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M.C. v. Lake George Central School District

United States District Court, Second Circuit

April 29, 2013

M.C., individually and on behalf of W.C., a child with a disability, Plaintiff,
v.
LAKE GEORGE CENTRAL SCHOOL DISTRICT, Defendant.

DECISION and ORDER

LAWRENCE E. KAHN, District Judge.

I. INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff M.C. ("Plaintiff") brought this action individually and on behalf of W.C. against Defendant Lake George Central School District ("Defendant") under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq. See Dkt. No. 1 ("Complaint"). Plaintiff has now moved the Court for attorney's fees. Dkt. No. 17 ("Motion"). For the following reasons, the Court grants Plaintiff's Motion in part.

II. BACKGROUND

Because the present Motion is simply for attorney's fees, the Court recites the facts of the case only briefly for context. For a more complete statement of the facts, reference is made to the Court's September 6, 2010, Decision and Order. Dkt. No. 16.

W.C. has a learning disability and was a minor when relevant to this action. Dkt. No. 13-9 at 1; Dkt. No. 14 at 1. Dissatisfied with W.C.'s Individualized Education Program ("IEP") as implemented by Defendant, W.C.'s parents withdrew him from Defendant's school and enrolled him in a Waldorf school within the Saratoga Springs City School District. Dkt. No. 13-20 ¶¶ 60, 62, 84. In October 2009, W.C.'s parents requested from Defendant a due process hearing under the IDEA. Id . ¶ 1. In May 2010, the Impartial Hearing Officer ("IHO") conducting the due process hearing ordered Defendant to reimburse W.C.'s parents for all tuition and related expenses for W.C.'s placement at the Waldorf school from November 16, 2007, until the end of the 2008-2009 school year. Dkt. No. 13-14. The IHO also ordered Defendant to conduct a triennial evaluation of W.C. and to provide one-on-one compensatory reading instruction with a certified reading instructor for two hours per day, five days a week, from June 1, 2010, to September 1, 2010. See id.

On appeal, a State Review Officer ("SRO") annulled the IHO's order of reimbursement, modified the compensatory instruction order to occur from July 1, 2010, to October 1, 2010, and found that Defendant failed to appeal the compensatory instruction issue. See Dkt. No. 13-20 ¶ 8; Dkt. No. 13-16. Plaintiff then appealed to the Court seeking annulment of the SRO's decision-and thus reinstatement of the IHO's order of reimbursement-and attorney's fees. See Compl. Defendant filed a cross-appeal seeking a determination that it had appealed the compensatory instruction issue to the SRO. See Dkt. No. 4.

The Court affirmed the SRO's decision as to reimbursement and found that the compensatory education services issue had not been properly exhausted at the administrative level. Dkt. No. 16 at 9-10. Moreover, the Court held that even if Defendant had properly appealed the compensatory instruction order to the SRO, the issue was moot because the instruction had been provided already and Defendant was not seeking recovery of the relevant costs. Id. at 10-11. Defendant also sought dismissal of Plaintiff's claim for attorney's fees, but the Court granted Plaintiff leave to file a subsequent motion for attorney's fees so that the parties could address that claim with the benefit of the Court's Decision and Order affirming the SRO's decision and finding the compensatory services issue unexhausted and moot. Id. at 11. Plaintiff did so, and that Motion is now before the Court. See Mot.

III. LEGAL STANDARD

20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3) governs awards of attorney's fees in IDEA cases.[1] Generally, a court has discretion to award reasonable fees to a prevailing party who, like Plaintiff, is the parent of a child with a disability. Id . § 1415(i)(3)(B)(i). When it elects to award fees, "a district court must ordinarily make two determinations. It must first determine whether the party seeking the award is a prevailing party. If the party is a prevailing party, the court must then determine whether, under the appropriate standard, that party should be awarded attorney's fees." Mr. L. v. Sloan , 449 F.3d 405, 407 (2d Cir. 2006) (Sotomayor, J.).

"[A] plaintiff who receives IHO-ordered relief on the merits in an IDEA administrative proceeding is a prevailing party.'" A.R. ex rel. R.V. v. N.Y.C. Dep't of Educ. , 407 F.3d 65, 75 (2d Cir. 2005). A plaintiff need not prevail on every claim to be entitled to fees and may recover for all work "reasonably spent in achieving the favorable outcome." Fox v. Vice , 131 S.Ct. 2205, 2214 (2011). Showing that a school district failed to provide the free appropriate public education required by the IDEA is not sufficient to establish prevailing-party status, however; a plaintiff who is not entitled to some form of compensation as a result is not a prevailing party. See J.G. v. Kiryas Joel Union Free Sch. Dist. , 843 F.Supp.2d 394, 396 (S.D.N.Y. 2012) (citing Berger v. Medina City Sch. Dist. , 348 F.3d 513, 526 (6th Cir. 2003)).

If awarded, the 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, " with no "bonus or multiplier." 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(C). Courts must "make an initial estimate of reasonable attorney's fees by applying prevailing billing rates to the hours reasonably expended on successful claims." Blanchard v. Bergeron , 489 U.S. 87, 94 (1989); accord A.R. ex rel. R.V. , 407 F.3d at 79. The figure generated by this "lodestar" method is strongly presumed reasonable, [2] A.R. ex rel. R.V. , 407 F.3d at 79; accord Perdue v. Kenny A. ex rel. Winn , 130 S.Ct. 1662, 1673 (2010), but may be adjusted if necessary to ensure that it is enough to attract competent counsel to similar cases without providing windfalls to attorneys. See Perdue , 130 S.Ct. at 1672-75.[3]

Sometimes "even a plaintiff who formally prevails'... should receive no attorney's fees at all." Farrar v. Hobby , 506 U.S. 103, 115 (1992). For example, "[w]hen a plaintiff recovers only nominal damages because of his failure to prove an essential element of his claim for monetary relief, ...


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