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J.M. et al v. Capistrano Unified School District

March 31, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Andrew J. Guilford United States District Judge


J.M., et al. ("Plaintiffs") filed a complaint ("Complaint") for attorney's fees from Defendant Capistrano Unified School District "(Defendant") based on a decision by the Office of Administrative Hearings in an administrative due process hearing in early 2008. After considering the briefs submitted and oral argument by the parties, the Court GRANTS attorney's fees to Plaintiffs in the amount of $50,000 for the due process hearing and in the amount of an additional $4,500 for bringing the instant case.


The following facts come primarily from the Complaint. J.M. is a minor child with a disability, specifically autism. (Compl. at ¶ 9.) In 2006, Defendant filed a request for due process ("RFDP") with the California Office of Administrative Hearings ("OAH") to determine the appropriateness of a Functional Analysis Assessment performed in May 2005. (Id. at ¶ 11.) A few months later, Plaintiffs cross-filed a request for due process through their attorney at the time, Paul Roberts of Roberts & Adams, Attorneys at Law. (Id. at ¶ 12.) Plaintiffs claimed, among other things, that Defendant denied J.M. a free and appropriate public education ("FAPE") when it failed to assess J.M. properly and failed to provide appropriate services. (Id.) After an order denying amendment, Plaintiffs filed a new RFDP, and the three RFDPs were consolidated. (Id. at ¶¶ 12, 13.)

The OAH conducted a multi-day hearing during a period from January 2008 through March 2008. (Id. at ¶ 13.) The OAH considered a total of approximately 22 total issues and sub-issues, based on this Court's count. (Compl., Ex. 1, p. 2-4.) The OAH ruled that "Student prevailed on issue 4a, whether an FAA should have been conducted during the spring of the 2005-2006 school year, and 4e, whether the District failed to provide sufficient behavior interventions services during the 2005-2006 school year. The District prevailed on all other issues." (Compl., Ex. 1, p. 65.) The OAH ordered that the District "shall reimburse Mother and Father $79,641.20" for a parent-provided educational assessment. (Id.)

Plaintiffs are no longer represented by the counsel who represented them during the OAH hearing. On February 16, 2010 Plaintiffs filed the instant action requesting attorney's fees as the prevailing party under 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3). In the Complaint, Plaintiffs requested "reasonable attorney's fees, costs of suit and disbursements, no less than $336,387.50 plus interest . . . plus the additional fees incurred to pursue the current matter." (Compl. at 9:13-10:2.)


Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), at 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B), "In any action or proceeding brought under this section, the court, in its discretion, may award reasonable attorneys' fees as part of the costs . . . to a prevailing party who is the parent of a child with a disability." The prevailing party standard is not a high bar. "A prevailing party for the purpose of awarding attorney's fees is a party which 'succeeds on any significant issue in litigation which achieves some of the benefit the parties sought in bringing the suit.'" Parents of Student W. v. Puyallup School Dist., 31 F.3d 1489, 1498 (9th Cir. 1994) (quoting Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983)). But, "the inquiry does not end with a finding that the plaintiff obtained significant relief. A reduced fee award is appropriate if the relief, however significant, is limited in comparison to the scope of the litigation as a whole." Hensley, 461 U.S. at 440.

The IDEA specifically allows the Court to reduce the amount of attorney's fees. "[W]henever the court finds that--

(i) the parent, or the parent's attorney, during the course of the action or proceeding, unreasonably protracted the final resolution of the controversy;

(ii) the amount of the attorneys' fees otherwise authorized to be awarded unreasonably exceeds the hourly rate prevailing in the community for similar services by attorneys of reasonably comparable skill, reputation, and experience;

(iii) the time spent and legal services furnished were excessive considering the nature of the action or proceeding; or

(iv) the attorney representing the parent did not provide to the local educational agency the appropriate information in the notice of the complaint described in subsection (b)(7)(A), the court shall reduce, accordingly, the amount of the attorneys' ...

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