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.
In November, Arlington police arrested Deiner on charges of felony fraud and misdemeanor practice of law without a license. He is licensed only in the District and had no license at all between January 2006 and last April, D.C. Bar records show. The criminal case is pending.
The D.C. Bar has filed 74 charges of misconduct against him in cases involving eight families, which also are pending.
And, apparently, he's still representing special education families.
Numerous area lawyers who specialize in the narrow field of special education law say Deiner continues to work in Virginia, which he can do legally in the schools' internal hearing processes but cannot do if the case enters the court system.
Deiner filed a lawsuit in late 2008 in U.S. District Court in Alexandria on behalf of an Arlington couple whose case he had lost in a due process hearing. He had not paid his bar dues for years and had no law license anywhere, D.C. Bar records show. However, Deiner allegedly signed a licensed lawyer's name to the suit, according to the other lawyer and other pleadings in the case. He was soon fired, but no charges have been filed.
Deiner's response to all of this, almost uniformly, has been no response. To the D.C. Bar's many complaints, he has not responded. To the civil suit against him, he did not respond, resulting in a default judgment. In the criminal case, proceedings were delayed because he had no attorney.
Deiner declined to comment when approached at a recent court date on his criminal case in Arlington, and he did not respond to messages left on his phone and his e-mail and at his front door. He works out of his home on Illinois Street in Arlington and has met his clients in their houses or in restaurants, never at his office, families said.
Some associations wouldn't delete Deiner's name from their listings until Pete Wright, a nationally known special education consultant and lawyer who created the "Wrightslaw" Web site, http://www.wrightslaw.com, pressured them to do so after confronting Deiner.
"That someone would falsely hold themselves out as a lawyer to parents of children with a disability, that is about as bad as it gets," Wright said. "To put this on these parents, how self-centered can somebody be?"
Deiner remains listed on at least two Web sites for families with autism as a lawyer who might be consulted for help with school problems.
Reichhardt, who has practiced special education law for years, said at least six families have come to him after bad experiences with Deiner. Reston lawyer William Brownley said he also has picked up several of Deiner's former clients. And lawyers John F. Cafferky of Fairfax City and Kathleen S. Mehfoud of Richmond, who together represent nearly all of the school districts in Virginia in special education cases, said they have had recent contact with Deiner.
"There are cases where he's advised parents to remove their kids from school, place them in private school and he will get the money from the school district," Reichhardt said. That can happen, lawyers said, when a school district is found unable to accommodate a special-needs child, and districts can be ordered to pay tens of thousands of dollars a year to a private school -- if the parents win.
Deiner obtained a law license in the District in 1984, according to D.C. Bar records, and worked as a labor lawyer for a firm in the city in the 1990s. But in the 2000s, Wright and others said, he began representing families in their dealings with local school districts. Some of those parents passed his name around, he began appearing on the Web sites of nationally known groups such as the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, the Autism Society of America and the Center for Special Education Advocacy, and his business grew.
When he failed to pay his annual D.C. Bar dues and registration statement by the end of 2005, his license was suspended there, D.C. Bar records show. He has never been licensed in Virginia.
Still, some parents allege, he did not advise his clients that he wasn't licensed. His letterhead and retainer agreements during the three years he was unlicensed stated that he was an attorney, documents show.
The bar charges
As Ronald and Sharon Cheich battled the Arlington school district over their daughter's education, they realized their advocacy wasn't enough. In April 2008, they said, Deiner came to their home and explained the process -- the schools' due process hearings to determine a child's individual education plan and the state or federal court system in the event of an appeal.
"We said: 'We don't want an advocate. We need a lawyer to take this case from cradle to grave,' " Ronald Cheich said. "He said, 'I'm your guy.' Never did he say, 'I don't have a license.' "
After numerous meetings with the Arlington district, Deiner filed for a due process hearing in December 2008, and a four-day hearing was held in February and March of last year.
In a detailed ruling written by the hearing officer, lawyer Robert J. Hartsoe, the Cheiches lost. Hartsoe repeatedly pointed out that Deiner "declined to call three material witnesses . . . did not call the child's tutor . . . did not call the child's long-time therapist . . . introduced no evidence on this issue . . . did not carry the burden of proof . . . did not introduce testimony."
Soon after, at a coffee with other parents, Sharon Cheich learned that Deiner wasn't a lawyer when he represented them. Their case forms the basis of the criminal prosecution against him.
And according to the D.C. Bar, there are many similar cases. Two stacks of bar charges filed against him allege:
-- In December 2008, a Reston woman hired Deiner after her daughter had been recommended for expulsion from high school. She needed help fast. Deiner agreed to intervene for an initial retainer of $1,500, then took no action over the next month and didn't return phone calls, e-mails or the $1,500.
-- In April 2006, a Prince William County couple hired Deiner for help dealing with the Prince William schools. During one "very contentious" meeting with schools officials eight months later, Deiner "sat in silence during the meeting" and took no action. In 2007, the family demanded that Deiner return more than $9,000 in fees they had paid him but never got a response.
-- In 2005, when Deiner was still licensed in the District, he won a case against Arlington and the district was ordered to pay his attorney's fees to an Arlington parent. Deiner requested $7,500, and Arlington countered with an offer of nearly $4,000. Then, Deiner stopped responding to the Arlington parent, who never received any of her attorney's fees back.
Mark and Melissa Griffin of Arlington hired Deiner to represent them against the Arlington schools in August 2008 after they were told by consultants and experts that they had a good chance to recoup the costs of their son's private education. But Deiner never told the Griffins that he wasn't a licensed lawyer, Mark Griffin said, and after he lost their due process hearing, he filed an appeal in federal court in Alexandria.
Because he wasn't licensed in Virginia, Deiner signed Brownley's name to the suit, Brownley said and court documents corroborate. Deiner was fired, having been paid more than $11,000, and another lawyer was hired. The case was too old by then, though, and was dismissed.
The Griffins sued Deiner last August and won a default judgment in November that included the $100,000 punitive award from Arlington Circuit Court Judge William T. Newman Jr. "As disappointed as we were," Griffin said, "all we wanted was our money back."
"Attorney for Parents of Special Needs Kids Accused of Practicing Without License" Washington Post, April 23, 2010