United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania
A.B., by and through his Parents and Natural Guardians, F.B. and N.V., Plaintiffs,
PLEASANT VALLEY SCHOOL DISTRICT, Defendant.
RICHARD CAPUTO, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
before me is a Motion for Attorneys' Fees and Costs (Doc.
24) filed by Plaintiff A.B. On September 16, 2017, a
Pennsylvania Special Education Hearing Officer determined,
through an administrative proceeding, that Defendant Pleasant
Valley School District (the “District”) denied
A.B. a free, appropriate public education
(“FAPE”) under the Individuals with Disabilities
Education Act (“IDEA”) and Section 504 of the
Rehabilitation Act. (See Doc. 25-1). A.B.
accordingly filed this action in December of 2017 to recover
reasonable attorneys' fees and costs from the District,
as permitted under those federal statutes. (See
Docs. 1, 24). The District objects to A.B.'s claimed fees
and costs, arguing that the hours billed and hourly rates
requested by his counsel are excessive, among other things.
(See Doc. 30). A.B.'s Motion will be granted,
but the fees and costs sought will be reduced to reasonable
amounts in light of a few of the District's well-founded
was a student at one of the District's schools.
(See Doc. 25-1 at 2). A.B.'s parents filed a
“due process complaint against the District in October
2016, asserting that it denied [A.B.] a free, appropriate
public education (FAPE) under the IDEA and Section 504 of the
Rehabilitation Act . . . .” (Id.). A hearing
was subsequently conducted over four sessions, through which
A.B.'s parents “sought to establish that the
District failed to address [A.B.'s] many and varied needs
throughout the time period in question [July 2013 through
2016], and that a compensatory remedy was warranted.”
(Id.). “The District maintained that its
special education program, as offered and implemented, was
appropriate for [A.B.] and that no relief was due.”
Hearing Officer “granted in part and denied in
part” the parents' claims. (Id.). The
Hearing Officer agreed that the District fell short of its
IDEA and Section 504 obligations, but only with respect to a
portion of the time A.B. attended school in the
District-“the second half of the 2014-15 school year
through the end of [the] 2015-16 school year.”
(Id. at 33-34). Accordingly, the Hearing Officer
awarded A.B. 555.5 hours of compensatory education,
(id.), worth approximately $30, 000 and representing
about a third of the compensatory education A.B.'s
parents sought through the proceeding. (Doc. 32 at 10-11;
Doc. 30 at 17-18; see Doc. 25-1 at 3). Moreover, the
Hearing Officer only awarded relief based on one legal theory
(which may have been addressed sua sponte) out of
the many A.B. raised. (See generally Doc. 25-1;
see also Doc. 32 at 11; Doc. 30 at 17-18).
through his parents, subsequently filed this action to
recover reasonable attorneys' fees and costs. (Doc. 1).
After I denied the District's Motion to Dismiss
(see Doc. 10), the District answered A.B.'s
Complaint (Doc. 12), and A.B. filed the instant Motion for
fees and costs (Doc. 24). The District responded with a brief
in opposition, challenging the fees and costs requested as
excessive, redundant, and vague. (Doc. 30). A.B. then filed a
reply. (Doc. 32). Because hourly rates were disputed, I
ordered an evidentiary hearing held, see Smith v. Phila.
Hous. Auth., 107 F.3d 223, 225 (3d Cir. 1997). (Doc.
34). Oral argument on the Motion was also held at that time.
Motion has been fully briefed and is now ripe for review.
the IDEA, courts must first determine if the party seeking
fees is a “prevailing party.” 20 U.S.C. §
1415(i)(3)(B)(i). A party “prevails” under the
IDEA if she achieves relief and if “there is a causal
connection between the litigation and the relief from the
defendant.” J.O. ex rel. C.O. v. Orange Twp. Bd. of
Educ., 287 F.3d 267, 271 (3d Cir. 2002).
is the case, the court must then determine what a
“reasonable” fee is. “Generally, courts use
the ‘lodestar' method in evaluating a fee
application . . . . Under the lodestar method, and
attorney's reasonable hourly rate is multiplied by the
number of hours the attorney reasonably spent working on a
matter.” D.O. ex rel. M.O. v. Jackson Twp. Bd. of
Educ., No. CV 17-1581 (TJB), 2019 WL 1923388, at *2
(D.N.J. Apr. 30, 2019) (citations omitted). The prevailing
party first “has the burden to prove that its request
for attorney's fees is reasonable, ” by
“submit[ting] evidence supporting the hours worked and
rates claimed.” Rode v. Dellarciprete, 892
F.2d 1177, 1183 (3d Cir. 1990) (quoting Hensley v.
Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983)). “Hours are
not reasonably expended if they are excessive, redundant, or
otherwise unnecessary, ” or if they were spent on
unsuccessful claims “distinct in all respects
from” a party's successful claims. Id.
