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J.L. v. Harrison Township Board of Education

United States District Court, D. New Jersey, Camden Vicinage

May 11, 2017

J.L., a minor, individually and by her Parents K.L. and J.L., Plaintiffs,
v.
HARRISON TOWNSHIP BOARD OF EDUCATION and CLEARVIEW BOARD OF EDUCATION, Defendants.

          Jamie Epstein, Esq. Attorney for Plaintiffs J.L., a minor, individually and by her Parents K.L. and J.L.

          Brett E.J. Gorman, Esq. Parker McCay PA, Attorney for Defendants Harrison Township Board of Education and Clearview Board of Education

          OPINION [DOCKET NO. 101]

          RENÉE MARIE BUMB, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         After years of protracted and hostile litigation, on August 19, 2016, this Court issued an Opinion and Order on Plaintiffs' Motion for Attorney's Fees [Docket Nos. 95, 96]. The Court addressed Plaintiffs' request for attorney's fees as a prevailing party and found that Plaintiffs' counsel had engaged in bad faith and improperly prolonged the litigation in order to inflate his fees. As a result, in addressing Plaintiffs' first Motion for Attorney's Fees, the Court granted, in part, denied, in part, and reserved, in part. Specifically, the Court found that Plaintiffs were entitled to reasonable attorney's fees as prevailing parties, which, however, represented only a fraction of the hours billed by Plaintiffs' counsel, Jamie Epstein, at a reasonable hourly rate to be determined at a hearing on a later date, unless Defendants agreed to the $500 hourly rate requested by Plaintiffs. Mr. Epstein attacks this latter statement as an advisory opinion by the Court.

         Shortly thereafter, on August 31, 2016, Defendants' counsel, Brett Gorman, submitted a letter on the public docket advising the Court and Plaintiffs that Defendants stipulated to Plaintiffs' requested hourly rate of $500 [Docket No. 97], thereby obviating the need for a hearing regarding the appropriate hourly rate. Remarkably, over approximately the next two weeks, counsel for the parties attempted to negotiate a proposed form of order for the Court's consideration and signature in light of Defendants' stipulation to Plaintiffs' requested hourly rate. Unfortunately, yet unsurprisingly, these negotiations failed. Defendants' counsel submitted a proposed form of order on September 13, 2016 [Docket No. 98]. That same day, the Court issued a Final Order and Judgment, noting that Defendants had stipulated to Plaintiffs' requested rate of $500 per hour, without conceding that this represented an appropriate market rate [Docket No. 99].

         A month later, Plaintiffs moved once again for attorney's fees incurred as a result of the negotiations regarding the submission of a simple proposed form of order, originally requesting in excess of $3, 250 [Docket No. 101]. After full briefing on this motion, Plaintiffs now demand $5, 000 in attorney's fees [Docket No. 109]. The Court has considered the parties' submissions and finds Plaintiffs' requested attorney's fees of $5, 000 to be not only excessive and unreasonable, but unconscionable. For the reasons set forth herein, Plaintiffs' Second Motion for Attorney's Fees is denied.

         I. LEGAL STANDARDS

         On August 25, 2015, this Court ruled that Plaintiffs were the prevailing parties in the underlying litigation, pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Act, 20 U.S.C. § 1400, et seq. (“IDEA”), and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. § 794 [Docket Nos. 69, 70].

         Under IDEA, a prevailing party may be awarded reasonable attorney's fees, as follows:

(B) Award of attorney's fees. (i) In general, in any action or proceeding brought under this section, the court, in its discretion, may award reasonable attorney's fees as part of the costs--
(I) to a prevailing party who is the parent of a child with a disability.

20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B)(i)(I). IDEA, however, mandates a reduction in fees whenever the court finds that “the parent, or the parent's attorney, during the course of the action or proceeding, unreasonably protracted the final resolution of the controversy.” 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(F)(i).

         Similarly, the Rehabilitation Act authorizes an award of attorney's fees to a prevailing party in the court's discretion:

(b) In any action or proceeding to enforce or charge a violation of a provision of this title, the court, in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party . . . a reasonable ...

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