United States District Court, D. Connecticut
RULING ON PLAINTIFFS' SECOND MOTION FOR
BOND ARTERTON, U.S.D.J.
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.
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
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.
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].)
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.)
"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.
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.
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).
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.)
District Court Phase 1
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.)
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
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).)
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.
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.
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."
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.)
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
District Court Phase II
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 ...