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Deptford Township School Dist. v. H.B.

December 21, 2006

DEPTFORD TOWNSHIP SCHOOL DISTRICT, PLAINTIFF,
v.
H.B., INDIVIDUALLY AND BY HER PARENTS AND LEGAL GUARDIANS, E.B. AND P.B., DEFENDANTS, COUNTER-CLAIMANTS, AND THIRD PARTY PLAINTIFFS,



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

HONORABLE JEROME B. SIMANDLE

OPINION

This matter comes before the Court upon the second motion of Defendants H.B., E.B., and P.B. for the award of attorney's fees, expert fees, and costs to be paid by Plaintiff Deptford Township School District ("Deptford"), under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400, et seq. This Court granted in part and dismissed in part Defendants' first motion for attorney's fees, expert fees and costs, holding that Defendants' counsel's account of the hours he spent working on this matter was too vague for this Court to properly adjudicate his fee application. The Court allowed Defendants to resubmit a corrected fee application, which seeks fees of $259,214.50 and expert fees of $5,122.11. For the following reasons, Defendants' corrected application for attorney's fees and costs will be reduced as excessive in light of counsel's experience and the scope of the matters in dispute, and unreasonable in light of the clients' scant success on the merits, and approved in the amount of $98,550.00.

I. BACKGROUND

Because the parties to this action are familiar with the underlying facts of this case, the Court will only summarize the facts that are pertinent to this second motion for attorney's fees. In the underlying dispute, Plaintiff sought review of a final administrative decision under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq. This Court reversed the administrative decision in part, eventually holding that Deptford had offered a Free Appropriate Public Education ("FAPE") but was not in the Least Restrictive Environment ("LRE"). Defendants filed several counterclaims and this Court entered an order regarding the issue of remedy. The parties filed cross-motions for reconsideration, and Plaintiff moved for summary judgment to dismiss Defendants' counterclaims. This Court ordered Defendants to reimburse the Plaintiff $47,034 and Plaintiff to pay Defendants $53,040, resulting in a balance of $6,006 owed to Defendant. The court granted Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment and dismissed Defendants' counterclaims. The Court convened a hearing regarding the failure to provide the LRE and found that no harm had been demonstrated by Defendants and that Defendants were entitled to no remedy.

After achieving limited recovery after four years of litigation, on August 1, 2005, Defendants submitted a motion for the award of attorney's fees, expert fees, and costs to be paid by Plaintiff in the amount of $265,547.66, expert's fees in the amount of $5,122.11 and costs in the amount of $150. [Docket Item No. 171.] Defendants argued that, pursuant to 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(b) and the law of this Circuit, they are entitled to these fees and costs as prevailing parties in an IDEA action.

A. The March 2006 Opinion

On March 31, 2006, this Court issued an Opinion and Order with respect to Defendants' motion for the award of attorney's fees, expert fees and costs. See Deptford v. H.B., No. 01-783, slip op. at 1 (D.N.J. Mar. 31, 2006) (the "March 2006 Opinion"). In the March 2006 Opinion, the Court stated that it must first determine whether Defendants are a "prevailing party" under § 1415(i)(3)(b) and then determine the appropriate lodestar figures of reasonable hourly rate and reasonable number of hours.

To this end, this Court first ruled on the issues of whether and to what degree Defendants may be deemed a "prevailing party." In deciding that Defendants were in fact a prevailing party, the Court found that:

In the present case, the only relief obtained by Defendants was to enforce compliance with the ALJ's decision prior to the time it was partially reversed by this Court, and Defendants achieved no relief upon the aspect of the ALJ's ruling that was affirmed (namely, failure to provide the LRE) because Defendants could demonstrate no harm.

Id. at 12. However, "[w]hen it turned out that the ALJ's award was reversed in relevant part, and that no remedy was due . . . the Court basically ordered Defendants to return the portion of the previous interim payment which had not been actually spent in reliance on the ALJ's erroneous decision." Id. Thus, Defendants "prevailed" in that Defendants were allowed to retain funds (in the amount of $53,040) that they had already spent in reliance on the ALJ's determination prior to this Court's various rulings. Finally, the Court held that "this recovery of money tips the balance slightly in favor of determining that the Defendants are a prevailing party with respect to this claim for benefits and services, to a scant and unimpressive degree," and that the Court would factor this "limited success . . . into the determination of a reasonable fee after this Court . . . examines the lodestar indicators of hourly rate and hours expended" Id. at 13.

