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S.A. v. Patterson Joint Unified School District

August 2, 2010

S.A. ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
PATTERSON JOINT UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Sheila K. Oberto United States Magistrate Judge

FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATIONS THAT PLAINTIFFS' MOTION FOR ATTORNEYS' FEES BE GRANTED IN PART, DENIED IN PART

OBJECTIONS DUE: 15 DAYS

(Docket Nos. 3, 18)

I. INTRODUCTION

On May 25, 2010, Plaintiffs filed the instant motion seeking an award of attorneys' fees pursuant to 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B) under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"). The attorneys' fees sought relate to professional services rendered by Plaintiffs' counsel in connection with a due process hearing before the Office of Administrative Hearings ("OAH"). Plaintiffs seek $115,333.36 in fees and costs related to the underlying OAH due process hearing as well as costs and fees in the amount of $5,451.50 for preparation of the instant motion. Therefore, in total, Plaintiffs seek $120,784.86 for fees and costs associated with this matter. It is this motion that is currently pending before the Court.

II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

Plaintiffs are the parents of a 13-year old child ("Student") with special needs. ALJ Decision at 7. (Doc 12, Exhibit A). During the course of the 2007-2008 school year, Student was enrolled at Apricot Valley Elementary School ("Apricot Valley") and was physically restrained by his teacher and an aide for aggressive behavior on several occasions between December 2007 and January 2008. Id. at 11-12. As a result of these incidents, Plaintiffs removed Student from Apricot Valley. Id. at 12. After further assessments and observations of Student, Defendant Patterson Joint Unified School District ("District") convened an "individualized education program" ("IEP")*fn1 meeting on April 4, 2008. Id. at 20. The professionals on the "IEP team" discussed various school placement options for Student, including one at Sierra Vista, a non-public school for autistic children with behavior problems. Student's mother visited Sierra Vista and agreed to that placement. Id. at 21. Student attended Sierra Vista from April 8, 2008, through June 24, 2008. Id. at 25.

Ultimately, Plaintiffs became dissatisfied with various aspects of the Sierra Vista placement and removed Student from the school. From August 2008 through July 2009, the District convened multiple IEP meetings and offered Student a placement at Teel Middle School ("Teel"). Plaintiffs refused all these offers, maintaining that a placement at Creekside Middle School ("Creek side") was an appropriate placement for Student for a variety of reasons, and that the offered placements at Teel and Sierra Vista were not appropriate for Student.

On April 27, 2009, Plaintiffs filed a request or "complaint" for a due process hearing in the matter. This complaint was withdrawn by Plaintiffs in June 2009 while the parties continued to discuss the situation. As Student had not been in school since 2008, the District filed its own due process complaint on November 2, 2009. On November 4, 2009, Plaintiffs refiled their due process complaint. Plaintiffs raised twenty-eight (28) issues regarding the adequacy of the education offered to Student for school years 2007-2008, 2008-2009, and 2009-2010. The District raised five (5) issues regarding the sufficiency of the educational placements and the IEP offers for Student related to those school years. A due process hearing was held on February 1-4, 8, 9, 16 and 17, and March 3, 2010, before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Peter Paul Castillo. On April 27, 2010, the ALJ issued a 67-page decision, in which he made findings as to each issue raised by the parties. Ultimately, the ALJ found that Student fully prevailed on two (2) issues and partially prevailed on nine (9) other issues. The ALJ also found that the District fully prevailed on twenty-two (22) issues and partially prevailed on nine (9) other issues.

The ALJ explicitly determined that both the Sierra Vista and the Teel placements offered by the District were reasonably calculated to provide Student with meaningful educational progress in the least restrictive environment. Id. at 66. However, the ALJ noted certain deficiencies in the District's various IEP offers for the contested school years. The ALJ found that Student was denied a "free and appropriate public education" ("FAPE")*fn2 during the 2007-2008 school year through April 2008 because the District had failed to hold an emergency IEP meeting and prepare the proper report after the restraining incidents at Apricot Valley in December 2007 through January 2008. Id. The ALJ ordered the District to develop a District-wide written protocol requiring an IEP meeting and the creation of necessary reports following restraining incidents. Id. at 67.

