|Home > The Beacon, Winter 2002|
Snow began falling in my part of Vermont on the evening that was set aside to do some of the absolutely must do it now kinds of tasks that were piled around the floor of the study. One of those tasks was to think about expert witnesses for this edition of The Beacon.
Snowfall during late February and March is an especially mysterious and untimely event for an uprooted Texan transplanted in Vermont.
With a deadline looming, and thoughts meandering between the visual luxury of the snow and the desperation from trying to think about the broad subject of the expert witness, expert witness ideas were just not happening.
If a learned treatise has not recorded the following technique for relief from desperation, it should be:
While peering into the freezer part of the fridge deciding whether to have ice cream with or without chocolate syrup, the voice of a former mentor, Mr. Hull (now deceased), spoke from a distant corner of my memory:
This edition will present various viewpoints about expert witnesses and provide some solid practice pointers that fall somewhere beyond the spectrum between Mr. Hull's "snow job" instruction and the observation of Professor Langbein, who, in a 1985 article, likened the manipulation of experts by some lawyers to "playing the saxophone". 
We expect this issue of The Beacon to stimulate a discussion among special education attorneys and advocates about how, when, and for what purposes the services of expert witnesses are used. Although non-attorney advocates have enormously different responsibilities than do attorneys with respect to expert witnesses, the principles and ethical considerations regarding the use of expert witnesses are as relevant for parents and lay advocates as they are for practicing attorneys.
Beyond the technical, legal, and ethical considerations of expert witness testimony is the continuing effort by education agencies and their legal counsel to restrict the ability of parent attorneys and advocates to adequately argue on behalf of disabled children and their parents.
Squarely before us are two challenges that threaten to further impede petitioners' ability to retain counsel, hire experts, gain equal access to a fair and impartial formal disputing process, and - in the end, to participate in the enforcement process guaranteed by section 1415:
Aside from these political challenges, expert witness testimony presents a number of demanding problems because unusual expert witness situations are inherent in the system of disputing under Section 1415. This section of the I.D.E.A. is the principal controlling statutory legal procedure that sets the stage for formal hearings. This hearing, in turn, sets the procedural stage for each subsequent appeal.
Yet each jurisdiction applies its own formal, and sometimes informal, procedural rules. Furthermore, we are aware that school district defense attorneys often use local rules to perform end-runs around the "rules" contained in Section 1415. This is especially true if the petitioner is appearing pro se or has non-attorney advocate representation.
Many of the hearing officer and judicial decisions that we reviewed for this edition describe, in dicta, special education matters as being "battles of experts" and as fact-intensive (sometimes described as fact-dependent). A quick review of reported state administrative hearing and court cases plainly instructs us that the purpose and role of expert witnesses in successful cases brought by parents is not for providing the hearing officer with a "snow the jury" cantata.
For instance, consider the following statement in Montgomery County Public Schools, 27 IDELR 658, (SEA Maryland 1997):
School district attorneys understand both the necessity and the benefits of using expert witnesses. One reason they do understand is because many firms retained by school districts are primarily civil tort and criminal law defense firms. (See Note  below for the "there's more white meat left on that turkey" doctrine).
Nevertheless, LRP publishes a practice manual written for school district attorneys that offers insights into the special education defense attorney's thinking and tactics.
Of the cases examined for this article, the most common influence upon decision-makers related to the credibility of the expert witnesses. The following dicta from a 1994 decision of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is instructive:
Sacramento City Unified Sch. Dist., Bd. of Educ. v. Rachel H. by Holland, 4 F.3d 1398, 20 IDELR 812, (9th Cir. 1994).
There are a few reported and prize-worthy examples of hearing officers finding school district expert witness testimony to be unsupportable.
A favorite comes from a case tried by attorney Mary Broadhurst before Hearing Officer Darrell D. Walker. 
In her the request for relief, Ms. Broadhurst's client requested reimbursement for the cost of a private school where her client had placed her son, a middle school student with learning and emotional disabilities. Prior to the hearing, the district offered various placement options within the district. The parent rejected each offered placement option.
One of the issues in this case was the reading goal written into the child's IEP. This goal called for a six-month gain in "readability" with specific short-term objectives of six-month gains in reading comprehension and vocabulary.
Mr. Lewis, a school witness, testified that the reading goal was chosen by the team because it seemed to be an expectation commonly used by the District in similar cases and was one that children like the student in question could quite likely meet. Thus, the district established the goal before they tested the child to determine the present levels of performance. The team determined the child's prior history of reading skill improvement by using an unwritten "policy" supported by guesswork.
Enter stage right, Ms. Carter, the school
district's special education coordinator and expert witness.
Hearing Officer Walker wrote:
Hearing Officer Walker,
bless your heart. Here's to surviving snowstorms and saxophone concerts.
 Mr. Hull was a respected and extraordinarily good trial attorney. One of the founding partners of an insurance defense firm in Vermont, he, in addition to the "snow the jury" gambit, also articulated the "there's more white meat left on that turkey" doctrine of billable hours.
 See Langbein, "The German Advantage in Civil Procedure" (1985) 52 U Chi Rev 823. Note: The presiding judge in German civil and criminal trials is the inquisitor. Attorneys for the parties have a limited role in the examination of witnesses, and do not perform cross-examinations. This sort of system has some allure, but it is doubtful that its application to special education, or, for that matter, any court proceeding in the United States would be an acceptable alternative to the adversarial process tempered with the evolving ADR and plea bargaining practices here.
 In Buckhannon Board & Care Home Inc. v. West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, 532 U.S. 598 (2001), the court disapproved the so-called "catalyst" theory applied by some federal courts under statutes authorizing awards of attorneys' fees to "prevailing parties." The case before the court did not involve the Civil Rights Attorney's Fees Awards Act, 42 USC 1988, but the court drew from cases under that act, and the reasoning in the opinion appears to be applicable to that act. The I.D.E.A. has long been thought to be a civil rights act - but - on close analysis of the Act together with its legislative history, a showing can be made that the I.D.E.A. is an enabling act for the furtherance of the purposes of the 14th. amendment. (References and supporting arguments are available by sending a request to email@example.com).
 Miller, Arthur R., The Adversary System: Dinosaur or Phoenix, 69 Minn.L.Rev. 1, 8-9, (1984). (Quoted by Magistrate Judge Mason in his recommendation adopted by the District Court in In re Buffets Securities Litigation, 906 F. Supp. 1293, (USDC Minnesota, Fourth Division 1995).
 See Chapter 5, Special Education Law and Practice: A Manual for the Special Education Practitioner, edited by Gary M. Reusch, published by LRP Publications, 747 Dresher Road, Suite 500, P.O. Box 980, Horsham, PA 19044. Website: http://www.lrp.com
About Brice Palmer
Brice Palmer lives in Benson, Vermont.
Copyright © 1999-2016, Peter W. D. Wright and Pamela Darr Wright. All rights reserved. Contact Us