Bar Association Battles Parents
Patrick O'Donnell, Cleveland Plain Dealer, April 27, 2006
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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 non-lawyers
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
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
"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
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
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
The Parma district's lawyer complained to the bar that Woods
appeared to be working with the Winkelmans on their court
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
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