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R.C. v. Bordentown Regional School Dist. Board of Education

September 29, 2006

R.C., ET AL., INDIVIDUALLY AND AS GUARDIANS AD LITEM OF M.C., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
BORDENTOWN REGIONAL SCHOOL DISTRICT BOARD OF EDUCATION, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Simandle, District Judge

OPINION

I. INTRODUCTION

This matter comes before the court upon Plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment under Fed. R. Civ. P. 56, seeking an award of reasonable attorney's fees and costs pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B). Plaintiffs were the prevailing party in an administrative action alleging that the Bordentown Regional School District failed to provide their special-needs child M.C. with an appropriate Individualized Education Plan ("IEP"). Defendant argues that the motion should be denied because the fee application by Plaintiffs is not reasonable and because there is no support for an award of expert fees claimed. For the reasons stated herein, Plaintiffs' application for reasonable attorney's fees and costs will be approved in the amount of $41,790.00.

II. BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Plaintiffs R.C. and J.C. ("Plaintiffs") are parents of M.C., a student classified as eligible for special education and related services. Defendant ("Defendant") is the local education authority with the responsibility of providing a free, appropriate public education to M.C. as defined by 20 U.S.C. § 1401(a). (Pl. Br. at 1.) After M.C. was diagnosed with dyslexia, dysgraphia and other learning difficulties, a dispute arose between the parties as to the adequacy of M.C.'s educational program. (Id.) After failing to reach an agreement, Plaintiffs requested a Due Process hearing and unilaterally placed M.C. at Newgrange School, an out-of-district special education day facility. (Id.) Defendant eventually agreed to be responsible for all charges related to M.C.'s Newgrange placement for the 2003-2004 school year. (Id. at 2.)

On May 6, 2004 the parties met to discuss M.C.'s placement for the 2004-2005 school year. (Id.) Defendant recommended that M.C. return to an in-district program, but Plaintiffs refused this option based on the progress that M.C. had made at Newgrange. (Id.) Mediation to resolve the dispute was unsuccessful and Plaintiffs filed a request for a Due Process Hearing on January 10, 2005. (Id.) The hearing was held on February 3, and April 26 and 27, 2005 by the Office of Administrative Law, and resulted in a written decision ruling in favor of Plaintiffs on all issues raised in the Petition. (Id.) As the prevailing party, Plaintiffs filed a Summons and Complaint in June, 2005 seeking reimbursement of reasonable attorneys' fees in the amount of $52,301.90 and expert costs in the amount of $6,600.00 from Defendant. (Id. at 3.)

III. STANDARD OF REVIEW FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

Summary Judgment is available pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. The moving party must establish that "there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that [it] is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). A dispute is "genuine" if "the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party." See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A fact is "material" if it might affect the outcome of the suit under the applicable rule of law. Id. All evidence submitted should be viewed "in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and draw all inferences in that party's favor." Marzano v. Computer Science Corp. Inc., 91 F.3d 497, 501 (3d Cir. 1996).

Once the moving party has met its burden, the opponent to the motion: must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts. In the language of the Rule, the nonmoving party must come forward with specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. Where the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the non-moving party, there is no genuine issue for trial.

Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586-587 (1986) (emphasis in original, citations and footnotes omitted). Disputes over irrelevant or unnecessary facts will not preclude a grant of summary judgment. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248.

IV. DISCUSSION

A. Determining Attorney's Fees under IDEA

Plaintiffs seek attorney's fees in the amount of $52,301.90 from Defendant. Defendant contends that the hourly rates and hours expended claimed by Plaintiffs' counsel are excessive. This Court finds that counsel's hourly fees are reasonable and that billed hours claimed by Plaintiffs' counsel are excessive and will be reduced as explained herein.

In determining whether or not to award attorneys' fees and costs, the court's inquiry is twofold. First, the court must decide if the claimant is a prevailing party. If so, it must then determine the amount of reasonable fees and costs owed the claimant. S.D. v. Manville Bd. of Educ., 989 F.Supp. 649, 654 (D.N.J. 1998) [hereinafter "S.D. v Mannville"].

A plaintiff is a prevailing party when "' . . . actual relief on the merits of his claim materially alters the legal relationship between the parties by modifying the defendant's behavior in a way that directly benefits the plaintiff.'" P.N. v. Clementon Bd. of Educ., 442 F.3d 848, 855 (3d Cir. 2006) (citing Farrar v. Hobby, 506 U.S. 103, 111-12 (1992)). "[A] resolution materially alters the legal relationship between the parties when it modifies the defendant's behavior in a way ...


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