The ALJ also found that certain District IEP offers from April 2008 were deficient in terms of speech and language goals and occupational therapy services and goals. As a result, the ALJ ordered that Student be provided 600 minutes of speech and language sessions, 400 minutes of occupational therapy sessions, and 25 hours of 1:1 tutoring. Id. The District was also ordered to provide Student with various assessments.

In light of the ALJ's determination that Plaintiffs were the prevailing party with respect to two (2) issues, Plaintiffs filed a complaint with this Court on May 25, 2010, seeking compensation for their attorneys' fees under 20 U.S.C. § 1415.

III. DISCUSSION

A. Legal Standard

Under IDEA, parents who prevail at an administrative hearing may be awarded attorneys' fees. See McSomebodies v. Burlingame Elementary Sch. Dist., 897 F.2d 974, 975 (9th Cir. 1989). A party seeking an award of attorneys' fees under IDEA must (1) be the "prevailing party" and (2) seek "reasonable attorneys' fees." Aguirre v. L.A. Unified Sch. Dist., 461 F.3d 1114, 1117 (9th Cir. 2006). To be considered the prevailing party, there must be a "material alteration of the legal relationship of the parties." Shapiro v. Paradise Valley Unified Sch. Dist. No. 69, 374 F.3d 857, 865 (9th Cir. 2004) (quoting Buckhannon Bd. & Care Home, Inc. v W. Va. Dept. of Health & Human Res., 532 U.S. 598, 604 (2001)). In addition to a material alteration of the parties' legal relationship, the success of the party asserting prevailing party status cannot be de minimus and must be causally linked to the litigation brought. Van Duyn v. Baker Sch. Dist. 5J, 502 F.3d 811, 825 (9th Cir. 2007) (citations omitted). Ultimately, however, determining prevailing party status does not turn on the magnitude of the relief obtained. Park v. Anaheim Union High Sch. Dist., 464 F.3d 1025, 1035 (9th Cir. 2006).

Once a party is considered a prevailing party, the court's discretion to deny fees is narrow; generally, attorneys' fees must be awarded to the prevailing party under IDEA unless special circumstances would render such an award unjust. Abu-Sahyun v. Palo Alto Unified Sch. Dist., 843 F.2d 1250, 1252 (9th Cir. 1988) (citations omitted). However, the amount of attorneys' fees awarded must be reasonable. "The most useful starting point for determining the amount of a reasonable fee is the number of hours reasonably expended on the litigation multiplied by a reasonable hourly rate." Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983); see also Aguirre, 461 F.3d at 1117-21 (recognizing that Hensley applies to IDEA attorneys' fees statute). "This figure, commonly referred to as the 'lodestar,' is presumed to be the reasonable fee." Hensley, 461 U.S. at 433. To support the lodestar calculation, the prevailing plaintiff must submit documentary evidence detailing the number of hours spent and how it determined the hourly rate requested. Id.

The amount of attorneys' fees requested may be reduced where the court finds that an attorney unreasonably protracted the resolution of the controversy, the amount of fees unreasonably exceeds the hourly rate prevailing in the community, or the time spent and legal services were unreasonable. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(F). Further, the court has discretion to adjust the lodestar calculation downward based on the prevailing party's limited degree of success. Aguirre, 461 F.3d at 1117-21; Kerr v. Screen Guild Extras, Inc., 526 F.2d 67, 70 (9th Cir. 1975) (setting forth 12 factors that may be considered in adjusting the lodestar amount).*fn3 The "most critical factor" in determining the reasonableness of a fee award under 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B) "is the degree of success obtained." Hensley, 461 U.S. at 436. If a party "has achieved only partial or limited success, the product of hours expended on the litigation as a whole times a reasonable hourly rate may be an excessive amount." Id. "A reduced award is appropriate if the relief, however significant, is limited in comparison to the scope of the litigation as a whole." Id. at 440.

