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T.B., A Minor, Individually v. Mount Laurel Board of Education

March 30, 2012

T.B., A MINOR, INDIVIDUALLY AND BY HIS PARENT, J.K., PLAINTIFF,
v.
MOUNT LAUREL BOARD OF EDUCATION, DEFENDANT.



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

OPINION

SIMANDLE, Chief Judge

I. INTRODUCTION

This matter comes before the Court upon Plaintiff's application for attorney's fees pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), 20 U.S.C. § 1400. [Docket Item 39]. Plaintiff's application seeks $56,120 in attorney's fees and costs. Defendant Mount Laurel Board of Education opposes this motion on the ground that Plaintiff's application for attorney's fees and costs contains, among other things, an unreasonable, unwarranted hourly rate, coupled with unreasonable and excessive hours. The principal issue presented is whether Plaintiff's counsel has demonstrated a reasonable hourly rate for his services in the context of a fee application for which no contrary evidence has been submitted by the objecting party. The second issue is whether the hours claimed are reasonable for the tasks performed by an attorney of the applicant's experience and knowledge of this subject matter, and in light of the degree of success obtained. For the reasons discussed herein, the Court will award Plaintiff $45,494 in attorney's fees and costs.

II. BACKGROUND

The instant motion was filed following the Court's determination that Plaintiff, T.B. and his mother, J.K., qualified as "prevailing parties" for the purpose of attorney's fees under the IDEA. The procedural history and underlying facts of this case are described in detail in the Court's June 20, 2011 opinion, see T.B. v. Mount Laurel Bd. of Educ., Civ. No. 09-4780, 2011 WL 2473327, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 66682 (D.N.J. June 20, 2011), and are reviewed herein only to the extent necessary to serve as a context for the fee application under consideration.

T.B., a student in the Mount Laurel School System, has been eligible, under the IDEA, for special education. Id. at *1. On January 23, 2009, T.B.'s mother, J.K., filed a due process petition pursuant to 20 U.S.C. § 1415, alleging that T.B.'s existing education plan was inadequate and improper. Id. The petition identified various shortcomings in T.B.'s existing education plan, and sought further remedies including behavior and psychiatric evaluations, as well as, the development of a reasonable individualized education plan (IEP) with measurable goals. Id. The district administrators, in response to the petition, met with J.K. and offered a solution and plan. Id. at

*2. J.K. rejected the offer. Id.

On February 25, 2009, the matter was transferred to the Office of Administrative Law for a hearing scheduled for March 9, 2009, before ALJ James-Beavers. Id. Subsequently, the parties retained legal counsel and eventually reached a settlement on July 15, 2009. Id. ALJ James-Beavers issued an order five days later containing the settlement terms ordering the parties to comply. Id. On September 17, 2009, Plaintiff filed a complaint to collect attorney fees as provided for in the IDEA, and claimed for damages and fees pursuant to NJLAD. [Docket Item 2].

On September 30, 2010, Defendant filed three motions, a Rule 12(c) motion for judgment on the pleadings, a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, and a Rule 60 motion to dismiss. [Docket Items 20-22].

While Plaintiff failed to file a timely response to the motions,*fn1 on December 3, 2010, Plaintiff subsequently filed a motion for summary judgment seeking to be found as the prevailing party. [Docket Item 29]. Defendant filed an opposition brief on December 20, 2010. [Docket Item 33]. This Court, among other things, denied Defendant's motions and held that Plaintiff was the prevailing party before the ALJ, and ordered Plaintiff's counsel, attorney Jamie Epstein, to submit the necessary materials to this Court to determine the proper fee pursuant to Local Civil Rule 54.2. T.B., 2011 WL 2473327, at *9. The instant motion for attorney's fees was subsequently filed.

III. DISCUSSION

The award of attorney's fees and costs in this case is authorized pursuant to the IDEA. Specifically, under 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B), "[i]n any action or proceeding brought under this section, the court, in its discretion, may award reasonable attorney's fees as part of the costs to the parents of a child with a disability who is the prevailing party." 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B).

A. Prevailing Party

Under Buckhannon Bd. and Care Home, Inc. v. West Virginia Dep't of Health and Human Res., 532 U.S. 598, 604 (2001), in deciding whether a party is a prevailing party, "enforceable judgments on the merits and court-ordered consent decrees create the 'material alteration of the legal relationship of the parties' necessary to permit an award of attorney's fees." The party seeking attorney's fees must "receive at least some relief on the merits of [their] claim before [they] can be said to prevail." State Teachers' Ass'n v. Garland Indep. Sch. Dist., 489 U.S. 782, 792 (1989). In the Third Circuit, a court must determine whether: (1) the plaintiff obtained relief on a significant claim in the litigation; and (2) there is a causal connection between the litigation and the relief obtained from the defendant. See Metro. Pittsburgh Crusade for Voters v. City of Pittsburgh, 964 F.2d 244, 250 (3d Cir. 1992). Furthermore, "[m]ost courts have permitted plaintiffs to recover attorneys' fees for success on the administrative level," in IDEA cases.

P.G. v. Brick Twp. Bd. of Educ., 124 F.Supp. 2d 251, 260 (D.N.J. 2000) (citing Field v. Haddonfield Bd. of Educ., 769 ...


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