plaintiff sought from the lawsuit with the relief eventually obtained. Hughes, 852 F. Supp. at 301-02 (citing Institutionalized Juveniles v. Secretary of Public Welfare, 758 F.2d 897, 911 (3d Cir. 1985)). "Plaintiffs will be prevailing parties even though the relief they obtained is not identical to the relief they specifically demanded, as long as the relief obtained is of the same general type." Institutionalized Juveniles, 758 F.2d at 912. It is well settled that relief need not be judicially decreed to justify a fee award. See Hewitt v. Helms, 482 U.S. 755, 760, 96 L. Ed. 2d 654, 107 S. Ct. 2672 (1987); E.M., 849 F. Supp. at 314 (citations omitted) ("Most courts, including those in this district, permit parents who prevail through settlement to recover attorneys fees, even if an administrative hearing was never held.").
Here, plaintiff sought residential placement for her son. On February 21, 1997, the parties entered into a settlement agreement providing that J.G. was to be enrolled in a residential program. Accordingly, the Court finds that plaintiff achieved the benefit sought from the lawsuit, and thus satisfies the first prong of the prevailing party test.
The Court therefore turns to the second prong of the prevailing party test, that of causation. The standard in the Third Circuit requires the Court to determine "whether the litigation constituted a material contributing factor in bringing about the events that resulted in the obtaining of the desired relief." Metropolitan Pittsburgh Crusade, 964 F.2d at 250 (quoting Dunn, 842 F.2d 1420 at 1433). While there must be some causal relationship between the lawsuit and the relief obtained, "the plaintiff's lawsuit need not be the sole cause of defendant's action." Id. Further, the district court must apply the most expansive definition of causation. Hughes, 852 F. Supp. at 304 (citing Dunn, 842 F.2d at 1433).
Causation may be established under the "catalyst theory," under which "a plaintiff who can prove that the existence of the lawsuit accomplished the original objectives of the lawsuit without a formal judgment can be a prevailing party.'" Baumgartner v. Harrisburg Hous. Auth., 21 F.3d 541, 544 (3d Cir. 1994). The classic situation for application of the catalyst theory is where the defendants voluntarily change their behavior to eliminate the challenged conduct. Id. (citation omitted).
Here, the parties settled their dispute before a trial was held before the Office of Administrative Law; thus, plaintiff cannot show that a favorable judgment was the cause of the relief obtained. Rather, S.D. must rely on the catalyst theory to show causation. In order to demonstrate that she is a prevailing party under this theory, plaintiff must "prove that the existence of the lawsuit accomplished the original objectives of the lawsuit." Baumgartner, 21 F.3d at 544 (emphasis added); see also Craig v. Gregg Cty., 988 F.2d 18, 21 (5th Cir. 1993) (finding that plaintiff "has not shown that his suit caused Gregg County to remedy the allegedly flawed voting scheme").
The Court finds that plaintiff has met this burden. The record shows that the school district placed J.G. in a residential program only after S.D. filed her petition for due process. It also reveals that plaintiff first requested residential placement from the district in 1995. (S.D. Aff. P 8.) She reiterated her position several times between 1995 and February 21, 1997, the date the district agreed to place J.G. at the Pathway School. (Id., Ex. II (settlement agreement); id. P 8.) Despite her continuous requests, the school district did not agree to residential placement. (Id., Ex. AA (Aff. of Alice Kelly (January 15, 1997)).) For example, on June 18, 1996, the Manville child-study team reviewed J.G.'s case and recommended continued placement in the resource center at the Manville High School. (Id., Ex. G.) In addition, the IEP dated October 22, 1996 recommended an out-of-district day placement for J.G., but the district did not specifically agree to residential placement. (See id. P 17). Thus, the record reveals that the institution of this litigation in all likelihood had some catalyst effect in causing the district to alter its position. We therefore find that S.D.'s institution of due process proceedings constituted a material contributing factor in the district's agreement to place J.G. residentially.
