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Doe v. East Lyme Board of Education

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

March 27, 2019

JOHN DOE, by and through his parent, JANE DOE Plaintiffs,



         Pursuant to 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3), Plaintiffs move for an award of "at least" $489, 528.83 for attorneys' fees and costs incurred in litigation in this Court and in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals through October 31, 2017. (Pis.' Second Mot. for Attorneys' Fees and Costs [Doc. # 263] at 1.) Defendant opposes, arguing that Plaintiffs are not entitled to an award of attorneys' fees. For the reasons that follow, Plaintiffs' Motion is granted with modification.

         I. Background

         The Court presumes the parties' familiarity with the underlying facts of this case. Plaintiffs filed a complaint against the East Lyme Board of Education in February 2011 to appeal the decision of an administrative hearing officer regarding Plaintiffs' Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act ("IDEA") claims. (See Compl. [Doc. # 1].) The parties' cross-motions for summary judgment were referred to Magistrate Judge Margolis, who issued a recommended ruling, ([Doc. # 71]), which this Court adopted with modification, (Ruling on Parties' Objs. to the Recommended Ruling [Doc. # 79].) Defendant's motion for summary judgment was granted in part "in that the 2009-2010 proposed IEP was adequate to provide a FAPE" but was denied "in all other respects." (Id. at 16.) Plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment was granted in part "in that Defendant violated Plaintiffs right to a FAPE in 2010-2011 and violated Plaintiffs stay-put right" and denied "in all other respects." (Id.) The Court subsequently ordered Defendant to reimburse Plaintiffs the amount of $97, 445 and entered judgment for Plaintiffs, (Ruling on the Parties' Objs. to the Recommended Ruling [Doc. # 101]; Amended J. [Doc. # 104]), which Defendant appealed, (Not. of Appeal [Doc. #111]).

         The Second Circuit "affirm[ed] in most respects" the judgment entered for Plaintiffs, but "vacate[d] and remand[ed] for entry of judgment in favor of the Does for the full value of services that the Board was required to fund under the stay-put provision." Doe v. East Lyme Bd. of Educ, 790 F.3d 440, 445 (2d Cir. 2015). The Second Circuit "le[ft]" to this Court "the mechanics of structuring the compensatory education award" and the determination "whether compensatory education should be limited to the kinds of services specified in the amended 2008-2009 IEP, or encompass analogous educational services appropriate to the Student's current needs." Id. at 457.

         On remand, the Court held a three-day bench trial and entered its subsequent Memorandum of Decision in June 2017, ultimately ordering the Defendants to reimburse Plaintiffs in the amount of $47, 968.02, plus interest, and to place $192, 066.02 for compensatory education in an escrow account. (Mem. of Decision [Doc. # 245]; Amended Final J. [Doc. # 284].)

         In May 2014, Plaintiffs moved for Attorneys' Fees and Costs, ([Doc. # 125J), which the Court "denied without prejudice to renew... no later than fourteen (14) days after the date a ruling on the merits of the cross-appeals by the Second Circuit is entered on the docket of this district court," (Ruling on Pis.' Mot. for Attorneys' Fees [Doc. # 158] at 5). In November 2017, Plaintiffs renewed their request for attorneys' fees. (Pis.' Second Mot. for Attorneys' Fees.)

         II. Discussion

         Any "parent of a child with a disability" who sues under the IDEA and who qualifies as a "prevailing party" may, in the court's discretion, be awarded "reasonable attorneys' fees." 20 U.S.C. 1415(i)(3)(B)(i).

         A. Prevailing Parties

         "The legal standard for determining 'prevailing party status in an IDEA attorney's fees action is the same as that governing the award of attorney's fees in civil rights litigation pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988." P.O. ex relL.T. v. Greenwich Bd. of Ed., 210 F.Supp.2d 76, 81 (D. Conn. 2002) (citing cases). "Under this standard, a party 'maybe considered a 'prevailing party' for attorney's fees purposes if they succeed on any significant issue in litigation which achieves some of the benefit the parties sought in bringing the suit.'" Id. (citing G.M. v. New Britain Bd. of Ed., 173 F.3d 77, 81 (2d Cir. 1999)). "Thus, the linchpin of the analysis is to determine the degree of success obtained by comparing the relief sought by the plaintiff and the relief actually obtained." Id. (citing Christopher P. v. Marcus, 915 F.2d 794, 804 (2d Cir. 1990)).

         Courts must not demand "perfect congruence between the relief requested and the relief obtained" to award attorneys' fees. G.M. v. New Britain, 173 F.3d at 83. Rather, courts should apply a "generous formulation" of the prevailing party test, considering whether: i) plaintiff "obtained relief on a significant claim in the litigation"; ii) that relief "effected a material alteration" in plaintiffs "legal relationship with the defendant"; and iii) such material alteration is "not merely technical or de minimis in nature." P.O. ex rel L.T. v. Greenwich, 210 F.Supp.2d at 82 (citing Texas State Teachers Ass'n v. Garland Indep. Sch. Dist., 489 U.S. 782, 791-93 (1989); G.M. v. New Britain, 173F.3dat83).

