ILNews

Judge: Parents must pay fees in frivolous suit

Michael W. Hoskins
January 1, 2007
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Two parents challenging a new school-uniform policy in Anderson lost their legal battle in August after a federal judge dismissed the case. This week, parents Laura and Scott Bell have been ordered to pay attorneys' fees and court costs of approximately $40,931 to defendants Anderson Community Schools and the board of trustees.

U.S. District Judge John D. Tinder issued the order Thursday, recounting reasons for ruling in favor of the school district four months ago and issuing a note of caution for future pro se plaintiffs.

The Bells filed suit in Madison Circuit Court in July against the school corporation, claiming that a policy set to start on the first day of school in August would violate the constitutional right of children for a free education. That dress code - similar to those implemented in other Hoosier school districts such as the Indianapolis Public Schools - limits students to black, navy, or khaki pants or skirts, and solid color shirts and sweaters. Students wouldn't be allowed to wear baggy pants or skirts sagging below their midriffs, or shirts with writing on them, the parents claimed.

Anderson Community Schools had asked for summary judgment July 30, noting there is no basis for the federal or state law claims regarding a constitutional right to a "free education" and is no violation of "parental rights" under the Ninth and 14th Amendments.

Judge Tinder dismissed the case after pointing out that the pro se parent plaintiffs "utterly failed" to respond to discovery requests and hadn't shown any likelihood of prevailing in court.

"Plaintiffs offered no timely response to the Defendants' summary judgment motion, even though the court allowed them as pro se parties every latitude to pursue their claims, and encouraged them to obtain the assistance of counsel," Judge Tinder wrote in Thursday's ruling. "The court even gave them guidance on how to focus on the proper issues before the court. Plaintiffs were advised on more than one occasion that the losing party in this case may be required to pay the other side's costs, and even attorneys' fees."

Though the defendants met deadlines in the expedited schedule caused by the parents' request for injunctive relief, those plaintiffs did not attempt to persuade the court not to award any fees. Judge Tinder wrote that because the plaintiffs' civil rights claims lacked any reasonable basis in fact or law, they are considered frivolous and the fees can be awarded. The judge determined the lodestar amount - the reasonable number of hours worked multiplied by the market rate - should be used to determine the fee amount of $40,931.50.
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