Because the Court has determined that S.D. is a prevailing party, the Court turns to its second task, which is to calculate the amount of reasonable fees and costs owed by the district. In determining the amount of reasonable fees, the Supreme Court has held that "the most useful starting point for determining the amount of a reasonable fee is the number of hours reasonably expended on the litigation multiplied by a reasonable hourly rate." Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433, 76 L. Ed. 2d 40, 103 S. Ct. 1933 (1983) (claim arising in context of 42 U.S.C. § 1988)
; see also Washington v. Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas, 89 F.3d 1031, 1035 (3d Cir. 1996). The result of this computation is called the lodestar. The lodestar is strongly presumed to yield a reasonable fee. City of Burlington v. Dague, 505 U.S. 557, 562, 120 L. Ed. 2d 449, 112 S. Ct. 2638 (1992); see also Rode, 892 F.2d 1177 at 1183. The party seeking a fee award must submit evidence to support both the hours worked and the rate claimed. Hensley, 461 U.S. at 433. "Where the documentation is inadequate, the district court may reduce the award accordingly." Id. Furthermore, the district court should exclude from the initial fee calculation hours that were not "reasonably expended." 120 L. Ed. 2d at 434 (quotation omitted). The attorney for the prevailing party should make "a good faith effort to exclude from a fee request hours that are excessive, redundant, or otherwise unnecessary, just as a lawyer in private practice ethically is obligated to exclude such hours from his fee submission." Id.; see also Massachusetts Dept. of Public Health, 841 F. Supp. 449, 458.
It is the general rule that a reasonable hourly rate is calculated according to the prevailing market rates in the community. Blum v. Stenson, 465 U.S. 886, 895-96 n.11, 79 L. Ed. 2d 891, 104 S. Ct. 1541, (1984); Student Public Interest Research Group, Inc. v. AT&T Bell Laboratories, 842 F.2d 1436, 1448 (3d Cir. 1988) (hereinafter "PIRG "); Washington v. Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas, 89 F.3d 1031, 1035 (3d Cir. 1996). The prevailing party bears the burden of establishing by way of satisfactory evidence, "'in addition to [the] attorney's own affidavits,' that the requested hourly rates meet this standard." Washington, 89 F.3d at 1035 (quoting Blum, 465 U.S. at 895 n.11). The Court of Appeals has further explained that the prevailing party has the burden of demonstrating "'the community billing rate charged by attorneys of equivalent skill and experience performing work of similar complexity,'" Washington, 89 F.3d at 1036 (quoting PIRG, 842 F.2d 1436 at 1450). This burden is normally addressed by submitting the affidavits of other attorneys in the relevant legal community, attesting to the range of prevailing rates charged by attorneys with similar skill and experience. See id.
Here, defendant opposes the application for counsel fees, and we find that as to the hourly rates and hours claimed, plaintiff has not carried her burden. In support of plaintiff's application, she has submitted only counsels' own affidavits regarding hourly rates and hours expended. (See Pl.'s Br. in Supp. of Summ. J., Exs. 1(a) (Aff. of Theodore Sussan), 1(b) (Aff. of Staci Greenwald).) Furthermore, those affidavits make no representations whatsoever as to the prevailing rates charged by attorneys with similar skill and experience in the community. In the absence of such evidence the Court is left to mere speculation as to what billing rates might be appropriate.
Rather than engage in conjecture, the more prudent course is to deny plaintiff's request for attorneys' fees and costs without prejudice to the filing of a properly supported application.
The Court takes no position at this time on defendants' remaining arguments. However, the school district has raised an issue that may affect our fee determination should S.D. submit a properly supported application to the Court at a later date. More specifically, the district maintains that any award of attorney's fees and costs should be significantly reduced due to plaintiff's failure to cooperate with the district on various occasions.
(Def.'s Br. in Opp'n at 10.) Because the statute contemplates the reduction of fees in certain circumstances, see 20 U.S.C. § 1415(e)(4)(F), this issue could affect the Court's determination of a reasonable award under the circumstances presented here. Accordingly, the parties are directed to address the district's contention upon resubmission of plaintiff's fee application.
An appropriate Order accompanies this Memorandum Opinion.
For the reasons expressed in the accompanying Memorandum Opinion,
IT IS THEREFORE on this 7th day of January, 1998, ORDERED that plaintiff S.D.'s motion for summary judgment be and hereby is DENIED WITHOUT PREJUDICE ; and
IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that defendant Manville Board of Education's motion for summary judgment be and hereby is DENIED WITHOUT PREJUDICE.
MARY LITTLE PARELL
United States District Judge