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School District of Philadelphia v. Deborah A.

July 8, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Schiller, J.


Candiss C. was denied a Free Appropriate Public Education ("FAPE") by the School District of Philadelphia ("the District") during the 2006-07 school year. She was therefore awarded compensatory education. Candiss C. and her mother, Deborah A. (collectively "Defendants") had sought compensatory education for other school years, arguing that the District continuously failed to meet its obligations under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act ("IDEA"). These claims were ultimately barred by the IDEA's statute of limitations. Defendants, as the prevailing party, seek attorneys' fees as costs, as permitted by the IDEA. The District, which does not challenge that Defendants are entitled to attorneys' fees, disputes certain time entries and seeks to reduce the award based on the limited success Defendants achieved. Defendants seek $52,755.30; the District argues that $22,388.25 in costs is reasonable. The Court awards $35,580.03.


As a result of the District's failure to comply with the IDEA, Deborah A. sought for her daughter: (1) compensatory education from the 1999-2000 school year through the 2006-07 school year, excluding the 2005-06 school year; and (2) compensatory education for the summer of 2007. Following a due process hearing, a hearing officer determined that the District failed to provide Candiss C. with FAPE for the 2006-07 school year, but that the IDEA statute of limitations barred any claims for compensatory education and remedies prior to July 27, 2005. The hearing officer also declined to award Candiss C. compensatory education for the summer of 2007. However, Candiss C. was awarded compensatory education at the rate of two hours per day for the 2006-07 school year.

Both parties appealed the hearing officer's decision. The appeals panel largely affirmed the decision of the hearing officer but modified the decision because the appeals panel concluded that the District's denial of FAPE for Candiss C. was sufficiently pervasive to warrant a day-forday remedy. Accordingly, Candiss C. was awarded 5.5 hours of compensatory education per day for the 2006-07 school year.

The District and Defendants both objected to the appeals panel's decision.*fn1 The District requested that this Court affirm the decision with one key exception -- the District sought to reinstate the hearing officer's award of two hours per day. Defendants, on the other hand, wanted this Court to remand this matter so that a hearing officer could consider Candiss's claims previously deemed outside the statute of limitations. Defendants also asked this Court to reverse the appeals panel's decision that Candiss C. was not entitled to compensatory education services for the summer of 2007. Finally, Candiss C. and Deborah A. asked the Court to affirm the appeals panel's 5.5 hours per day compensatory education award for the 2006-07 school year. This Court held: (1) the statute of limitations barred Candiss C.'s request for relief for claims that existed prior to July 1, 2005; (2) the denial of FAPE was pervasive enough to warrant an award of 5.5 hours a day; (3) the District did not deny Candiss C. FAPE during the summer of 2007; (4) compensatory money damages were not available under the IDEA; and (5) compensatory education, but not money damages, was the appropriate remedy under the Rehabilitation Act for the District's denial of FAPE.

On April 3, 2009, Candiss C. and Deborah A. filed a motion for attorneys' fees seeking $57,022.52 in costs. The Court held the motion in abeyance because Defendants appealed this Court's decision on the merits of their claims. The Third Circuit affirmed this Court's decision on April 6, 2011. The District then filed a response to the fee petition arguing that $22,388.25 in fees and costs was reasonable. Candiss C. and Deborah A. filed a reply slightly lowering their request to $52,755.30.


A. Attorneys' Fees

The IDEA allows a court to award reasonable attorneys' fees "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)(I). A parent qualifies as a prevailing party if he or she "succeed[ed] on any significant issue in litigation which achieves some of the benefit the parties sought in bringing suit." John T. ex rel. v. Del. County Intermediate Unit, 318 F.3d 545, 555 (3d Cir. 2003).

To arrive at a reasonable award of attorneys' fees, the Court must calculate the lodestar, which is the number of hours reasonably expended multiplied by a reasonable hourly rate for legal services. See McKenna v. City of Phila., 582 F.3d 447, 455 (3d Cir. 2009). Although the lodestar yields a presumptively reasonable rate, the court may lower the amount "to account for 'limited success' by a plaintiff, focusing on 'the significance of the overall relief obtained by the plaintiff in relation to the hours reasonably expended on the litigation.'" McCutcheon v. Am.'s Servicing Co., 560 F.3d 143, 151 (3d Cir. 2009) (quoting Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 435-36 (1983)). The court may adjust the fee award downward due to the limited success of the prevailing party even if the unsuccessful claims "were interrelated, non-frivolous, and raised in good faith." Hensley, 461 U.S. at 436; see also Damian J. v. Sch. Dist. of Phila., Civ. A. No. 06-3866, 2008 WL 1815302, at *5 (E.D. Pa. Apr. 22, 2008) (applying 5% negative multiplier in IDEA case as a result of limited success), aff'd, 358 F. App'x 333 (3d Cir. 2009)

The prevailing party must prove the reasonableness of its fee request. Rode v. Dellarciprete, 892 F.2d 1177, 1183 (3d Cir. 1990). The court can decrease a fee award based on objections of the adverse party. Id.; see also Bell v. United Princeton Props., 884 F.2d 713, 715 (3d Cir. 1989). The court may exclude time expended that is excessive, redundant, or otherwise unnecessary. Holmes v. Millcreek Twp. Sch. Dist., 205 F.3d 583, 595 (3d Cir. 2000). A party seeking fees must also describe with sufficient clarity and detail the tasks performed to allow the court to determine if the time spent was reasonable. See Neena S. ex rel. Robert S. v. Sch. Dist. of Phila., Civ. A. No. 05-5404, 2009 WL 2245066, at *4 (E.D. Pa. July 27, 2009). "Nevertheless, 'it is not necessary to know the exact number of minutes spent nor the precise activity to which each hour was devoted nor the specific attainments of each attorney.'" Id. (quoting Rode, 892 F.2d at 1190).

Defendants seek $52,755.30 in costs, including attorneys' fees. The District does not dispute that Deborah A. is a prevailing party, nor do they object to the hourly rates charged by Defendants' lawyers. Instead, the District claims that the hours spent by the lawyers were not reasonable, and also contends that the limited success achieve by Deborah A. and Candiss C. warrants a reduction in the fees to be awarded. Defendants suggest that ...

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