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E.R. v. Vineland Board of Education

November 10, 2003

E.R., INDIVIDUALLY AND ON BEHALF OF HER SON, C.D., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
VINELAND BOARD OF EDUCATION, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Jerome B. Simandle United States District Judge

OPINION

On March 13, 2003, Ms. Tracée Edmondson, identifying herself as "Consultant/Advocate for Plaintiff," filed a "Motion for Fees and Costs" with this Court, asserting that "Plaintiff E.R. by way of Complaint" seeks $21,500 payment from defendant Vineland Board of Education for Ms. Edmondson's efforts as "consultant and advocate" in "securing an appropriate [special education] placement" for C.D. [Docket Item 1-1.] Ms. Edmondson has since filed a motion for summary judgment, seeking payment of her fees, [Docket Item 5-1], and defendant has filed a cross-motion for summary judgment, arguing that the Complaint must be dismissed because Ms. Edmondson is not an attorney licensed to practice law, [Docket Item 7-1]. Moreover, in an astonishing turn of events, her supposed client, E.R., has subscribed an affidavit that she never authorized this filing by Edmondson on her behalf and that she in fact disagrees that Edmondson is entitled to recover any fee from Vineland Board of Education, adding that she had not even spoken with Edmondson about this matter for more than two years.

This Court provided Ms. Edmondson an opportunity to explain whether she is engaged in the unauthorized practice of law. [Docket Item 10-1.] In reply, she certified that "[i]t is not -- nor has it ever been -- my intention to be engaged in the unauthorized practice of law. Although I did sit for the LSATs, I have never possessed the desire to practice law." [Docket Item 11-1.] She reemphasized that she is seeking payment of fees here for her efforts as advocate and consultant for E.R. and C.D. (Id.)

This Court finds that Ms. Edmondson, by filing and pursuing this lawsuit, has engaged in the unauthorized practice of law. The Court will grant defendant's motion for summary judgment, and will dismiss this case. Further, the Court will refer this matter to the attention of the New Jersey Supreme Court's Committee on Unauthorized Practice of Law for such action, if any, as the Committee sees fit.

I. BACKGROUND

Tracée Edmondson filed a Complaint with this Court on March 13, 2003, asserting that plaintiff E.R. (Elizabeth Reyes) had authorized her to file this action to seek payment for fees that Ms. Edmondson incurred between January and April 2001 as an "advocate and consultant" for Ms. Reyes who needed to secure an appropriate educational placement for her special needs child, C.D., after they had moved to Vineland, New Jersey in November, 2000. (Complaint ¶¶1-5, 12.) She certified that Ms. Reyes "filed a request for an Emergent Relief Hearing with Ms. Barbara Gantwerk, Director, Office of Special Education, New Jersey Department of Education, requesting a change of placement and a new IEP" in February 2001, that the matter was transferred to the Office of Administrative Law, and that the matter was heard on February 27, 2001. (Complaint ¶¶6-7.) The Administrative Law Judge ordered the Vineland Board of Education to provide C.D. an alternate and immediate placement. (Complaint ¶¶8-9.)

The Complaint provides that "Tracée Edmondson, President and Founder of Total Envolvement -- a Consulting Service Provider and a consultant in the area of civil rights and in the area of education of children with special needs, successfully represented the parent at the emergent relief hearing before the OAL. . . . WHEREFORE, the plaintiff demands judgment against defendant Vineland Board of Education [for] reasonable fees and related costs incurred by E.R. in the administrative hearing" and for "[s]uch other relief as the Court deems just." (Complaint ¶¶11, 12.) Ms. Edmondson certified that between the months of January and March 2001, her time spent on the C.D. matter "totaled 86 hours at my billing rate of $250 per hour, which equals $21,500." (Complaint, Ex. B, Aff. of Services.)

On July 28, 2003, again labeling herself as "Consultant/Advocate for Plaintiff," Ms. Edmondson filed "Plaintiffs' Brief in Support of Motion for Fees and Expenses," again arguing that "plaintiffs are the prevailing part and entitled to reasonable fees and expenses." [Docket Item 5-1.]

Defendant filed opposition to plaintiff's motion and filed a cross-motion for summary judgment on August 22, 2003. [Docket Item 7-1.] In its papers, defendant informed the Court of two issues with Ms. Edmondson's submissions. First, it did not believe that Ms. Edmondson was an attorney, so was engaged in the unauthorized practice of law. Second, it did not think that Ms. Edmondson had her client's permission to file the lawsuit. Defendant attached to its cross-motion the affidavit of Elizabeth Reyes, who certified that she never gave permission to Ms. Edmondson to file this suit. (Def. Ex. F.) According to Ms. Reyes, when she and her children moved from Newark, New Jersey to Vineland, New Jersey in December 2000, she thought that Ms. Edmondson, her brother's girlfriend of two years, volunteered to "help me in arranging for my children to attend Vineland Public Schools." (Id. ¶2.) She certified that "[n]either at the time when she first offered to help nor at any time since then has she ever told me that she was charging for her help." (Id. ¶3.)

Ms. Reyes further certified that she has "not spoken to Tracee Edmondson since March 2001." (Id. ¶6.) She says that they had a disagreement in March 2001 when she learned that Ms. Edmondson had "informed the Child Study Team to deal directly with her [Ms. Edmondson], but I wanted to be involved in all of the discussions involving my children." (Id. ¶5.) Ms. Reyes then certified that she never gave Ms. Edmondson any permission to file this suit for fees, stating:

I have reviewed the court papers filed by her where she is claiming money for work that she says she did for me. I never authorized her to use my name or my son's name in this court suit and I am not looking for any money from the Vineland Board of Education for her work. I do not give her permission to keep this lawsuit going in my name and my son's name.
(Id.)

Tracée Edmondson filed a "Brief in Response to Opposition and In Opposition of Cross Motion" on September 2, 2003, again identifying herself as "Consultant/Advocate for Plaintiff." [Docket Item 9-1.] She did not respond to the defendant's charge that she was engaged in the unauthorized practice of law, but she did respond to the charge that she did not have her client's permission to file this suit. According to Ms. Edmondson, defendant's counsel "coerced [Ms. Reyes] to sign an Affidavit under false pretenses" which "was filled with inconsistencies and untruths," (Statement of Facts ¶1), because she says that in 2001, "E.R. understood and agreed that the only source of compensation for services rendered would come (a) if we prevailed in securing appropriate placements and related services for her children and (b) only through a request to the State or Federal Court," (id. ¶3).

This Court then sent a letter to Ms. Edmondson on September 5, 2003 to clarify whether she was engaged in the unauthorized practice of law and whether she had evidence that Ms. Reyes authorized this suit. [Docket Item 10-1.] The Court explained its concern that:

You are not a member of the bar and no court rule permits anyone other than an attorney to represent someone else. Nonetheless, you have filed a motion for attorney's fees, as well as a motion for summary judgment, purporting to represent "E.R., individually and on behalf of her son, C.D."
(Id.) The Court then noted that New Jersey Court Rules, under certain circumstances, authorize non-lawyers with knowledge or training with respect to handicapped pupils and their educational needs to ...

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