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Pro Se Plea: Parents Seek the Right to Represent Their Son's Case in Federal Court
Parents whose children are denied a free and appropriate education at State level hearings cannot represent their child in Federal Court, says the 6th US Circuit Court of Appeals. "All a district has to do is take the case to the courts," said Sandee Winkelman, a parent hoping that the US Supreme Court hears their plea. "If you can't find or pay for an attorney, you're done." We must change this. Betsy Combier
Parents seek right to argue case in court
Sunday, December 25, 2005
Patrick O'Donnell, Plain Dealer Reporter


Parma- Jeff and Sandee Winkelman hope the U.S. Supreme Court won't make them spend more of their savings on lawyer bills to get the education they want for their autistic son.

After spending an estimated $30,000 in legal fees contesting the Parma city schools' special-education plan for Jacob, 6, the Winkelmans have asked the Supreme Court to let them skip lawyers and represent themselves.

Their claim, which the court has not yet agreed to hear, seeks to overturn a 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that tossed out the Winkelmans' case against the Parma district. For the evidence to be considered, a lawyer - not the Winkelmans - would have to present it.

If the justices don't hear the case or rule against the Parma couple, it would be the second time they have sided against parents of special-education students this session. In November, the court ruled parents have the burden of proving that a school district is wrong if they disagree with its plan for educating a disabled student.

The Winkelmans think it's unfair that they should have to hire a lawyer to do that in court. While taxes cover a school district's legal bills, they said, parents have to work two jobs, deplete savings and take out second mortgages.

To keep costs down, Sandee Winkelman spent hours researching laws and court decisions at the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law library, then writing her own court filings. Meanwhile, Jeff works a second job for an ambulance service after his regular shift at a dialysis center.

"All a district has to do is take the case to the courts," said Sandee Winkelman. "If you can't find or pay for an attorney, you're done."

After the circuit court's ruling, Los Angeles lawyer Jean-Claude Andre volunteered to try to overturn it so that parents can plead their own cases. At Andre's request, the Supreme Court agreed this month to delay closing the Winkelman case while he prepares a full appeal.

"There are a lot of families like the Winkelmans who can't afford a lawyer to represent them," Andre said. "Parents of modest means are at an extreme disadvantage if they can't fight for their children in federal court."

The Parma school district claims that the Winkelmans' constant court challenges are frivolous and that relaxing the rules would tie up school districts and courts needlessly. The district has already spent more than $192,000 on legal fees.

The Winkelmans have been challenging the district's plans for Jacob since 2003. The parents want the district to pay for the private Monarch School in Shaker Heights, which costs $56,000 a year, while the district wants to teach the child in-house.

The Winkelmans find Parma's plan lacking, particularly in how it addresses behavioral problems caused by the autism. The district calls the parents' wishes excessive and says it can provide a better education by having the boy interact with nondisabled classmates.

State hearing officers have twice sided with the district, as has the U.S. District Court in Cleveland. The school board is now considering suing the Winkelmans for filing frivolous appeals.

"Every step of the way, we've won," said board President Kevin Kelley. "It's now becoming a nuisance."

Superintendent Sarah Zatik said the district has a limited budget for its 13,000 students, 2,000 of whom need some extra attention because of varying disabilities. If the district paid for Jacob to attend the private school just because his parents want him to, she said, it would set a precedent for claims from hundreds of other parents.

Christina Henagen Peer, a lawyer at Squire Sanders and Dempsey representing the district, said there are broader reasons to block parents from representing themselves. She also represented the Cardinal schools in Geauga County in winning a similar case against self-representation involving a family there.

Peer noted that parents are allowed to represent themselves and their children in the first two rounds of appeals to state hearing officers. But once the matter reaches the courts, she said, nonlawyers can bog down the process, leading to delays and extra expense.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court - which covers Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee - ruled in both the Parma and Cardinal cases that long-established standards allow nonlawyers to represent themselves but not a third party in court. In special-education cases, the court noted, the real party is the child, not the parents.

Only a lawyer could adequately represent a child, the court ruled, and special-education laws do not expressly allow parents to do so.

Andre, who plans to file the Winkelmans' appeal to the Supreme Court in late January, said he believes the court will consider the case, if only because other courts disagree with the 6th Circuit.

The 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers much of New England, has ruled that parents have standing to represent their children as "aggrieved parties."

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:, 216-999-4818

© 2005 The Plain Dealer

Bar Association battles parents
Says couple served as lawyers

Patrick O'Donnell, Plain Dealer Reporter


The Cleveland Bar Association is threatening to fine the parents of an autistic boy $10,000 for not hiring a lawyer when they brought, and largely won, a court case on their son's behalf four years ago.

