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A.R. v. New York City Department of Education

United States District Court, S.D. New York

October 28, 2014

A.R., as Parent and Natural Guardian of N.B., a Minor, Plaintiff,
v.
NEW YORK CITY DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION, a/k/a THE BOARD OF EDUCATION OF THE CITY SCHOOL DISTRICT OF THE CITY OF NEW YORK, Defendant.

Arthur R. Block, Esq., ARTHUR BLOCK ATTORNEY AT LAW, New York, NY, Anton Papakhin, Esq., LAW OFFICE OF ANTON PAPAKHIN, Brooklyn, NY, Attorney for Plaintiff.

Eric Porter, Esq., ZACHARY W. CARTER, CORPORATION COUNSEL OF THE CITY OF NEW YORK, New York, NY, Attorney for Defendant.

OPINION

ROBERT W. SWEET, District Judge.

The plaintiff A.R. ("Plaintiff") has moved pursuant to Rule 7 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i) (3)for attorneys' fees and costs against defendant New York City Department of Education ("DOE" or the "Defendant") in the amount of $313, 482.50.

Upon the conclusions set forth below, the motion of the Plaintiff is granted in part and denied in part, resulting in an award of $217, 388.25.

Background and Prior Proceedings

The facts and prior proceedings in this action are set forth in this Court's prior decision and order dated September 16, 2013, familiarity with which is assumed. (See Dkt. No. 24.) Previously stated facts relevant to this motion and intervening facts are stated below.

Plaintiff brought this action under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA") on September 21, 2012, seeking tuition funding in the amount of $129, 080.30 for the full cost of her granddaughter N.B.'s tuition for a six month stay at the Judge Rotenberg Center ("JRC"). JRC is a residential facility located in Massachusetts, at which Plaintiff unilaterally placed N.B. for the latter half of the 2011-12 school year. Plaintiff's complaint constituted an appeal from an administrative decision by the New York State Education Department's Office of State Review.

On January 9, 2014, the parties entered into a stipulation and order of partial settlement (the "Settlement Agreement") whereby all claims brought by Plaintiff, or which could have been brought by Plaintiff in connection with the action, were dismissed with prejudice in exchange for certain consideration, with the exception of Plaintiff's attorneys' fees and costs incurred in connection with the action, which remained the sole issue in dispute. (See Dkt. No. 28.)

Defendant contended that retainer agreements between Plaintiff's counsel and the Plaintiff (the "Retainer Agreements") provided that Plaintiff's counsel had already been paid by JRC for their work on the case and requested materials related to these payments. Defendant subsequently filed a motion to compel the production of such documents.

On March 19, 2014 and March 26, 2014, the Court granted the DOE's motion to compel and directed Plaintiff's counsel to produce records related to their respective agreements and payment relationships with JRC. On March 20, 2014, Plaintiff's counsel produced their respective letter agreements with JRC ("JRC Agreements"). On April 2, 2014, they produced their respective invoices sent to JRC for work done on Plaintiff's case.

The instant motion for attorneys' fees was filed on February 24, 2014 and was marked fully submitted on May 14, 2014. Since the submission of the motion, Plaintiff's counsel has submitted supplemental time logs, to which Defendant has responded, which are addressed by this opinion.

Applicable Standard

A prevailing party[1] who is the parent of a child with a disability in any action brought under the IDEA may be entitled to attorneys' fees and other costs. 20 U.S.C. § 1415 (i) (3) (B) (i) (I). District courts are afforded "considerable discretion" in determining the amount of fees in any given case. Barfield v. N.Y. City Health & Hosps. Corp. , 537 F.3d 132, 151 (2d Cir. 2008). Courts must determine whether fees are "reasonable" and "based on rates prevailing in the community in which the action or proceeding arose for the kind and quality of services furnished" and additionally, whether the number of hours expended is reasonable. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i) (3) (B)-(C); G.M. v. New Britain Bd. of Educ. , 173 F.3d 77, 84 (2d Cir. 1999) (noting that district courts should multiply the number of hours reasonably expended by a reasonable hourly rate to derive a fee award).

The Court may also examine equitable considerations relevant to an application for attorneys' fees. See Faraci v. Hickey-Freeman Co. , 607 F.2d 1025, 1028 (2d Cir. 1979) ("the express grant of [legislative] authority to award fees presumes continued application of equitable considerations in appropriate cases, both to effectuate the broader legislative purpose and to do justice in the particular case"). Ultimately, "courts apply the lodestar method, whereby an attorney fee award is derived by multiplying the number of hours reasonably expended on the litigation [by] a reasonable hourly rate." A.R. ex rel R.V. v. New York City Dep't of Educ. , 407 F.3d 65, 79 (2d Cir. 2005) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).

Discussion

1. The JRC Agreements

The relevant terms of the JRC Agreements for each of Plaintiff's counsel, Arthur R. Block ("Block") and Anton Papakhin ("Papakhin"), are briefly summarized below.

Block's agreement notes that Block has been working with JRC for over four years. (Porter Decl. Ex. A. at 1.) The agreement notes, with respect to the representation of parents:

... the attorney-client relationships is between me and each parent. The relationship between me and JRC is a payment agreement, There is a retainer agreement between my firm and each of the parents setting forth, among other facts: a) the parent is my client with respect to the representation; b) the parent has no obligation to pay my fees, but it is obligated to cooperate in my firm's claim for prevailing party attorney's fees against the school district; c) JRC is advancing part of the fee for my professional services; d) JRC's advance of fees does not entitle it to interfere with my independent professional judgment in the parent's case; e) the parent consents to my sharing of confidential information about the case with JRC representatives as needed to prosecute the parent's claims; f) the decision of a parent to place the child at JRC was made prior to my representation of the parent and without my involvement; and g) neither I nor the parent is aware of any conflict of interest between my representation of the parent and my attorney-client relationship with JRC in other matters.

(Id. at 2.)

Block's agreement also notes that the hourly rate charged to JRC is less than his market rate and notes that, in 2011, Block's market rate was $450-500. (Id.)

Papakhin's agreement notes, in relevant part, that Papakhin "will do [his] utmost to protect [JRC's] interests." (Porter Decl. Ex. B. at 3.) However, the agreement also states that JRC must remember that it is "not [Papakhin's] client and [he] will not engage in any conduct that conflicts with [his] professional responsibility to parents and their children." (Id.)

Papkhin's agreement further states that the non-refundable fee for every case seeking public funding for residential placement of a new student at JRC will be $5, 000 and if the case proceeds to an impartial hearing, another $5, 000 will be charged. (Id. at 2.) The agreement notes that the "total flat fee of $10, 000 will be based on an hourly rate of $200 per hour for time spent by ...


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