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B.R. v. Lake Placid Central School District

March 10, 2009

B.R., A CHILD WITH A DISABILITY, INDIVIDUALLY AND BY HIS PARENT AND NEXT FRIEND, R.R., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
LAKE PLACID CENTRAL SCHOOL DISTRICT, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Gary L. Sharpe U.S. District Judge

DECISION AND ORDER

Following the execution of an agreement with the Lake Placid Central School District ("the School District"), B.R., through his parent R.R. (collectively referred as the "Plaintiffs"), filed this motion for summary judgment seeking attorneys fees pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq.*fn1 The School District responded with its own motion for summary judgment. After reviewing the parties' motions, briefs in support thereof, responses, and the record on the matter, the court grants the plaintiffs' motion and denies the School District's motion.

BACKGROUND

The following relevant facts are undisputed. On July 24, 2006, the plaintiffs initiated an administrative proceeding requesting a Demand for a Due Process Hearing (the "hearing") because they were dissatisfied with the Individualized Education Plan ("IEP") B.R. was receiving at the School District. (Ex. A to Cuddy's Affirmation) More than ten days prior to the commencement of the hearing, the School District submitted an Offer of Settlement. (Ex. B to Cuddy's Affirmation, Offer of Settlement) However, the plaintiffs did not respond to such offer. (School District's Memorandum of Law at p. 1.) The plaintiffs proceeded to the hearing and the parties, on September 6, 2006, settled the matter signing a "Consent Decree." (Ex. B to Cuddy's Affirmation, Consent Decree)

On November 9, 2008, the plaintiffs filed the instant action seeking attorneys fees. The School District responded with its own motion for summary judgment arguing, among other things, that plaintiffs are not entitled to recover attorneys fees due to their failure to comply with the Local Rule 7.1 and for not being the prevailing party under the IDEA.

DISCUSSION

To defeat a summary judgment motion, the nonmoving party must show sufficient evidence to create a genuine issue of material fact. Wills v. Amerada Hess Corp., 379 F.3d 32, 41 (2d Cir. 2004). The nonmoving party must provide more than a scintilla of evidence. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 252 (1986). In other words, the party must present sufficient evidence to permit a reasonable juror to find in its favor, but the nonmoving party cannot simply rely on unsupported allegations in attempting to survive a summary judgment motion. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 325 (1986).*fn2

"The IDEA's central mandate is to provide disabled students with a free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment suitable for their needs." Cave v. East Meadow Union Free School Dist., 514 F.3d 240, 245 (2d Cir. 2008) (quotations and citation omitted). "Under the educational scheme of the IDEA, parents of students with disabling conditions are guaranteed both an opportunity for meaningful input into all decisions affecting their child's education and the right to seek review of any decisions they think inappropriate." Id. (parenthesis omitted). "Parents are specifically entitled to request a due process hearing in order to present complaints as to any matter relating to the identification, evaluation, or educational placement of the child, or to the provision of a free appropriate public education." Id. (citations omitted). "New York has opted for a two-tier administrative system for review of [Individual Education Plans]." Id. "First, an impartial hearing officer is selected from a list of certified officers and appointed by the local board of education or the competent state agency to conduct the initial hearing and issue a written decision." Id. That decision can then be appealed to a state review officer of the New York Education Department. Id.

The "IDEA expressly provides that any party aggrieved by the final state decision shall have the right to bring a civil action challenging the decision in any State court of competent jurisdiction or in a district court of the United States." Bay Shore Union Free Sch. Dist. v. Kain, 485 F.3d 730, 732 (2d Cir. 2007) (quotations and citation omitted). A district court may in its discretion award attorneys fees to a prevailing party in an IDEA proceeding or action. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B)(i)(I); see also Mr. B. v. East Granby Bd. of Educ., 201 F.App'x. 834, *2 (2d Cir. 2006). Under the IDEA, attorneys fees may not be awarded if the court determines that the relief obtained by the parents is not more favorable to the parents than the offer of settlement. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(D)(III). The IDEA also indicates attorneys fees should be reduced if the court finds that the parent has unreasonably protracted the final resolution of the controversy, the hourly rate unreasonably exceeds the applicable prevailing rate, or time expended is excessive. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(F)(i)-(iii).

The parties' disputes are: (1) whether the plaintiffs are prevailing parties within the meaning of the IDEA for the purpose of recovering attorneys' fees; and (2) the amount of attorneys fees, if any.*fn3

Prevailing Party

The Second Circuit has recognized that an individual can be the prevailing party by virtue of having obtained IDEA relief through a settlement or consent decree. See A.R. v. N.Y.C. Dep't of Educ., 407 F.3d 65, 78 (2d Cir. 2005). In A.R., the Second Circuit stated dispositive administrative orders incorporating the terms of settlements affords a party prevailing status. Id. at 77. The Court noted, "[w]e think that [administrative consent decrees] evidence the same combination of administrative imprimatur, change in the legal relationship of the parties, and judicial enforceability that renders the winner on the merits in an [Impartial Hearing Officer ("IHO")] decision . . . . a "prevailing party" under the IDEA []." Id.

Here, the parties proceeded to a hearing before an IHO and agreed to, and signed, a Consent Decree which incorporated almost every item plaintiffs requested in their demand for a due process hearing. The IHO signed and ordered the decree. This gave rise to the "combination of administrative imprimatur, a change in the legal relationship of the parties, and judicial enforceability" rendering plaintiffs the prevailing party ...


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