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N.C. v. Oneida City School District

October 8, 2010

N.C. A CHILD WITH A DISABILITY, INDIVIDUALLY AND BY HER PARENT AND NEXT FRIEND, L.S., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
ONEIDA CITY SCHOOL DISTRICT, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Neal P. McCURN, Senior U.S. District Court Judge

MEMORANDUM - DECISION AND ORDER

This is an action brought by N.C., a child with a disability, individually and by her parent and next friend, L.S. ("plaintiffs"), pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA" or "the Act"). Specifically, plaintiffs seek to recover attorneys' fees from defendant Oneida City School District ("defendant"), pursuant to the provision of the IDEA for the award of attorneys' fees to prevailing parties, codified at 20 U.S.C. §1415(i)(3)(B). Currently before the court are cross-motions for summary judgment by the parties. For the reasons set forth below, defendant's motion for summary judgment is denied. Plaintiffs' summary judgment motion for attorneys' fees pursuant to the IDEA is granted.

I. FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

The following uncontested facts are taken from the plaintiffs' complaint and from the parties' motions, as well as from affidavits and exhibits attached to same. N.C. was born in 1996 and was classified by defendant's committee on special education ("CSE") as having a learning disability. N.C. attended the Oneida School District's Seneca Street Elementary School. By letter dated June 29, 2006, N.C.'s next friend, L.S., requested a due process hearing pursuant to 20 U.S.C. § 1415(f)(1),*fn1 demanding, inter alia, a finding that defendant did not provide N.C. a free appropriate public education ("FAPE") as required by the IDEA. L.S. sought, among other things, placement of N.C. in a smaller, more appropriate classroom setting with children of similar needs and abilities, and to have N.C. provided with an appropriate individualized education program ("IEP") including specialized reading and math instruction, an assistive technology evaluation, an FM auditory trainer,*fn2 an appropriate occupational therapy program, and additional corrective services to compensate for past deprivations. Plaintiffs also requested an assurance that defendant would comply with the state's regulatory requirements in the future, including provision of prior written notice, and requested payment of attorneys' fees and expenses.

Defendant appointed Robert Briglio as impartial hearing officer ("IHO"). Prior to the meeting, the parties met for settlement purposes, and in a July 24, 2006 letter to the parent, defendant stated that the district was willing to provide forty minutes of resource room instruction, forty minutes of direct consultant teacher services in math, special education counseling, and also agreed to conduct a 30-day trial of the auditory trainer. The settlement was not accepted, partially due to the defendant's resistance to including attorneys' fees in the settlement offer.

On September 15, 2006, the parties executed a consent decree, which was "so ordered" by the IHO, thus settling the case. Specifically, the consent decree called for a CSE meeting to review an inclusive placement at the Durhamville School, review of two evaluations, an FM trainer for a trial period, and a CSE meeting after that trial period to discuss its effectiveness. The consent decree also provided an evaluation in occupational therapy, and forty hours of corrective instruction.

After the consent order was signed, efforts by the plaintiffs to collect attorneys' fees and costs pursuant to the Act were unsuccessful. Arguing that they prevailed in the underlying proceedings, plaintiffs brought the current action to demand reasonable attorneys' fees and costs pursuant to 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3). Defendant argues, inter alia, that the complaint fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted and that the consent decree did not provide N.C. with any substantive educational benefits that she would not otherwise have received. Doc. No. 4. Despite efforts by the magistrate judge to encourage the parties to settle, with ample time afforded by the magistrate for them to do so (Doc. No. 10-3), defendant made no good faith effort to settle this matter. In fact, on May 30, 2008, defendant's counsel stated that her client was "adamant that they don't want to settle this." Doc. No. 10-4, p. 20. At that time, the amount requested for attorneys' fees was approximately $5155.00. Doc. No. 10-4, p. 4. Defendant never made a settlement offer. Doc. No. 10-3, p. 4.

Currently before the court is plaintiff's First Motion for Attorneys' Fees (Doc. No. 10) which the court construes as a motion for summary judgment, and defendant's cross motion for summary judgment (Doc. No. 11). For the sake of judicial efficiency, the court will initially consider defendant's motion.

II. DISCUSSION

A. The IDEA and Attorneys' Fees

"The IDEA is designed to ensure that all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs." B.W. ex rel. K.S. v. New York City Dept. of Educ., --- F.Supp.2d ----, 2010 WL 2220492 at *5 (S.D.N.Y. 2010) (citing 20 U.S.C. § 1400(d)(1)(A); Schaffer v. Weast, 546 U.S. 49, 51, 126 S.Ct. 528 (2005); A.R. ex rel. R.V. v. N.Y. City Dep't of Educ., 407 F.3d 65, 72 (2d Cir.2005). "The IDEA requires that, as a condition to receiving federal funds, a school district ensure that a disabled child receives a free and appropriate public education ("FAPE") through an Individual Education Plan ("IEP"), which "must include an assessment of the child's current educational performance, must articulate measurable educational goals, and must specify the nature of the special services that the school will provide." B.W. ex rel. K.S. v. New York City Dept. of Educ., 2010 WL 2220492 at *5 (internal citations omitted).

"The IDEA ... contains a fee-shifting provision under which a 'prevailing party' may recover attorneys' fees from the party against which it prevailed. See 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B). The first question we must address, then, is whether the Parents were "prevailing parties" in the proceedings before the IHOs." A.R. v. New York City Department of Education, 407 F.3d at 73.

1. Prevailing party

In pertinent part, 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B) states that "[i]n any action or proceeding brought under this section, the court, in its discretion, may award reasonable attorneys' fees as part of the costs -- (I) to a prevailing party who is the parent of a child with a disability ...." 20 U.S.C. § (i)(3)(B)(i)(I). "A party attains 'prevailing party' status if that party attains success on any significant issue in the litigation that achieves some of the benefit sought in bringing the litigation, and the manner of the resolution of the dispute constitutes a change in the legal relationship of the parties." B.W. ex rel K.S. v New York City Dept. of Educ., 2010 WL 2220492 at * 6.

2. Reasonable Attorney Fees

The statute also states in pertinent part that "[f]ees awarded under this paragraph shall be based on rates prevailing in the community in which the action or proceeding arose for the kind and quality of services furnished. No bonus or multiplier may be used in calculating the fees awarded under this subsection." 20 U.S.C. ยง 1415 (i)(3)(C). "Attorneys' fees may not be awarded and related costs may not be reimbursed in any action or proceeding under this section for services performed subsequent to the time of a written offer of settlement to a parent if -- ... the court or administrative hearing officer finds that ...


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