         Plaintiffs argue that they are prevailing parties in this litigation because they obtained relief on significant claims during three phases of this litigation: prior to their appeal to the Second Circuit ("District Court Phase 1"), on appeal ("Appellate Phase"), and following that appeal ("District Court Phase 2"). Defendants apparently concede that Plaintiffs were prevailing parties during the District Court Phase 2 stage of this litigation, (see Defs.' Opp. to Pis.' Mot. [Doc. # 272] at 6-7), but dispute Plaintiffs' status as prevailing parties as to District Court Phase 1 and the Appellate Phase because, Defendants argue, Plaintiffs "did not obtain relief on a significant claim in either" phase and because "there was no material alteration in Plaintiffs' legal relationship with the board" during those stages. (Id. at 6.)

         i. District Court Phase 1

         Plaintiffs contend that they "achieved relief on at least two significant claims in this litigation" during District Court Phase 1: 1) "an order and judgment requiring the Board to pay them a significant sum of money ($97, 445.00) as reimbursement for the Board's violations of John's stay-put rights" and 2) "an adjudication that the Board continues to be responsible for providing John with a FAPE, despite his unilateral placement in a private school outside of East Lyme." (PL's Mem. Supp. Mot. for Atty. Fees [Doc. # 264] at 5.)

         a. Stay-Put Violation

As to the award for the violation of John's stay-put rights, Defendants claim that Plaintiffs cannot be deemed prevailing parties on that basis because they "did not seek reversal of the hearing officer's denial of stay-put relief in their Complaint. (Defs.' Opp. at 9.) Because, Defendants argue, "Plaintiffs had abandoned their claim for stay-put relief in the initial administrative due process proceedings and in their appeal to this Court[, ] ... it cannot be said that stay-put reimbursement was a significant claim raised by Plaintiffs at the District Court Phase 1 proceedings." (Id.)

         Plaintiffs respond that although stay-put reimbursement was not featured in their Complaint, they did ask the Court to "grant relief of the general type they ultimately received (reimbursement, compensatory education)." (Pis.' Reply [Doc. # 275] at 3.) Plaintiffs also argue that they "clearly raised their stay-put claim on summary judgment" and that the "parties briefed the issue extensively to this Court during the first phase of this litigation," leading the Second Circuit to note on appeal that Plaintiffs "'prevailed below' on the stay-put claim." (Id. (quoting Doe v. East Lyme, 790 F.3d at 447).)

         Defendants also claim that this Court's decision to award stay-put reimbursement "was not a decision on the merits of the parties' claims that altered their relationship because this Court (and the Second Circuit) determined that the placement of the student at SSA by the Parent was inadequate to meet the Student's needs and, therefore, plaintiff was not entitled to reimbursement for that placement." It is unclear to the Court why the denial of tuition reimbursement would alter the impact of the Plaintiffs' success as to the separate award of stay-put reimbursement for other services, and Plaintiffs' status as prevailing parties will not be negated on that basis.

         Plaintiffs' claim for stay-put relief was a significant one which was litigated thoroughly during District Court Phase 1. (See, e.g., Rulings on Parties' Objs. to Rec. Rulings [Docs. # 79, 101] (addressing parties' objections to and determining Plaintiffs' award for stay-put violations).) Those efforts produced a significant monetary award for Plaintiffs, producing a material alteration to Defendants' legal obligations to Plaintiffs which, at $97, 445, is clearly not merely technical or de minimis. Therefore, Plaintiffs are prevailing parties as to their claim for stay-put relief during District Court Phase 1.

         b. FAPE Violation

         As to the Court's decision that Defendants violated John's right to a FAPE, Defendants argue that Plaintiffs are not prevailing parties because "Plaintiffs' claim of a denial of FAPE for the 2010-2011 school year was not a significant claim." (Defs.' Opp. at 7.) Defendants' cite Magistrate Judge Margolis's recommended ruling, which "recognized" that the "'primary issue and focus of [Plaintiffs'] proceedings was whether SSA was an appropriate educational placement for the student," not whether John's FAPE rights were violated. (Id. (citing Recommended Ruling [Doc. # 71] at 16, n.17 (alteration in Defs.' Opp.)).) Because, Defendants argue, the appropriateness of John's placement at SSA was the "primary issue" raised by Plaintiffs in their appeal to this Court of the hearing officer's decision, the FAPE claim on which Plaintiffs succeeded was not sufficiently significant to confer upon Plaintiffs prevailing party status. Especially under a "generous formulation" of the prevailing party test, Defendants' argument here is unconvincing because a claim need not have been the Plaintiffs' "primary" claim in order for it to have been a "significant claim in the litigation."

