The opinion of the court was delivered by: Honorable Jerome B. Simandle
Plaintiffs seek reimbursement of attorney's fees and costs incurred in connection with their efforts to enforce a February 13, 2002 consent order entered by the parties to conclude an action before the New Jersey Office of Administrative Law. The consent order required defendant, Clementon Board of Education, to pay plaintiffs $425.00 "no later than March 25, 2002." (Pl.'s Br., Ex. A.)
The defendant Clementon Board of Education approved disbursement of the sum of $425.00 at its meeting on June 24, 2002. (Visalli Aff. ¶3.) Nonetheless, plaintiffs filed the present motion on July 15, 2002 to enforce the consent order and compel payment of $425.00 and attorneys fees and costs incurred preparing and filing the motion. [Docket Item 8- 1.] Defendants forwarded the $425.00 payment to plaintiffs on July 18, 2002, when the Board's Business Administrator returned to work. (Visalli Aff. ¶4.) As a result, the only issue remaining is whether plaintiffs should be reimbursed for attorneys fees incurred in bringing this motion on July 15th, which was twenty-one days after the Board approved payment.
Plaintiffs argue that this Court should order defendant to reimburse them for $523.94 in litigation costs either pursuant to the attorneys' fees provision of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B) or the attorneys' fees provision of 42 U.S.C. § 1983. (Epstein Aff. ¶3, Pls.' Br. at ¶¶8-9.)
For reasons discussed herein, the Court finds that plaintiffs have failed to present a valid basis for the payment of attorneys fees under IDEA or section 1983. Accordingly, the Court will deny plaintiffs' application for attorneys' fees.
Plaintiffs assert that their successful efforts to compel the Clementon Board of Education to comply with the February 13, 2002 consent order entitle them to reimbursement of attorneys' fees under relevant provisions of the IDEA, 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq. Under the IDEA, children with disabilities are entitled to a free appropriate education. Once a child has been "classified" as IDEA-eligible, the special education program and related services to be provided to the classified student are to be described in an Individual Education Plan (IEP) developed with input from the child's parents. Honig v. Coe, 484 U.S. 305 (1988). The services must be provided in the closest, least restrictive environment, see N.J.A.C. 6:28-1.1(b)(1), and must be "reasonably calculated to enable the child to receive educational benefits". See Hendrick Hudson Central Sch. Dist. Bd. of Educ. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 206-7 (1982).
Under the IDEA, states are required to establish procedural safeguards for children with disabilities, including allowing parents who dispute changes to their child's IEP to obtain an impartial due process hearing. E.M. v. Millville Bd. of Educ., 849 F. Supp. 312, 314 (D.N.J. 1994) (citing 20 U.S.C. § 1415). At this hearing, the parents are to be given the "opportunity to present complaints with respect to any matter relating to the identification, evaluation, or educational placement of the child". 20 U.S.C. § 1415(b)(6). Federal law authorizes the recovery of reasonable attorneys' fees and costs when the parent of a child with a disability is the "prevailing party" in litigation concerning challenges to identification, evaluation or placement issues. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B). Therefore, a parent may recover attorneys' fees and costs in situations where they have successfully challenged a change to the "educational placement of the child". See 20 U.S.C. § 1415(b)(6).
In this motion, however, plaintiffs seek attorneys fees for a motion to compel defendant to comply with an order that resolved issues about the allegedly-improper evaluation and placement of P.N. They do not actually seek attorneys' fees for their challenge of P.N.'s evaluation and placement. As a result, this situation does not fit within the IDEA attorney fee provision.
Even if this Court construed the present fee motion to fit within the IDEA attorney fee provision because it was an effort to redeem amounts dictated by the IDEA, this Court still could not grant plaintiffs' fee motion on this ground because plaintiff was not a "prevailing party" as required by the statute. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B) states, in pertinent part:
In any action or proceeding brought under this section, the court, in its discretion, may award reasonable attorneys' fees as part of the costs to the parents of a child with a disability who is the prevailing party.
In awarding fees and costs, then, a court must first determine whether the party seeking the award is a prevailing party. To do so, the court must follow a two-part test established by the Supreme Court in Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 434 (1983). Wheeler v. Towanda Area School Dist., 950 F.2d 128, 131 (3d Cir. 1991). First, the court should compare the relief sought with the relief actually obtained. Id. (citing Institutionalized Juveniles v. Secretary of Public Welfare, 758 F.2d 897, 911 (3d Cir. 1985)). Second, the court must determine whether the plaintiff's lawsuit and efforts were the cause of the grant of the relief sought. Id. A plaintiff may be a prevailing party even if relief is obtained as a result of a settlement as long as there is a causal connection that shows that plaintiff's efforts were a material factor in causing the relief to be obtained. Id. at 132. Causation can also be established through the "catalyst" theory if the litigation did not result in the payment, but the pressure of the litigation was a material factor in bringing about extra-judicial payment. Id.
Defendant's only opposition to plaintiffs' present fee motion is the affidavit of Carol Anne Visalli, School Business Administrator for the Clementon Board of Education. (Visalli Aff.) The affidavit makes clear that in spite of the consent order's March 25, 2002 payment deadline, plaintiffs were not paid until July 18, 2002. (Id. at ¶3.) However, the affidavit also makes clear that the issue was raised before the Board of Education during its June 24, 2002 meeting and payment was approved. (Id.) Visalli, responsible for disbursing the funds, did not issue the check until July 18, 2002 ...