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J.M. v. Montgomery County Intermediate Unit

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

March 26, 2018

J.M., et al.
v.
MONTGOMERY COUNTY INTERMEDIATE UNIT

          MEMORANDUM

          Bartle, J.

         Before the court is the motion of plaintiffs J.M. and C.M. for attorneys' fees and costs under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”), 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400 et seq. and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (“Section 504”), 29 U.S.C. §§ 794 et seq.[1]

         I

         Plaintiffs filed an administrative due process complaint against defendant Montgomery County Intermediate Unit (“MCIU”) on September 21, 2016. In that complaint, plaintiffs alleged violations of the IDEA and Section 504. Plaintiffs asserted:

This complaint concerns a past rather than continuing denial of [a Free Appropriate Public Education “FAPE”]. In particular, Parents seek compensatory education for MCIU's failure to provide [C.M.] with appropriate services including a placement in a developmental preschool, from when he was referred to Early Intervention in August 2014 until December 2015, and for failure to provide related services at the level required for [C.M.] to make meaningful progress.

         The administrative complaint also alleged that MCIU had wrongly classified C.M. as emotionally disturbed from the time of his initial evaluation through May 26, 2016, when MCIU agreed to change C.M.'s classification to autistic. In their prayer for relief, plaintiffs sought: (1) compensatory education; (2) any other equitable remedies deemed proper and just; and (3) attorneys' fees and costs.

         Thereafter an administrative hearing officer conducted a hearing spanning three full days which included ten witnesses and sixty exhibits. At the conclusion of the hearing, the parties submitted proposed findings of fact and closing memoranda of law. In their closing memorandum, plaintiffs again requested “compensatory education for [MCIU's] failure to place [C.M.] in a developmental preschool beginning on January 5, 2015 through November 29, 2015 (i.e., from implementation of [C.M.'s] initial IEP up to the date when [MCIU] placed him at a developmental preschool, the Gulf School).” Plaintiffs calculated that C.M. was entitled to approximately 900 hours of compensatory education.

         The hearing officer issued his decision on January 11, 2017. He concluded that MCIU violated C.M.'s procedural rights under the IDEA by improperly classifying him as a student with emotional disturbance. The hearing officer further found that MCIU substantively denied C.M. a FAPE from January 5, 2015 through June 9, 2016, the day C.M. left MCIU.[2] This conclusion was based on a finding that C.M. failed to make meaningful progress throughout the entirety of his time with MCIU. As a remedy, the hearing officer awarded five hours of compensatory education for each day MCIU was in session from January 5, 2015 through June 9, 2016, which amounted to a total of 1350 hours.

         MCIU appealed the decision to this court, as permitted under the IDEA. See 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2)(A). On October 12, 2017, we issued a memorandum opinion and order granting in part and denying in part the motion of MCIU for judgment on the administrative record. Montgomery Cty. Intermediate Unit No. 23 v. C.M., No. CV 17-1523, 2017 WL 4548022, at *9 (E.D. Pa. Oct. 12, 2017).

         Specifically, we affirmed the hearing officer's finding that the initial evaluation and classification of C.M. violated the IDEA. Id. at *6. We further affirmed the hearing officer's finding of a denial of FAPE from January 5, 2015 through November 19, 2015. Id. at *6-8. However, we reversed the hearing officer's decision to the extent he found that C.M. had been denied a FAPE while enrolled in the developmental preschool from November 20, 2015 through June 9, 2016. Id. at *7-8. We reasoned that the hearing officer's decision on this point was contradicted by his own findings of fact, which recognized that the developmental preschool was an appropriate placement for C.M. Id. at *8. We further found that C.M. had, in fact, made progress while enrolled in the developmental preschool. Id. We thus reduced the award of compensatory education to five hours per day for each day MCIU was in session from January 5, 2015 through November 19, 2015. Id. at *8-9. In the accompanying order, we directed the parties to confer on the calculation of the final award and the manner in which the compensatory education would be provided. The parties ultimately agreed to a total award of 820 hours of compensatory education and thereafter stipulated to dismissal of the action with prejudice on December 21, 2017.

         Contemporaneous with MCIU's appeal, plaintiffs filed this separate action for attorneys' fees and costs. Plaintiffs seek $97, 895 in attorneys' fees, $400 in costs, and $3, 200 in expert fees. We held the fee action in suspense pending the outcome of the MCIU's substantive appeal. Once that decision was issued, we removed the case from suspense and the parties have now fully briefed the issue.

         II

         Under the IDEA, a court may award reasonable attorneys' fees 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[s] on any significant issue in litigation which achieves some of the benefit the parties sought in bringing suit.'” John T. ex rel. Paul T. v. Delaware Cty. Intermediate Unit, 318 F.3d 545, 555 (3d Cir. 2003) (quoting Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983)).

         To determine a reasonable award of attorneys' fees, the court must first calculate the lodestar, which is the number of hours reasonably expended multiplied by a reasonable hourly rate for legal services. Holmes v. Millcreek Twp. Sch. Dist., 205 F.3d 583, 595 (3d Cir. 2000). A reasonable hourly rate is determined according to the prevailing market rates in the community for lawyers of reasonably comparable skill, reputation, and experience. Id. The prevailing party bears the burden of establishing that the ...


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