(quotation omitted). And the reasonableness of a claimed rate
may be shown by pointing to fees charged by lawyers of
similar expertise in similarly complex cases in the same
community. Evans v. Port Auth. of N.Y. & N.J.,
273 F.3d 346, 361-62 (3d Cir. 2001); Rode, 892 F.2d
at 1183. Once the fee petitioner makes a prima facie showing,
“the party opposing the fee award then has the burden
to challenge, by affidavit or brief with sufficient
specificity to give fee applicants notice, the reasonableness
of the requested fee.” Rode, 892 F.2d at
1183. I may only consider objections the opposing
party actually raises-but once raised, I have “a great
deal of discretion to adjust the fee award in light of those
the lodestar is reached, it “is presumed to be the
reasonable fee.” Id. Courts still have
discretion to reduce the lodestar, but only if the party
seeking a reduction shows that it is necessary. Id.
One common discretionary reduction is the
“results-obtained” reduction, which permits
courts to “adjust the lodestar downward if [it] is not
reasonable in light of the results obtained.”
Id. (citing Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S.
424, 434-37 (1983)). Just what degree of success has been
achieved, and whether the lodestar is unreasonable in light
of that success, are determinations committed to the district
court's discretion. Hensley, 461 U.S. at 436-37.
is unquestionably a “prevailing party, ” having
won compensatory education, see Heather D. v. Northampton
Area Sch. Dist., 511 F.Supp.2d 549, 562 (E.D. Pa. 2007),
I begin with the lodestar calculation. A.B.'s counsel,
McAndrews Law Offices (“MLO”), submits that it
has reasonably expended 409.87 hours on this matter, split
between several attorneys and a few paralegals. (Doc. 32-1).
The District points to a number of hours billed that it
contends are vague, excessive, or redundant, so I will
address those objections in turn.
District first argues that MLO's contact with its clients
was excessive, and that none of the billing entries provide
sufficient detail for determining whether the contact was
warranted. (Doc. 30 at 25-26). According to the District,
there are over 100 entries for matters such as
“telephone communicate with client” and
“preparation of correspondence with client.”
(Id. at 25). A.B. counters that this case has been
ongoing for about four years, and that 100 calls over four
years averages to a reasonable two calls per month. (Doc. 32
at 23). And entries like “client communication”
are not vague, according to A.B., because it provides enough
information for the Court and the parties to determine
whether the hours billed are reasonable. (Id. at
with A.B. There may be other reasons why attorney
communications with a client should not be billed, but I find
the District's proffered reasons unpersuasive. Two calls
each month does not seem excessive to me, given an
attorney's ethical duty to communicate with her client,
204 Pa. Code Rule 1.4, and the necessity of A.B.'s
parents' involvement in this case. Nor are the billing
entries improperly vague for simply listing “client
communication.” MLO does not need “to mention the
specific substance of a communication” in its billing
records for a court to assess the reasonableness of an entry.
Sch. Dist of Phila. v. Deborah A., No. CIV.A.
08-2924, 2011 WL 2681234, at *3 (E.D. Pa. July 8, 2011);
see Keenan v. City of Phila., 983 F.2d 459, 473 (3d
Cir. 1992); see also Rode v. Dellarciprete, 892 F.2d
1177, 1190 (3d Cir. 1990) (billing entries need only contain
enough detail for a court to “determine if the hours
claimed are unreasonable for the work performed”). In
sum, MLO has provided enough information for me to determine
that the hours it billed for client communication are
reasonable, and the District has not provided a sufficient
justification for deeming those hours excessive or vague.
the District challenges a number of entries as vague: for
instances, entries for “Preparation of correspondence
to counsel, ” “Review of records, ”
“Review of correspondence from counsel, ”
“Telephone communication” to and from
“counsel, ” and “Meeting with
counsel.” (Doc. 30 at 26-27). The Third Circuit has
repeatedly explained, however, that a fee petition need only
include “some fairly definite information as to the
hours devoted to various general activities, e.g., pretrial
discovery, settlement negotiations, and the hours spent by
various classes of attorneys . . . .” Rode,
892 F.2d at 1190 (quoting Lindy Bros. Builders, Inc. of
Phila. v. Am. Radiator & Standard Sanitary Corp.,
487 F.2d 161, 167 (3d Cir. 1973)). “It is not necessary
to know . . . the precise activity to which each hour was
devoted . . . .” Id. Accordingly, courts in
the Third Circuit have held that simple entries such as
“research, ” “review, ” and
“prepare” are sufficiently specific, so long as
they explain who performed those activities and for how long.
See Walker v. Gruver, No. 1:11-CV-1223, 2013 WL
5947623, at *15 (M.D. Pa. Nov. 5, 2013); Garner v.
Meoli, No. CIV. A. 96-1351, 1998 WL 560377, at *2 (E.D.
Pa. Aug. 31, 1998). I will therefore not deduct hours for the
entries the District broadly challenges as vague.
Entries regarding ...