         Defendants also argue that Plaintiffs are not prevailing parties in District Court Phase 1 as to the FAPE violation because Plaintiffs achieved "no relief from the finding of that violation and because the Court's finding as to that violation "does not constitute a material alteration or a judicially sanctioned change in the legal relationship between the parties" as Defendants' obligation to develop and implement an IEP for John "arises from the IDEA's statutory mandate and is not part of a judicial remedy." (Defs.' Opp. at 7-8 (quoting/.C. v. Reg'l Sch. Dist. 10, 278 F.3d 119, 125 (2d. Cir. 2002)).) Plaintiffs respond that this Court's finding of a FAPE violation "had (and continued] to have) long-term consequences: instead of washing its hands of John, as the Board strove mightily to do, it was required to continue holding Team meetings, performing evaluations, developing IEPs, proposing placements, and performing all of the other obligations that IDEA imposes on a district with regard to eligible students." (Pis.' Reply at 5.) Plaintiffs also respond that, because they were "required to seek judicial intervention to compel" Defendants to comply with their obligation to provide John a FAPE, the Court's ruling constituted a material alteration of the parties' legal relationship, regardless of the underlying statutory nature of Defendants' obligation. (See id.)

         Defendants cite J.C. v. Regional School Dist. 10, Bd. of Educ, 278 F.3d 119 (2d Cir. 2002), in support of their argument that Plaintiffs are not prevailing parties because Plaintiffs' entitlement to a FAPE arises from the IDEA and not from any judicial alteration of the parties' relationship. Following notice of the scheduling of an expulsion hearing, "J.C.'s parents, through their attorney, sent a letter to the Board seeking both a [planning and placement team] and a due process hearing." 278 F.3d at 122. The school "responded by cancelling the expulsion hearing and scheduling PPT meetings to address these requests," eventually terminated the hearing, and "drafted an IEP that provided for all the other relief requested in the" letter. Id. Both parties then agreed

that no issues remained to be determined and jointly requested a hearing for the sole purpose of adopting the PPT's results as an official decision and order. At the hearing . . ., however, the Board changed its mind, fearing that transforming the results of the PPT into an official decision would expose the Board to liability for attorneys' fees. The hearing officer declined to adopt the PPT's results as an official order . . . and the hearing officer issued a final written decision dismissing the hearing as moot.

Id. J.C.'s parents subsequently filed suit in district court, seeking only attorneys' fees from the Board under the IDEA and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Id. The district court awarded attorneys' fees to plaintiff, but on appeal the Second Circuit held that J.C. was not entitled to attorneys' fees under the IDEA. Id.

         The Second Circuit's holding in J.C. rested on the Supreme Court's opinion in Buckhannon Board and Care Home, Inc. v. West Va. Dept. of Health and Human Res., 532 U.S. 598 (2001), which "held that, to be a prevailing party, one must either secure a judgment on the merits or be a party to a settlement agreement that is expressly enforced by the court through a consent decree" and "expressly rejected the catalyst theory as a predicate for recovering attorneys' fees," under which theory parties were awarded attorneys' fees "where even though the litigation did not result in a favorable judgment, the pressure of the lawsuit was a material contributing factor in bringing about extrajudicial relief." J.C, 278 F.3d 123 (internal citations and quotations omitted). Because J.C. did not secure a judgment on the merits and was not party to a settlement agreement expressly enforced by the court through a consent decree, the Second Circuit held that he was not a prevailing party and was not entitled to attorneys' fees under the IDEA. Id. at 124-125. Unlike in J.C, this Court's finding that Defendants denied John a FAPE for the 2010-11 school year is clearly a "judicial remedy" and Plaintiffs here did secure a judgment on the merits following extensive litigation. Therefore, Defendants' analogy to that case is unconvincing.

         Because Plaintiffs obtained relief on this significant claim which materially altered Defendants' legal obligation to Plaintiffs in a way that is not merely technical, Plaintiffs are also prevailing parties as to the FAPE violation during District Court Phase 1.

         ii. Appellate Phase

         Plaintiffs argue that they achieved relief on additional significant claims during the Appellate Phase: 1) "a ruling affirming this Court's conclusion that, due to the Board's stay-put violations, the Does were entitled to reimbursement for those stay-put services that Ms. Doe had provided"; 2) "a ruling that John was also entitled to compensatory education, to make up for those services that the Board owed John, but that Ms. Doe had not been able to provide"; and 3) "affirmance of this Court's ruling that the Board remained responsible for John's special education on a prospective basis." (Id. at 5-6.)

         Defendants' argument that Plaintiffs were not prevailing parties during the Appellate Phase mirrors their arguments regarding District Court Phase 1. (See Defs.' Opp. at 7-10.) In the absence of any additional persuasive arguments or authority, and in light of Plaintiffs' success on appeal to the Second Circuit on significant claims in this litigation, the Court finds that Plaintiffs are prevailing parties as to the Appellate Phase as well.

         iii. District Court Phase II

         Finally, Plaintiffs argue, and Defendants appear not to dispute, that they prevailed on additional significant claims on remand to this Court during District Court Phase 2, including: 1) "obtaining much more, in monetary terms, than they had originally obtained on summary judgment... requiring a total of $134, 000.04 in reimbursement" and "requiring the Board to place an even greater sum - $203, 278.10 - into escrow for John's benefit"; and 2) an order requiring "the Board to pay Ms. Doe prejudgment interest on the amounts she expended." (Id. at 6.) Plaintiffs conclude that "the total value of the relief obtained" in this case is "at least $240, 034.04, plus prejudgment interest" and that therefore they are "prevailing parties who merit a ...

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