B. Analysis

As an initial matter, both parties request that the Court take judicial notice of various documents.Therefore, the Court will address these requests first.

1. Judicial Notice

Federal Rule of Evidence 201 applies to judicial notice of adjudicative facts. The kinds of adjudicative facts that may be judicially noticed are as follows:

A judicially noticed fact must be one not subject to reasonable dispute in that it is either (1) generally known within the territorial jurisdiction of the trial court or (2) capable of accurate and ready determination by resort to sources whose accuracy cannot reasonably be questioned.

Fed. R. Evid. 201(b).

A court may take judicial notice of matters of public record. Lee v. City of Los Angeles, 250 F.3d 668, 689 (9th Cir. 2001). However, a court's power to take notice of public records does not confer upon it the power to take judicial notice of disputed facts stated in public records. Id. at 690 (noting that lower district court did more than take judicial notice of undisputed matters of public record).

a. Defendant's Request for Judicial Notice Should Be Granted in Part, and Denied in Part

In support of its opposition to Plaintiffs' motion, Defendant requests that the Court take judicial notice of Findings and Recommendations issued by Magistrate Judge Dennis L. Beck on January 6, 2009, in J.A.A.H. et al. v. Modesto City Schs., No. 1:08-cv-01465-LJO-DLB, 2009 WL 55951 (E.D. Cal. Jan 6, 2009). (Doc. 25).Defendant also requests that the Court take judicial notice of four declarations filed in that matter: (1) Declaration of Bob Varma; (2) Declaration of Kathleen Loyer; (3) Declaration of Drew Massey; and (4) Declaration of Margaret Broussard.

A court may take judicial notice of a public record which has a "direct relation to the matters at issue," but only of the existence of those matters (e.g., the existence of a public document or of representations in the document); the court cannot take judicial notice of the veracity of arguments or disputed facts in the document. George W. v. U.S. Dept. of Educ., 149 F.Supp. 2d 1195, 1199 (E.D. Cal. 2000); Cactus Corner, LLC, v. U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, 346 F.Supp. 2d 1075, 1099 (E.D. Cal. 2004). For example, the existence and authenticity of a public record are judicially noticeable -- such as the authenticity and existence of a particular order, pleading, public proceeding, or census report -- but the veracity and validity of its contents, such as the underlying arguments made by the parties, disputed facts, and conclusions of fact, are not subject to judicial notice. Cactus Corner, LLC, 346 F.Supp. 2d at 1099.

Magistrate Judge Beck's order and the declarations filed in J.A.A.H. are all public records, the existence of which is subject to judicial notice. The facts contained in each of these documents, however, are not subject to judicial notice because they are neither generally known in the territory nor subject to accurate and ready determination as explained thoroughly in George W. and Cactus Corner, LLC, supra. Therefore, Defendant's request should be granted only to the extent that the Court may take judicial notice of the existence of the documents; as to the veracity and validity of their contents, the request for judicial notice should be denied.

b. Plaintiffs' Request for Judicial Notice Should be Granted in Part, Denied in Part

In support of their Motion, Plaintiffs also filed a request for judicial notice. Plaintiff's request that the Court take judicial notice of a report issued by the Government Accountability Office ("GAO") entitled: "SECLUSIONS AND RESTRAINTS Selected Cases of Death and Abuse at Public and Private Schools and Treatment Centers," Government Accountability Office Testimony Before the Committee on Education and Labor, House of Representatives (2009). In Cactus Corner, LLC, supra, the court took judicial notice of the existence and authenticity of a 2002-2003 Data Report published by the United States Department of Agriculture, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. However, the court also specifically refused to take judicial notice to the extent that the requesting party sought to have the court notice the accuracy and validity of the contents. Id. The GAO report at issue here is very similar in nature to that at issue in Cactus Corner, LLC. While the Court should decline to take judicial ...


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