Attorney for parents of special needs kids accused of practicing without license

By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 23, 2010

Life for parents of special-needs children can be challenging on its best days and crushing on its worst, some parents like to say. The parents of kids with autism, learning disabilities and other problems band together to share stories of frustration and success, and to swap the names of the best schools, the best psychologists -- and the best lawyers.

Into this close-knit world entered Howard D. Deiner, 53. He worked his way into the inner circle by listing himself as a lawyer on a number of Web sites that cater to special education parents, operating in the legal niche for families wanting to challenge the way public schools educate -- or fail to educate -- their children.

But Deiner wasn't licensed as a lawyer for much of the time he took those cases, according to court records, and to bypass that issue he allegedly once signed another lawyer's name on important documents. He lost several cases at a point in the special education process that is the bleakest and the most critical for parents.

"I felt betrayed," said Mark Griffin of Arlington County, who hired Deiner to recoup the cost of his son's expensive private education.

A lawyer's role in the special education process is among the most complicated. Parents usually don't seek legal help until all else has been exhausted and their children with severe learning disabilities need to find the right placement.

William B. Reichhardt, a Fairfax City attorney for many such families, said lawyers must navigate the complex due process hearings against local school boards, which often are represented by top-flight private counsel. The process starts at the school level with witnesses and experts, then sometimes moves on to appeals of those hearings in state or federal court.

"The amount these families already spend on special services is astounding," Reichhardt said. "They're tapped out" before they even launch a fight with their school district.

A pattern alleged

Deiner assured numerous families that he could handle their cases even as he worked without a law license for more than three years, the District of Columbia Bar alleges in pending charges against Deiner. He then collected thousands of dollars from many of them but did little or no legal work, according to court records and interviews with parents.

Virginia and D.C. court documents show a pattern of Deiner's collecting thousands in retainers, and fees of $285 an hour, then not returning phone calls and e-mails while doing no work. At other times, records show, he did poor work and lost cases because of poor preparation or presentation.

Deiner told some parents that he had a disabled child, which was how he became interested in special education law.

"The guy sucks you in," said Sharon Cheich, who, with her husband, Ronald, paid Deiner more than $15,000 and lost their case against the Arlington school system. "You think, 'Oh my God, this guy empathizes with us.' This guy has conned so many people. It's unbelievable."

The Griffins sued Deiner last year, and an Arlington judge awarded them not only the $13,500 Deiner cost them, but also $100,000 in punitive damages. Deiner's conduct was "one of the most egregious things I've ever heard," the judge said.

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