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Jay T. v. Sacramento City Unified School District

United States District Court, E.D. California

July 20, 2017

JAY T. and ANNE M.-T., individually, and as guardians ad litem for M.M.-T., Plaintiffs,
v.
SACRAMENTO CITY UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          MORRISON C. ENGLAND, JR. UNITED STATES DISTRCT JUDGE

         Through the present motion, Plaintiffs Jay T. and Anne M.T. (“Plaintiffs”) seek attorneys' fees and costs they incurred in litigating whether Defendant Sacramento City Unified School District (“the District”) provided a free and appropriate public education to their minor daughter, M.M.-T., in accordance with the provisions of the Individualized Disability Education Act (“IDEA”). Plaintiffs ultimately prevailed in part following a ten-day hearing conducted by the Office of Administrative Hearings (“OAH”). They now claim entitlement to fees and costs incurred both in those proceedings and in the present lawsuit, and the District disputes the extent to which it is obligated to reimburse the relevant expenses. As set forth below, Plaintiffs' Motion for Attorneys' Fees is GRANTED, in part.[1]

         BACKGROUND

         According to the Complaint, Plaintiffs' daughter, M.M-T., who is now 13 years old, is eligible for special education services under the category of autistic-like behaviors. For the fifth grade, she was enrolled at the District's Theodore Judah School in a mainstream class with an aide and various additional services provided pursuant to IEPs developed in February of 2012 and January 2013.

         Ultimately, Plaintiffs became dissatisfied with M.M-T's academic progress and decided to enroll her in a home school charter program for the 2013-14 year, with instruction provided primarily by M.M-T's mother. Beginning in the fall of 2013, the child began to demonstrate pronounced mental/emotional issues, including delusional and paranoid thinking as well as aggressive and sometimes violent outbursts. As a result, Plaintiffs decided to move her back to Theodore Judah and put school officials at the school on notice of the child's changed mental condition. In May 2014, M.M-T had to be hospitalized after she attacked her parents at home. Plaintiffs allege, and the OAH hearing officer ultimately determined, that despite this mental regression, school officials failed to take proper steps to assure that M.M-T was reexamined or to prepare an adequate new IEP that addressed her mental illness. Ultimately, Plaintiffs decided to enroll M.M-T at Springstone, a special school for autistic children in Lafayette, California. M.M-T began attending Springstone in August 2014 and repeated the sixth grade there.

         Initially both the District and Plaintiffs requested a due process hearing as to their respective placement obligations. A settlement was reached between the two sides in February of 2015 for the sum of $55, 000, but the District's Board ultimately rejected that parties' agreement. Plaintiffs' due process request went to hearing in April 2015 after the District dismissed its own due process request shortly before the hearing was to start.

         Prior to the hearing, Plaintiffs dropped their request for prospective reimbursement from the District for ongoing educational costs. This was because in 2015 they moved from Sacramento to Lafayette, thereby excusing the District from any further FAPE obligation. Plaintiffs nonetheless continued to request tuition reimbursement for the 2014-15 year at Springstone, as well as reimbursement for the cost of an independent mental examination and for rent and associated costs incurred in temporarily securing rental housing in Lafayette before they decided to move to the Bay Area permanently. Plaintiffs also challenged the IEP in place during the 2012-13 school year on numerous grounds.

         Following a ten-day administrative hearing, the OAH hearing officer ultimately split the issues she decided between Issue One (2012-13) and Issue Two (2013-14 and 2014-15). She decided that the IEPs in place for the 2012-13 school year were adequate and found in favor of the District on that issue. Well over half of the hearing officer's 57-page decision is devoted to an analysis of the 2012-13 school year, and according to defense counsel, about half of the time spent in hearing related to that year as well. The hearing officer also found, however, that the District nonetheless failed to appreciate the severity of the student's mental issues in 2014 and thus failed to offer a FAPE that addressed those issues. Because placement at a private school was ultimately deemed beneficial, she determined that Plaintiffs should be entitled to reimbursement of some $24, 000.00 for an initial year's tuition at Springstone. About $6, 000.00 in rent and other costs were also awarded as well as reimbursement for a mental health exam costing upwards of $5, 000.00.[2] Plaintiffs were deemed the prevailing party as to Issue Two.

         On January 21, 2016, Plaintiffs filed the present action seeking recovery of attorneys' fees incurred in the due process hearing after Plaintiffs' attempt to settle their fee claim failed. On June 3, 2016, nearly six months after this action was instituted, the District made, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 68 (“Rule 68”), an Offer of Judgment in the amount of $85, 000.00 to settle Plaintiffs' fee claim. That Offer was not accepted and, on August 31, 2016, Plaintiffs filed the Motion for Attorneys' Fees presently before the Court. Plaintiffs ask that they be reimbursed $148, 575.00 for fees incurred in the administrative hearing, as well as $21, 567.50 for attorneys' fees incurred to date in the instant litigation and $464.35 in costs for a total of $170, 606.85.

         STANDARD

         The IDEA authorizes an award of reasonable attorneys' fee, in the court's discretion, as part of the costs to a prevailing party who is the parent of a child with a disability. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B)(i). The appropriate amount of the fee award is based on the “degree of success” obtained. Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424 (1983); Aguirre v. L.A. Unified Sch. Dist., 461 F.3d 1114, 1121 (9th Cir. 2006). Consideration of just what was achieved through litigation is “particularly crucial” where a prevailing party success on only some of his or her claims for relief. Hensley, 461 U.S. at 434. In such an instance, the court must make the following inquiry: “First, did the plaintiff fail to prevail on claims that were unrelated to the claims on which he succeeded? Second, did the plaintiff achieve a level of success that makes the hours reasonably expended a satisfactory basis for making a fee award?” Id.

         ANALYSIS

         The OAH decision identified a very clear deterioration in M.M-T's condition such that her entitlement to special education services in 2012-13 before that deterioration was completely different than her needs thereafter. Consequently, the Court cannot agree that issues pertaining to the 2012-13 school year IEP, on which the District prevailed, had to be fully developed by Plaintiffs for them to prevail on issues presented thereafter for 2013-14 and 2014-15 (for which Plaintiffs were the prevailing parties).[3]Therefore, it would appear that some reduction of the attorneys' fees sought by Plaintiffs is in order, despite the fact that Plaintiffs prevailed on what appears to have been the most significant issue presented by the hearing; namely, their entitlement for special education funding for their daughter's placement at a non-public school (Springstone) for the 2014-15 school year, and reimbursement for related living and transportation expenses.[4]

         The District argues that Plaintiffs' fees should be reduced by at least 50 percent, and possibly up to 60 or 70 percent. Given the fact that some background information had to be introduced as to M.M-T's circumstances prior to the 2013-14 school year, however, the Court finds that request to be overstated. In prevailing on issues pertaining to the 2013-14 and 2014-15 school years, the District's failure to provide a free and appropriate public education during those time parameters is double the period of time, in 2012-13, when they did so. Moreover, aside from the District's claim that the issues on which it prevailed were distinct from those where Plaintiffs prevailed, it is significant to note that the fundamental underpinnings of Plaintiffs' fee request are largely unchallenged. The District does not take issue with the time Plaintiffs' counsel spent; indeed, they paid their own counsel $147, 871 to defend the claims which makes it hard to argue that Plaintiffs' counsel overlitigated the case in incurring 148, 575.00 in fees. Nor does the District argue that Plaintiffs' lead counsel hourly rate of $425.00 was excessive or dispute that counsel, F. Richard Ruderman, incurred the lion's share of billable ...


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