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Shanea S. v. School District of Philadelphia

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

June 10, 2014

SHANEA S., et al. Plaintiffs,
v.
THE SCHOOL DISTRICT OF PHILADELPHIA, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM

LUNNE A. SITARSKI, Magistrate Judge.

I. BACKGROUND

This case arises out of two administrative actions that were brought by the parents of children with disabilities ("Plaintiffs") against the School District of Philadelphia ("Defendant") pursuant to, inter alia, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act, 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400, et seq. ("IDEA"). The administrative actions were settled under the resolution processes specified in 20 U.S.C. § 1415(f)(1)(B) and 34 C.F.R. § 310.510. As part of the resolution agreement, Defendant agreed to pay the Plaintiffs "reasonable attorney's fees and costs" incurred in litigating the administrative actions. (Resolution Agreement, Am. Compl. Exh. B, ¶ 5, ECF No. 1). The agreement directed Defendant to submit payment within sixty days of receiving a detailed invoice from Plaintiffs. ( Id. )

Plaintiffs submitted its bill and supporting time sheets to Defendant on or about December 13, 2011. (Compl. ¶ 30, ECF No. 4). When Plaintiffs' counsel did not hear back from Defendant, he wrote to Defendant on three separate occasions to request the status of the payment. ( Id. ¶¶ 30-33, ECF No. 4). These inquiries went unanswered. ( Id. ¶ 34, ECF No. 4). As a result, Plaintiffs commenced this federal action, alleging that Defendant's failure to pay reasonable attorney's fees and related costs, as agreed to in the resolution agreement, violated 20 U.S.C. § 1415(f)(1)(B), [1] and amounted to a breach of contract. On October 31, 2012, the District Court entered an order resolving the attorney's fees that Defendant owed to Plaintiffs for attorney time incurred in the underlying administrative actions. (ECF No. 23).

Plaintiffs then filed a motion for attorney's fees and costs incurred in litigating the instant federal action pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 54(d) and 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B) and (C). (ECF No. 24). This matter has been referred to me for disposition. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(A); Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(a).

II. LEGAL STANDARD

Section 1415 of the IDEA authorizes payment of attorney's fees and costs to "a prevailing party who is the parent of a child with a disability."[2] 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B) and (C). The Third Circuit has explained that "[t]he party seeking attorney's fees has the burden to prove that its request for attorney's fees is reasonable."[3] Rode v. Dellarciprete, 892 F.2d 1177, 1183 (3d Cir. 1990). The fee petitioner must provide evidence "supporting the hours worked and rates claimed." Id.

The calculation of the appropriate amount of attorney's fees begins with the lodestar, which is the product of "the appropriate billing rate for the parties attorneys" multiplied by "the number of hours those attorneys reasonably expended on the action." Interfaith Comty. Org. v. Honeywell Intern., Inc., 426 F.3d 694, 703 (3d Cir. 2005).

III. DISCUSSION

A. Hourly Rates

Plaintiffs seek fees at the following rates for the four attorneys from the Law Offices of David J. Berney, P.C., who represented them in the present action: David J. Berney ($350 per hour), Megan Mahle ($285 per hour), Lawrence Lee Wentz ($270 per hour), and John Valantassis ($175 per hour). Defendant does not contest the hourly rates for Attorneys Berney or Wentz, but argues that Attorneys Mahle and Valantassis's rates should be reduced to $200 and $135 per hour, respectively.

In IDEA cases, like other areas of law in which fee-shifting is authorized, a reasonable hourly rate is calculated "based on rates prevailing in the community in which the action or proceedings arose for the kind and quality of services furnished." 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(C); see Maldonado v. Houstoun, 256 F.3d 181, 184 (3d Cir. 2001) (explaining that, to determine a reasonable rate, court must "assess the experience and skill of the prevailing party's attorneys and compare their rates to the rates prevailing in the community for similar services by lawyers of reasonably comparable skill, experience, and reputation"). The party seeking fees "bears the burden of establishing by way of satisfactory evidence, in addition to [the] attorney's own affidavits, ... that the requested hourly rates meet this standard." Id.; Evans v. Port Auth. of N.Y. & N.J., 273 F.3d 346, 361 (3d Cir. 2001). Pursuant to § 1415(i)(3)(F)(ii) of the IDEA, the Court shall reduce the amount of attorney's fees under this section "if the amount of the attorney's fees otherwise authorized to be awarded unreasonably exceeds [prevailing hourly rates in the community.]"

