In an issue of first impression, the court held that a claim for attorney’s fees by parents who prevail in state administrative proceedings under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, is more “analogous” to an IDEA merits review action. In Virginia, parties have 180 days from the date the aggrieved party’s time to seek substantive review has expired.
Jemie Sanchez, the mother of a minor child with special needs, brings this action for attorney’s fees under the IDEA. The IDEA allows parents who prevail in state administrative proceedings challenging their children’s individualized education programs to recover attorney’s fees in federal court.
The IDEA contains no express statute of limitations for attorney’s fees actions, so courts must “borrow” an appropriate limitations period from state law. The district court concluded that a standalone fees action like Sanchez’s is most comparable to an IDEA claim for substantive judicial review of an adverse administrative determination. And because Virginia, where Sanchez lives, sets a 180-day limitations period for such substantive IDEA claims, and because Sanchez did not file her claim for fees until almost two years after her administrative hearing, and the district court dismissed her case as untimely.
The Supreme Court sets forth a two-part test to guide the choice of a state limitations period. First, the court must identify “the state statute of limitations that applies to the most analogous state-law claim.” To do so, it must “characterize the essence of the claim in the pending case, and decide which state statute provides the most appropriate limiting principle.”
Second, the court must evaluate whether it would be “inconsistent with federal law or policy” to apply that state limitations period to the federal claim. Barring such an inconsistency, the state statute of limitations controls.
Here, Virginia law does not expressly provide a limitations period specific to standalone actions for attorney’s fees. But it does afford parties 180 days to seek judicial review of an adverse administrative outcome. The Board urges that this limitations period – though not precisely on point – is surely the most comparable choice available. Sanchez says the court should apply Virginia’s fallback, two-year statute of limitations for actions “wherein a judgment for money is sought.”
The federal courts have divided on whether a standalone fees claim is more “analogous” to an IDEA merits review action or an independent action subject to a catchall limitations period. The Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Circuits have deemed fees actions “ancillary to judicial review of the administrative decision.” The Ninth and Eleventh Circuits hold that fees actions are “explicitly distinct from the administrative review process, and therefore [cannot] be considered ancillary to that process.” Concluding that a “request for attorneys’ fees under the IDEA is more analogous to an independent claim,” these courts apply longer limitations periods applicable to general classes of civil action.
This court joins the majority approach and adopt the 180-day limitations period governing substantive judicial review of an administrative decision under Va. Code § 22.1-214(D). An IDEA merits action provides the “most appropriate limiting principle.” The “essence of the claim” is a straightforward statutory entitlement to reasonable fee-shifting at the close of an administrative proceeding.
And bluntly put, a fees claim arising from a given proceeding should require less time to file than an action for substantive review of that proceeding, with its 180-day limitations period. Instead allowing parties two years to petition for fees – over four times as long as the window for substantive review – would be anomalous and inapposite.
After all, an IDEA fees claim is not substantively different from a typical request for attorney’s fees at the close of a civil case. And under Rule 54(d), a party must file its motion for attorney’s fees “no later than 14 days after the entry of judgment.”
The court also agrees with the district court that this 180-day limitations period does not begin to run until after the aggrieved party’s time to seek substantive review has expired, meaning that a party has 360 days from the date of the administrative decision to commence a fees action. And like the district court, it concludes the application of this period would not be “inconsistent with underlying federal policies.”
Sanchez argues that because the school district never informed her of its position that a 180-day limitations period applied to her fees claim, it would be unjust and inconsistent with IDEA policy to impose one now. This argument lacks merit.
Sanchez v. Arlington County School Board, Case No. 21-2245, Jan. 18, 2023. 4th Cir. (Harris), from EDVA at Alexandria (Ellis). Douglas William Tyrka for Appellant. John F. Cafferky for Appellee. VLW 023-2-016. 21 pp.