After a long court battle, Brian and Susan Woods settled their case with the Akron school district in 2002 when the district agreed to send Daniel, now 11, to a private school.

But in February, the Cleveland Bar Association took issue with the Woodses' handling parts of that case themselves and not through a lawyer.

The bar charged them with unauthorized practice of law and threatened a $10,000 fine, saying that although the Woodses were allowed to represent themselves, they could not act as lawyers for their son. The charge is normally filed against nonlawyers who provide legal services for pay, but is rare against parents.

Representatives of several advocacy groups - plus the National School Boards Association, the American Bar Association and the Ohio bar's Committee on the Unauthorized Practice of Law - could not recall any cases of parents being charged with this misdemeanor offense.

Last week, the Ohio Supreme Court, which will ultimately decide the case, ordered the bar to present evidence on why the case should not be dismissed, saying it appeared that "Woods has not engaged in the unauthorized practice of law."

Michael Harvey, the Rocky River lawyer handling the charges for the bar association, said the goal is to protect the rights of children. Harvey said special education laws are so complex that children need experts, not untrained parents, looking out for their rights.

"You hope parents will do the right job for the child, but that's not always the case," Harvey said.

Harvey said that although the bar is officially seeking a $10,000 fine, it would be happy with an admission that the Woodses broke the law and an agreement not to do it again.

Brian Woods thinks he's being intimidated to prevent parents from handling cases themselves - and to protect the large fees lawyers charge for such cases, which can easily run into the tens of thousands of dollars.

"The purpose of this is to harass us," said Woods.

He said parents' and children's interests are so intertwined in such cases that separating them is impossible. Federal law gives parents a role in determining their children's special education plan.

Woods also said the charges are unfair because courts had not specifically ruled against parents handling special education cases until 2005. Federal courts handling other regions of the country have allowed it.

Harvey said that courts have long held that nonlawyers cannot represent others and that courts covering Ohio have made no exceptions for parents of special education children.

The Woodses and the bar association also are involved in a long-running battle over the separate but related case of a Parma family, which is now being appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Since 2004, the bar association has been investigating whether Brian Woods improperly advised Jeff and Sandee Winkelman, whose autistic son attends the same school as the Woodses' son, in their case against the Parma school district.

The Winkelmans are now asking the U.S. Supreme Court to decide whether parents can represent their disabled children in federal court.

The Parma district's lawyer complained to the bar that Woods appeared to be working with the Winkelmans on their court filings.

In a letter to Harvey, the Winkelmans said that they had discussed their case with Woods, he had attended a hearing with them for moral support and he lent them his laptop computer when their own computer was broken.

Woods has refused to return Harvey's phone calls about either case and has not responded to multiple subpoenas, each time saying they were invalid because of errors.

The Cleveland Bar Association's charges against Brian Woods in the Winkelman case are pending before a state board, which will give its recommendation to the Ohio Supreme Court.

Advocacy groups for parents and disabled children have called the charges against the Woodses - as well as subpoenas of the Winkelmans to testify about Brian Woods - "egregious" and an unfair hindrance to parents trying to help their children.

Brian Wolfman, a lawyer for the Public Citizen group in Washington, D.C., who has helped with the Winkelmans' Supreme Court appeal, called the investigations and charges a "misuse of resources" that could be better spent on reforming laws. Families, he said, should be treated as a single unit in education cases.

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:, 216-999-4818

Pro Se Plea: Parents Seek the Right to Represent Their Son's Case in Federal Court

From The E-Accountability Foundation: The reason that district courts say that parents cannot represent their child in federal court is because the child is considered a third party. We have listed below a few of the thousands of resources available online, if you google "Pro Se":

Self-representation is permitted in criminal cases:

Appointment and Payment of Counsel

Western District of Virginia

Eastern District of Kansas Criminal Justice Act Plan

Texas Procedures

Pro Se Resources

Representing Yourself in Court

American Pro Se Association

Pro Se Resources From WizardLaw

Pro Se Law Center

Pro Se Representation

Pro Se Handbook (Idaho)

Pro Se Resource Center

Pro Se Assistance Sites (MAINE)

AJS Pro Se Forum

Representing Yourself in Court (Florida District Court)

But pro se litigants can be sabotaged:

Pro Se Way

CAROL STRONSTORFF, Plaintiff, is denied her right to self-representation in federal court
Draft of her papers

American Bar Association Guides to Undermining pro se litigants

© 2003 The E-Accountability Foundation