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A.B. v. Pleasant Valley School District

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

June 28, 2019

A.B., by and through his Parents and Natural Guardians, F.B. and N.V., Plaintiffs,
v.
PLEASANT VALLEY SCHOOL DISTRICT, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM

          A. RICHARD CAPUTO, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Presently 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 objections.

         I. Background

         A.B. 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.” (Id.).

         The 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).

         A.B., 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. (Id.).

         The Motion has been fully briefed and is now ripe for review.

         II. Legal Standard

         Under 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).

         If that 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 objections.” Id.

         Once 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.

         III. Discussion

         A. Reasonable Hours

         As A.B. 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.[1]

         1. Client calls

         The 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 23-24).

         I agree 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.

         2. Vague entries

         Next, 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.

         3. Entries regarding ...


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