Next, the Court addressed whether Defendants present a reasonable hourly rate for Defendants' attorney Jamie Epstein. Id. at 13-14. The Court found that the rate of $300 per hour "is a generous hourly fee for such litigation in this area, but it is justified if the attorney shows the efficiency normally associated with 15 years of specialized practice in the field." Id. at 14. In deciding that $300 was an appropriate rate, the Court stated, however, that it will "insist[] upon the high degree of efficiency and effectiveness that an attorney rating such a fee should demonstrate." Id. at 14.

Finally, the Court did not decide the second half of the lodestar equation (i.e., whether the hours Mr. Epstein billed were reasonable for the work performed and results achieved), holding that "[t]he determination of the reasonable number of hours is made impossible . . . due to the structural problems of Defendants' fee application . . . ." Specifically, the Court left this issue unresolved because "[t]he descriptions of services are vague and it is largely not possible to determine how particular services are linked to the various matters litigated herein." Id. The Court found that Epstein's bills present "serious deficiencies in light of the well-settled teachings of [Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 437 (1983)]" and that the "determination of 'reasonableness' of time expended cannot be made with vague, non-categorical billing entries." March 2006 Opinion, at 14-15. Moreover, given that Defendants have achieved only "scant success," the Court would require Defendants to "demonstrate which services were reasonable and necessary in association with this degree of success." Id. at 15.*fn1

Of special concern in this case is the limited degree of success achieved through the applicant's legal services and efforts. While it is clear that the Defendants, represented by Mr. Epstein, were entitled to "prevailing party" status under IDEA, as determined in the March 2006 Opinion and Order, supra, it is equally clear that their success was minimal. The Supreme Court has recognized that the IDEA contains a "generous formulation" of the term "prevailing party," Texas State Teachers Ass'n v. Garland Indep. Sch. Dist., 489 U.S. 782, 792 (1989), and that even an award of nominal damages will render the recipient a "prevailing party," Farrar v. Hobby, 506 U.S. 103, 111-12 (1992). Importantly for present purposes, however, the Supreme Court also recognized that limited success on the merits may warrant a reduction of requested fees in order to be "reasonable," stating: "Although the 'technical' nature of a nominal damages award or any other judgment does not affect the prevailing party inquiry, it does bear on the propriety of fees awarded under § 1988." Id. at 113-14 (citations omitted) quoted in P.N. v. Clementon Bd. of Educ., 442 F.3d 848, 855-56 (3d Cir. 2005) (applied to IDEA fee application). Thus, as the Court of Appeals has repeatedly stated, "the degree of the plaintiff's overall success goes to the reasonableness of the award under Hensley, not to the availability of a fee award vel non." Truesdell v. Phila. Hous. Auth., 290 F.3d 159, 166 (3d Cir. 2002) (quoting Texas State Teachers, 489 U.S. at 782); P.N. v. Clementon Bd. of Educ., 442 F.3d at 856. This Court's task, where the fee applicant has achieved limited success, is to "award only that amount of fees that is reasonable in relation to the results obtained." Truesdell, 290 F.3d at 166 (quoting Hensley, 461 U.S. at 440). Acknowledging that there is "no precise formula" in making this determination, the Supreme Court advised that the district court "may attempt to identify specific hours that should be eliminated, or [] simply reduce the award to account for the limited success." Id. (quoting Hensley, 461 U.S. at 436-37). This Court must therefore endeavor to weigh the factor of limited success together with the other relevant concerns to determine, for each category of time claimed, a reasonable amount of fees for reimbursement, including any reduction under Hensley for the minimal results obtained.

B. Defendants' Resubmitted Motion for Attorney's Fees, Expert Fees and Costs

Mr. Epstein timely made the requested re-submission on April 24, 2006. [Docket Item No. 179.] Plaintiff Deptford filed opposition on May 2, 2006 to which Defendants replied on May 18, 2006. [Docket Item Nos. 180, 181.]*fn2 In an attempt to comply with this Court's March 2006 Opinion, Mr. Epstein provided the Court with an affidavit breaking down his requested fees and costs as they relate to certain phases of the case (e.g., proceedings before the Office of Administrative Law, dispositive motion practice.) Defendants' summary is as follows:

* Preparation and trial before the Office of Administrative Law (April 9, 1999 through January 7, 2001) - 254.6 hours;

* Enforcement with the New Jersey Office of Special Education, this Court, and the Third Circuit Court of Appeals (January 11, 2001 ...


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