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S.M v. Taconic Hills Central

September 10, 2012

S.M., INDIVIDUALLY AND AS PARENT AND NEXT FRIEND OF F.M., A CHILD WITH A DISABILITY, PLAINTIFF,
v.
TACONIC HILLS CENTRAL SCHOOL DISTRICT, DEFENDANT.



DECISION and ORDER

Plaintiff S.M. ("Plaintiff" or "S.M."), individually and as parent of F.M., commenced the instant action seeking to recover attorneys' fees under the fee shifting provision of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq. Dkt. Nos. 1 ("Complaint"), 11 ("Motion"). Defendant opposes Plaintiff's Motion for attorneys' fees. Dkt. No. 13 ("Response").

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff S.M. is the parent of F.M., a child with a disability as defined by the IDEA. Compl. ¶¶ 1-2. F.M. was born in 2000 and suffers from an autistic spectrum disorder. Id. ¶ 8. In November 2006, F.M. was placed at the Anderson Center for Autism in Staatsburg, New York pursuant to the individualized education program ("IEP") recommenced by Defendant's Committee on Special Education ("CSE"). Id. ¶ 10. Thereafter, F.M's parents learned that F.M. had been abused by Anderson staff. Id. ¶ 12. On May 6, 2009, F.M.'s parents removed F.M. from Anderson. Id. ¶ 13.

Following F.M.'s removal from Anderson, Defendant's CSE recommended that F.M. receive services at the local school. Id. ¶ 14. For the 2009-10 school year, the CSE recommended that F.M. attend the Children's Annex. By letter dated July 2, 2009, Plaintiff demanded a due process hearing pursuant to 20 U.S.C. § 1415(f)(1). Id. ¶ 15. Plaintiff contended that Defendant did not provide F.M. with a free appropriate public education ("FAPE") as required by the IDEA for the 2007-08, 2008-09, and 2009-10 school years. Id. ¶¶ 16-17.

On July 2, 2009, Defendant offered a resolution agreement that was rejected by Plaintiff. Id. ¶ 21. An Impartial Hearing Officer ("IHO") conducted hearings on August 5, 18, 19, and 20, 2009. Id. ¶¶ 18-19, 22. On August 5, Defendant stipulated that it denied F.M. a FAPE during the 2007-08 and 2008-09 school years and that it was unable to implement the IEP that was developed for the 2009-10 school year. Id. ¶ 23. Following additional testimony and negotiations, the parties entered into a consent decree on September 29, 2009. Id. ¶¶ 24-28. The IHO approved the consent decree on October 8, 2009. Id. ¶ 26. Plaintiff then commenced the instant action seeking to recover attorneys' fees pursuant to 20 U.S.C. § 1415 for the administrative proceeding and the instant action. Id. at 8-9.

II. DISCUSSION

As part of its purpose to ensure that children with disabilities receive a FAPE, the IDEA provides that "[i]n any action or proceeding brought under [the IDEA], [a] court, in its discretion, may award reasonable attorneys' fees as part of the costs to the parents of a child with a disability who is the prevailing party." 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B). Such fees "shall be based on rates prevailing in the community in which the action or proceeding arose for the kind and quality of services furnished." Id. § 1415(i)(3)(C).

It is undisputed that Defendant failed to provide a FAPE and that Plaintiff obtained relief at the administrative level. Accordingly, Plaintiff is eligible for an award of attorneys' fees. However, there is significant dispute over the amount of any such fees.

Plaintiff seeks to recover costs and attorneys fees in the amount of $146,148.48, broken down into the following categories: Category Attorney/Paralegal Hours Rate Amount Hearing Andrew Cuddy 314.1 $275.00 $86,377.50 Michael Cuddy 51.1 $250.00 $12,775.00 Jason Sterne 18.6 $275.00 $5,115.00 Diane Zambotti 93.2 $100.00 $9,320.00 Rachel Gee 48.1 $100.00 $4,810.00 Travel Andrew Cuddy 53.8 $137.50 $7,397.50 Michael Cuddy 20.1 $125.00 $2,512.50 Federal Jason Stern 26.3 $275.00 $7,232.50 Andrew Cuddy 22.4 $275.00 $6,160.00 Costs $4,448.48 --------------- TOTAL $146,148.48 Affirmation of Andrew K. Cuddy(Dkt. No. 11-1) ("Cuddy Affirmation") ¶ 56.

