On August 12, 2010, R.M. and G.M., on behalf of their son and themselves, filed a complaint against the School District of Upper Dublin, asking the court to grant them an award of attorneys' fees. The defendant seeks summary judgment on the issue of whether plaintiffs were a "prevailing party" under the relevant fee-shifting statute. For the reasons that follow, the defendant's motion for summary judgment will be denied.
S.M. is an elementary school student who lives in Upper Dublin, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. Compl. ¶ 1. S.M. was born with a severe allergy to peanut and tree nut products. Compl. ¶ 7. Early in 2008, and prior to S.M. starting kindergarten in the Upper Dublin School District ("the District"), his parents, R.M. and G.M., approached the District about creating a Section 504 Plan for S.M. Compl. ¶ 8. A Section 504 Plan specifies the accommodations and modifications the school district will offer to ensure that a disabled student receives an appropriate education. See Breanne C. v. S. York Cnty. Sch. Dist., 732 F. Supp. 2d 474, 479 (M.D. Pa. 2010) ("[A] § 504 service plan, . . . is meant to ensure that [the student] is provided with a FAPE [free appropriate public education].").
Plaintiffs retained a law firm, Ronald V. McGuckin and Associates, to assist in the negotiations leading to the formulation of a Section 504 Plan. Compl. ¶ 11. Discussions and negotiations between the parties occurred between May 2008 and October 2008. Compl. ¶ 12. Although plaintiffs maintain that they were "never presented . . . with an acceptable plan," they "relented" and signed a Section 504 Plan in October of 2008 which applied to S.M.'s 2008--09 school year. Id. R.M. and G.M. began meeting with District officials in Spring 2009 to formulate a "proper" Section 504 Plan for the next school year. Compl. ¶ 13. In July 2009, they retained the services of another attorney, David Arnold, in an effort to avoid "being bullied again into taking an inappropriate [Section] 504" Plan. Compl. ¶ 15.
In October 2009, plaintiffs filed for a due process hearing because they were unable to reach an agreement that satisfied them. Compl. ¶ 16. In the due process request, plaintiffs presented nine objections to the 2008--09 Section 504 Plan. Due Process Compl. Attach. 3--7 (Docket No. 19, ex. 1). The hearing spanned seven sessions between November 2009 and March 2010. Compl. ¶ 17. On April 2, 2010, the Hearing Officer, Anne Carroll, rendered her decision in the case. Compl. ¶ 17--18. In her decision, Carroll ordered the District to:
1. Convene [S.M.'s] §504 team to revise the written [plan] in the following respects:
a. Assure that all protections and accommodations currently provided to [S.M.] are reflected in the terms of the written §504 [Plan] by including
i. training of substitute teachers to respond to an allergic reaction;
ii. prohibiting serving all items containing traces of peanuts/tree nuts; items manufactured or processed in a facility where peanut/tree nut products are manufactured and all homemade items, as well as peanut/tree nut products, in classrooms at [S.M.'s] grade level;
b. Add a provision permitting [S.M.] to go to the nurse for evaluation/treatment of possible allergic reactions at his request, as well as by referral from school staff.
2. Inform the [Parent/Teacher Organization] that it is obligated to implement the §504 [Plan] with respect to any program/activity conducted within an Upper Dublin school building or on school grounds.
Hearing Officer's Order 23 (Docket No. 19, ex. 4).
On August 12, 2010, plaintiffs filed the present complaint seeking an award of attorneys' fees that they incurred during the formulation of the Section 504 Plan and work related to the due process hearing. Compl. ¶ 17. They ask for an award in excess of $45,000, including: (1) $7,910.00 in fees paid to Ronald V. McGuckin and Associates; (2) $35,760.00 in fees and $175.96 in expenses paid to their current attorney; (3) $2,816.00 ...