The best evidence of the reasonable rate for an attorney's time is the customary billing rate for clients, which creates a presumption of reasonableness. Loughner v. Univ. of Pittsburgh, 260 F.3d 173, 180 (3d Cir. 2001); Maldonado, 256 F.3d at 184-85. In addition, the fee schedule established by Community Legal Services, Inc. ("CLS") "has been approvingly cited by the Third Circuit as being well developed and has been found by the Eastern District of Pennsylvania to be a fair reflection of the prevailing market rates in Philadelphia." Maldonado, 256 F.3d at 187.

1. Attorney Mahle

Plaintiffs contend that this Court should accept a rate of $285 per hour for Attorney Mahle based on the following factors: (1) Attorney Mahle has worked primarily in the area of civil legal services since she graduated from New York University School of Law in 2002; (2) the Law Offices of David J. Berney customarily bills its clients $285 to $300 per hour for Attorney Mahle's work; (3) Defendant agreed to pay fees at this rate for Attorney Mahle in a recent IDEA settlement; (4) Defendant stipulates to a $270-per-hour rate for Attorney Wentz in this case, and Attorney Wentz has less relevant experience than Attorney Mahle; (5) two experienced civil rights/education law attorneys[4] have provided affidavits attesting that the proposed rate is well within the range of prevailing rates in the Philadelphia community for services by attorneys of reasonably comparable skill, experience, and reputation; (6) courts in this district have approved similar, and often greater, rates for attorneys with comparable experience; and (7) a 2010 National Law Journal Survey, the Updated/Adjusted Laffey Matrix, and the CLS Fee Schedule support the proposed rate for Attorney Mahle. (Memo. of Law 7-18, ECF No. 24).

In response, Defendant argues that, although Attorney Mahle states in her affidavit that she has been practicing law since graduating from law school in 2002, she was not admitted to the Pennsylvania Bar until 2006, and was then on inactive status for an unknown number of years before being reinstated to active status in 2011. (Resp. 9-10, ECF No. 26). For these reasons, Defendant argues that the Court should not attribute more than two-to-five years of experience to her, which places her in the range of $180 to $225 per hour on the CLS Schedule. Accordingly, Defendant claims that a reasonable rate for Attorney Mahle is the middle of that range, $200 per hour.

The Court agrees with Defendant that Attorney Mahle's affidavit lacks enough specificity for the Court to confirm that her $285-per-hour rate is reasonable. In her affidavit, Attorney Mahle explains that she graduated from law school in 2002, that she has been working in the area of civil legal services "since graduation, " that she began working with the Law Offices of David J. Berney in 2012, and that she is also a staff attorney with the Health, Education, and Legal Assistance Project. (Mot. Exh. F, ECF No. 24-6). Attorney Mahle does not provide any additional details about her practice between 2002 and 2012 other than to say that she has litigated "hundreds of matters, including special education cases, in a variety of forums over the past 10-plus years." ( Id. ).

The Court finds that Attorney Mahle's affidavit does not make clear that she has been practicing law without interruption for the entire ten-and-a-half-year period for which she seeks credit, and does not sufficiently identify the types of law she practiced during that time. While the Court is not persuaded by Defendant's unsupported contention that the experience Attorney Mahle accrued outside of Pennsylvania should be entirely discounted in determining a reasonable hourly rate for her work, the Court agrees that her affidavit lacks a sufficient level of specificity to support her requested rate. The Court notes that Plaintiffs have submitted affidavits from experienced attorneys who attest that a rate of $285 per hour is reasonable for Attorney Mahle. These affidavits similarly fail to clearly delineate the specifics of Attorney Mahle's experience since law school graduation in 2002.

For these reasons, the Court will reduce Attorney Mahle's rate to $255 per hour, the top of the CLS Schedule's range for attorneys with 6-to-10 years of experience. See CLS Attorney Fees, available at: ...


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