claims in their son's complaint are functionally their own; and (3) they should therefore be allowed to proceed pro se on those claims.

We first must consider whether we have jurisdiction over this appeal, in light of the fact that the district court's order was neither a final resolution on the merits nor an interlocutory order of the type clearly appealable under 28 U.S.C. § 1292. We conclude that we have jurisdiction under the collateral order exception to 28 U.S.C. § 1291. On the merits, we conclude that the IDEA does not confer joint substantive rights on parents and their children. We agree that the IDEA grants parents ample procedural rights to ensure active parental involvement at all stages of the development and implementation of a child's individual educational program, even through the administrative process. We think, however, that Congress's decision to endow parents with these procedural rights should not be read, under the language of the IDEA, to imply that parents also possess the same underlying substantive rights that their children possess. Therefore, we do not think that the Collinsgrus may properly be said to be suing under their own cause of action. We conclude, in light of the IDEA's language and the statutory and common law rules guarding against non-attorney representation of another, that parents seeking to enforce their child's substantive right to an appropriate education under the IDEA may not represent their child in federal court.

I. Background

At all relevant times, the Collinsgrus resided in Palmyra, New Jersey, and Francis attended the Palmyra Public Schools. The Collinsgrus maintain that Francis is learning disabled, and needs to receive an education that will accommodate his learning disabilities, but the School Board's Child Study

Page 228

Team decided that he was ineligible to receive special education services. Accordingly, the Collinsgrus sought special education services through the administrative procedures established by the IDEA. Under the express provisions of the IDEA, the Collinsgrus were able to participate in the administrative proceedings without legal representation, though they engaged the assistance of a non-lawyer expert. See 20 U.S.C. § 1415(h)(1). Following a nineteen-day hearing, the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") determined that Francis's educational difficulties were not severe enough to warrant special services.

The Collinsgrus, proceeding pro se, filed a civil suit contesting this determination in the District Court for the District of New Jersey. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2)(A). In their initial complaint, the Collinsgrus alleged that Palmyra had inadequately tested Francis for a disability and that the School Board had interfered with an independent evaluation of his needs. In addition, they contended that the decision by the ALJ was contrary to the law and to the record in the case, and that the ALJ had "manufactured" testimony. Finally, they asserted that the decision was tainted by the public policy position of the State Commissioner of Education that too many students in New Jersey were being labeled as learning disabled. The Board answered the complaint, but also objected by letter to the fact that, rather than hiring a lawyer to represent Francis, the Collinsgrus were attempting to represent him themselves. In response, the Collinsgrus amended the caption of their complaint to emphasize that they were asserting their own rights as parents under the IDEA, as well as their son's rights, to ensure that their son received the free, appropriate education guaranteed by the Act.

The Collinsgrus acknowledge that they would prefer to be represented by experienced counsel rather than continue to pursue their appeal in the federal district court pro se. Although the Collinsgrus are represented by attorneys from the Public Citizen Litigation Group in their appeal before this Court, these attorneys have entered their appearance solely for the purpose of litigating the regionally and nationally important question of the Collinsgrus' right to proceed pro se before the district court. The Collinsgrus concede that they do not qualify for appointment of counsel under the in forma pauperis statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1915 (1994). However, because of the magnitude of this litigation, the Collinsgrus explain that they cannot afford to retain an attorney on a normal fee basis to handle their civil case, nor have they been able to locate an attorney willing to take their case on a contingent fee or pro bono arrangement.

The district court held that the Collinsgrus were not entitled to represent Francis pro se in the civil action, reasoning that this result was compelled by our decision in Osei-Afriyie. The district court also rejected the Collinsgrus' effort to characterize their IDEA appeal as an assertion of their own claims. Rather, the court ruled, Francis was the real party in interest and must be represented by an attorney. The court gave the Collinsgrus thirty days to retain counsel, prescribing that, if counsel were not retained, Francis's claims would be dismissed pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 41(b) for failure to prosecute.

When the Collinsgrus failed to retain counsel, the district court dismissed Francis's claims, staying the parents' claims pending resolution of the present appeal. Although the Collinsgrus sought certification of an interlocutory appeal under 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b) (1994), the district court refused to certify the issue. The court did, however, advise the Collinsgrus that they could invoke the collateral order exception identified in Cohen v. Beneficial Indus. Loan Corp., 337 U.S. 541, 69 S.Ct. 1221, 93 L.Ed. 1528 (1949), in order to seek immediate interlocutory review under 28 U.S.C. § 1291 (1994). The Collinsgrus then filed a motion in the district court requesting that it clarify which claims they could maintain as parents and which only their son could maintain. The district court declined to provide this clarification, concluding that such a ruling would constitute an advisory opinion. This appeal followed.

II. Appellate Jurisdiction and Standard of Review

As a threshold matter, we must determine whether we have jurisdiction to

Page 229

hear this appeal. The district court dismissed only Francis's claims for failure to prosecute; the Collinsgrus appeal from this dismissal, as well as from the related determination that the Collinsgrus could not represent Francis themselves. However, the Collinsgrus also made certain claims on their own behalf under the IDEA; the district court stayed these claims until the issue of Francis's representation is resolved. As a result, the challenged order did not finally resolve the merits of this case, which would have authorized ordinary review under 28 U.S.C. § 1291, nor was the order of an injunctive nature, such that it would have been immediately appealable pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1292(a). Both the Collinsgrus and the School Board submit that the question whether parents may represent their children in federal civil actions following administrative findings under the IDEA falls within the collateral order exception to the requirement of finality imposed by § 1291. Despite the agreement of both parties, we have an independent obligation to examine our jurisdiction to hear this appeal. FW/PBS, Inc. v. City of Dallas, 493 U.S. 215, 230-31, 110 S.Ct. 596, 107 L.Ed.2d 603 (1990).

This Court has jurisdiction over interlocutory appeals under § 1291 only if the challenged order falls within the collateral order exception to the finality requirement of § 1291. An appeal from a non-final order will lie if:

(1) the order from which the appellant appeals conclusively determines the disputed question; (2) the order resolves an important issue that is completely separate from the merits of the dispute; and (3) the order is effectively unreviewable on appeal from a final judgment.

In re Ford Motor Co., 110 F.3d 954, 958 (3d Cir.1997). This test derives from the Supreme Court's opinion in Cohen v. Beneficial Indus. Loan...

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