A. Whether Plaintiff Obtained a De Minimis Benefit

Defendant first claims that any award of attorneys' fees should be significantly reduced because Plaintiff achieved only a de minimis benefit. In particular, Defendant argues that Plaintiff's attorneys expended an enormous amount of attorney time pursuing the matter before the IHO only to achieve a consent decree that was virtually identical to that which the District offered in July 2009, before the time the District even filed a response to Plaintiff's administrative complaint. Plaintiff responds that the consent decree was substantially different than the District's offer because, although it covered the same topics, it included detailed time-frames and specific obligations on the school that were missing from Defendant's offer and also required the school to provide services to F.M. in the District until it could secure an appropriate placement elsewhere.

The Court has little doubt that Plaintiff's attorneys put in substantial time and effort in attempting to achieve the best possible outcome for their client. That being said, in light of the procedural history of this matter, it appears that the parties were not (or should not have been) very far apart in terms of resolving the matter amongst themselves. Defendant did not object to F.M.'s removal from Anderson. In fact, Defendant had previously worked with Plaintiff to file a joint complaint with the State Education Department charging that Anderson violated F.M.'s IEP by failing to provide sign language instruction. Defendant also worked to place F.M at the Children's Annex and was advised that a spot was available for F.M. Once Plaintiff filed a complaint seeking a due process hearing, Defendant reached out to Plaintiff in an attempt to resolve the matter. By letter dated July 20, 2009, Defendant submitted a proposal to Plaintiff to resolve her complaint. Although some details may have been absent, there is no indication that Plaintiff attempted to fill in those details before continuing with the administrative hearing.

Upon commencement of the hearing before the IHO, Defendant conceded that F.M. had been denied a FAPE. At that point, the only remaining issues pertained to developing an appropriate IEP for F.M. going forward. Most significantly, the consent decree ultimately obtained in late September is substantially similar to Defendant's settlement offer two months earlier. The Court acknowledges that the consent decree provides specific obligations on the District and sets forth details omitted from Defendant's proposal that were, quite understandably, important to Plaintiff and F.M.'s education. The Court concludes, however, that, in light of the foregoing, the parties could have negotiated these details and specifics in a more efficient manner and very likely without requiring significant testimony before the IHO. Accordingly, a reduction in attorneys' fees is warranted for the de minimis additional benefit obtained over Defendant's pre-hearing offer.

B. Whether the Matter was Unnecessarily Protracted to Ensure the Availability of Attorney's Fees Defendant next argues that Plaintiff's counsel unnecessarily protracted this matter through the administrative process in an effort to obtain an administratively sanctioned consent decree, which is a necessary prerequisite for an award of attorneys' fees. A.R. ex rel. R.V. v. New York City Dept. of Educ., 407 F.3d 65, 76-77 (2d Cir. 2005) (holding that "[s]ettlement of an IDEA administrative proceeding, followed by a dismissal of the proceedings -- without more -- does not render the plaintiff a 'prevailing party' for statutory fee-shifting purposes. . . .," but that an administratively sanctioned consent order does render the plaintiff a prevailing party for fee-shifting purposes). In support, Defendant points to the evidence discussed and above and cites N.C. v. Oneida City Sch. Dist., No. 5:07-cv-01230, 2010 WL 3981823, at *6 (N.D.N.Y. Oct. 8, 2010), wherein it was specifically noted that "the Cuddy law firm is known for requiring consent decrees. . . ." Defendant also cites V.G. v. Auburn Enlarged Cent. Sch. Dist., at *15 (N.D.N.Y. Dec. 9, 2008), in which the court noted that the plaintiffs should ...


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