United States District Court, E.D. California
JAY T. and ANNE M.-T., individually, and as guardians ad litem for M.M.-T., Plaintiffs,
SACRAMENTO CITY UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
MORRISON C. ENGLAND, JR. UNITED STATES DISTRCT JUDGE
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. Plaintiffs were deemed the prevailing
party as to Issue Two.
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.
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?”
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).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.
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