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P.N. v. Clementon Board of Education

THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY


October 31, 2002

P.N., AN INFANT, INDIVIDUALLY AND BY HIS PARENT AND LEGAL GUARDIAN, M.W., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
CLEMENTON BOARD OF EDUCATION, DEFENDANT.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Honorable Jerome B. Simandle

OPINION

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.

I. DISCUSSION

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.

A. IDEA Fee Provision

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 because she was away on a prepaid vacation and because plaintiff had not submitted a payment voucher as required by the Board's rules. (Id. at ¶4.)

Defendant thus argues that plaintiff was not a prevailing party because "the filing of the Notice of Motion on behalf of the Plaintiffs played no role in the processing of this payment." (Id. at ¶4.) Defendant is correct. The sparse records in this matter show that the payment was approved on June 24, 2002 and that this motion was not filed until July 15, 2002. (Visalli Aff., Ex. A; Docket Item 8-1.) It is true that plaintiffs had not yet received their check when they filed the present motion. However, because the motion was not filed until after the payment was approved, the litigation could not have served as a catalyst to spur defendant to remit the mandated payment. Had plaintiff's counsel simply made a telephone call to the Board before filing this motion, he would have learned that payment had been approved and the check would be on its way. The record seems clear that plaintiffs finally received their check on July 18th because the Clementon Board of Education School Business Administrator returned from vacation, not because they filed the present motion with this Court.

Therefore, while plaintiffs have received the relief that they sought in this lawsuit, even if their suit was properly brought under IDEA, they still would not be entitled to attorneys fees because their lawsuit did not cause their receipt of the $425.00. As a result, this Court must deny plaintiffs' motion for attorneys fees and costs under IDEA.

B. Section 1983 Fee Provision

Plaintiffs also argue that this Court should grant the fee application under the fee provision within 42 U.S.C. § 1983. (Pls.' Br. at ¶8.) A court, in its discretion, may award the prevailing party in a section 1983 lawsuit "a reasonable attorney's fee as part of the costs." 42 U.S.C. § 1988. Plaintiffs argue that the motion to enforce the consent order is an action under section 1983 because it was initiated to enforce plaintiff's statutory rights under the IDEA as they were resolved in the consent order.

Section 1983 does not confer substantive rights, but provides a vehicle to redress the deprivation of substantive Constitutional or statutory rights. W.B. v. Matula, 67 F.3d 484, 493 (3d Cir. 1995) (citing Maine v. Thiboutot, 448 U.S. 1, 5-6 (1980)). However, a section 1983 action is not allowed when the substantive rights are statutory if Congress "intended to foreclose such private enforcement." W.B., 67 F.3d at 493 (quoting Wright v. Roanoke Redevelopment & Housing Authority, 479 U.S. 418, 423 (1987)).

Congress made its intention clear that violations of IDEA can be redressed by an action under section 1983 when it passed 20 U.S.C. § 1415(f). *fn1 See W.B., 67 F.3d at 494 (citing H.R. Rep. No. 99-296, 99th Cong., 1st Sess. 4 (1985) which states that section 1415(f) was enacted to "reaffirm . . . the viability of . . . 42 U.S.C. 1983 and other statutes as separate vehicles for ensuring the rights of handicapped children")). The Third Circuit has found that this provision authorizes section 1983 actions to enforce the IDEA. W.B., 67 F.3d at 495.

To properly assert a claim pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a plaintiff must allege (1) a violation of a right secured by a federal statute, and (2) that the alleged deprivation was committed by a person acting under color of state law. West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42, 48 (1988). Here, it is clear that (1) the consent order clarified the right of P.N. under federal statutory law, and (2) P.N. did not receive his $425.00 until July 18, 2002 in spite of the consent order's March deadline.

However, as with fee claims under the IDEA, attorneys fees are only allowed in 1983 actions if the party was a "prevailing party." 42 U.S.C. § 1988, provides, in pertinent part:

In any action or proceeding to enforce a provision . . . of this title . . ., the court, in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party . . . a reasonable attorney's fee as part of the costs.

The definition of "prevailing party" is the same in section 1983 cases as in IDEA cases. Truesdell v. Philadelphia Housing Auth., 290 F.3d 159, 163-64 (3d Cir. 2002); Wheeler, 950 F.2d at 131. As a result, this claim fails for the same reasons set forth in section I(A) supra. Plaintiffs are not entitled to attorneys fees under section 1983 because their lawsuit did not cause defendants to pay the $425.00 mandated by the consent order.

II. CONCLUSION

While this Court notes that defendant did not comply with the February consent order as it should have, for the foregoing reasons, this Court must deny plaintiffs' application for attorneys' fees pursuant to the IDEA and 42 U.S.C. §1983. The accompanying Order is entered.

ORDER

THIS MATTER having come before the Court on plaintiffs' motion for attorneys' fees pursuant to 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B) and 42 U.S.C. § 1983, [Docket Item 8-1], and the Court having considered the parties' submissions, and for the reasons expressed in today's Opinion;

IT IS this 31st day of October, 2002

ORDERED that plaintiffs' application for attorneys' fees [Docket Item 8-1] be, and hereby is, DENIED.

JEROME B. SIMANDLE U.S. DISTRICT JUDGE


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