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Disability Rights New York v. North Colonie Board of Education

United States District Court, N.D. New York

May 8, 2017

DISABILITY RIGHTS NEW YORK, Plaintiff,
v.
NORTH COLONIE BOARD OF EDUCATION; NORTH COLONIE CENTRAL SCHOOLS; and MR. D. JOSEPH CORR, in his official capacity as Superintendent of North Colonie Central Schools, Defendants.

         APPEARANCES:

          DISABILITY RIGHTS NEW YORK Attorneys for Plaintiff

          YOUNG/SOMMER LLC Attorneys for Defendants

         OF COUNSEL:

          JULIE MICHAELS KEEGAN, ESQ. JENNIFER J. MONTHIE, ESQ. CLIFF ZUCKER, ESQ. JOSEPH F. CASTIGLIONE, ESQ. JESSICA R. VIGARS, ESQ.

          MEMORANDUM, DECISION AND ORDER

          DAVID N. HURD, United States District Judge

         I. INTRODUCTION.

         Plaintiff Disability Rights New York (“Disability Rights”), the designated protection and advocacy system for individuals with disabilities in New York State, brought this action against Defendants North Colonie Board of Education, North Colonie Central Schools and Mr. D. Joseph Corr, the superintendent of North Colonie Central Schools (collectively, the “Defendants”).

         On March 21, 2016, partial summary judgment for Disability Rights was granted. Plaintiff now moves for attorneys' fees and costs pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988. In its motion, plaintiff seeks an award of attorneys' fees in the amount of $209, 532.75 and $778.78 for litigation expenses and costs. Defendants have filed a response and the motion is fully briefed. For the following reasons, plaintiff's motion is granted in part.

         II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND.

         Disability Rights is the New York Protection and Advocacy system designated by the Governor of the State of New York to provide protection and advocacy services to individuals with mental illness and disabilities pursuant to New York Executive Law § 558. On June 19, 2014, plaintiff filed suit against the defendants seeking declaratory and injunctive relief. The complaint alleged that defendants improperly denied plaintiff access to Blue Creek Elementary School (“Blue Creek”). Plaintiff wished to access Blue Creek to investigate reports of abuse and neglect in the school's ACS classroom and that such investigation was authorized by the Protection and Advocacy for Individuals with Mental Illness Act, 42 U.S.C. § 10801-10827 (the “PAIMI Act”), (ii) the Developmental Disabilities and Bill of Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. § 15041 et seq. (the “DD Act”) and (iii) the Protection and Advocacy for Individual Rights Act, 29 U.S.C. § 794e, et seq. (the “PAIR Act”, and together with the PAIMI Act and DD Act, the “P&A Statutes”). On June 20, 2014, plaintiff's motion for a temporary restraining order was granted providing plaintiff with immediate access to the Blue Creek school.

         After discovery, both parties filed motions for summary judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. On March 21, 2016, defendant's motion for summary judgment in its entirety was denied and Disability Right's summary judgment motion was granted in part. It was found that Blue Creek was a facility or service provider pursuant to the provisions of the P&A Statutes; that the complaints received by Disability Rights properly alleged abuse and neglect as defined by the P&A Statutes; that the particular students at Blue Creek constituted disabled individuals under the P&A Statutes; that the defendants' initial failure to provide physical access to Blue Creek and the records of certain students constituted a violation of the P&A Statutes. As a result, the defendants were enjoined from disputing that Blue Creek is a facility or service provider for the purposes of the P&A Statutes to the extent Disability Rights seeks to assert the rights granted to it pursuant to federal law or that the students receiving special education pursuant to a particular designation constituted disabled individuals pursuant to the P&A Statutes.

         On April 5, 2016, plaintiff submitted the pending motion for attorneys' fees, seeking $209, 532.75 based upon: (i) 52.6 hours of work completed by attorney Cliff Zucker (“Zucker”) at an hourly rate of $345.00, (ii) 79.1 hours of work completed by attorney Jennifer Monthie (“Monthie”) at an hourly rate of $300.00, (iii) 489.8 hours of work completed by attorney Julie Keegan (“Keegan”) at an hourly rate of $300.00, (iv) 29.6 hours of work completed by attorney Chris Turner (“Turner”) at an hourly rate of $275.00, (v) 20.6 hours of work completed by attorney Stefen Short (“Short”) at an hourly rate of $170.00, (vi) 14.0 hours of work completed by attorney Prianka Nair (“Nair”) at an hourly rate of $150.00 and (vii) 14.10 hours of work completed by attorney Shain Neumeier (“Neumeier”) at an hourly rate of $175.00.

         III. LEGAL STANDARD.

         A. Legal Standard for Awarding Fees.

         Pursuant to § 1988, in any action or proceeding to enforce a provision of 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the court, in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party a reasonable attorney's fee as part of the costs. See 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b). Section 1988 represents a limited exception to the “American Rule, ” under which each party to an action underwrites its own litigation expenses, including attorney's fees regardless of the outcome. See Neroni v. Coccoma, 2014 WL 3866307, at *1 (N.D.N.Y. Aug. 6, 2014) (Sharpe, D.J.). “Determining whether an award of attorney's fees is appropriate requires a two-step inquiry. First, the party must be a ‘prevailing party' in order to recover. If [it] is, then the requested fee must also be reasonable.” Pino v. Locascio, 101 F.3d 235, 237 (2d Cir.1996) (citations omitted). The purpose of allowing attorneys' fees in a civil rights action “is to ensure effective access to the judicial process for persons with civil rights grievances.” Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 429 (1983). “[A]ccordingly, a prevailing plaintiff should ordinarily recover an attorney fee unless special circumstances would render such an award unjust.” Id. (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

         IV. DISCUSSION.

         (i) An Award of Attorneys' Fees and Costs is Available to Disability Rights.

         Defendants asserts that an award of attorneys' fees is not available to Disability Rights as neither their motion for summary judgment nor the Memorandum, Decision and Order granting plaintiff relief expressly rested on a Section 1983 claim. Disability Rights argues that ...


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