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D.O. v. Jackson Township Board of Education

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

April 30, 2019

D.O., ON BEHALF OF M.O., Plaintiff,
v.
JACKSON TOWNSHIP BOARD OF EDUCATION, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          HONORABLE TONIANNE J. BONGIOVANNI, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         This matter comes before the Court upon Plaintiff D.O.'s (“Plaintiff”) motion for attorneys' fees and costs. (Docket Entry No. 32). Defendant Jackson Township Board of Education (“Defendant”) opposes Plaintiff's motion. (Docket Entry No. 41). The Court has fully reviewed and considered all arguments made in support of and in opposition to Plaintiff's motion for attorneys' fees and costs. The Court considers Plaintiff's motion without argument pursuant to L.Civ.R. 78.1(b). For the reasons set forth below, Plaintiff's motion is GRANTED IN PART.

         I. Background and Procedural History

         On August 27, 2015, Plaintiff filed a due process suit against Defendant alleging that the Defendant school district had denied her child a free appropriate public education in violation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”), 20 U.S.C. §1400, et seq. (See Complaint; Docket Entry No. 1). On September 1, 2016, the Office of Administrative Law (“OAL”) heard the case and granted Summary Decision in favor of Plaintiff. Plaintiff was awarded a “compensatory education commensurate with the number of hours that are reflected for the programs and services in the [identified IEPs, in an educational environment that is appropriate for [M.O.'s] needs, including all necessary precautions for his allergies, for the period of March 6, 2013, through October 20, 2015, to compensate for the District's denial of FAPE” and reimbursement for the psychiatric evaluation. (9/1/2016 OAL Final Decision; Docket Entry No. 1-1 at 21-23).

         Plaintiff filed this action against Defendant on March 8, 2017 on behalf of her child, M.O., seeking to enforce the administrative law judgment and to recover Plaintiff's attorneys' fees under the fee shifting provision, 20. U.S.C. §1415(i)(3), et seq. (See Complaint; Docket Entry No. 1 at 2-3). Soon after Defendant filed a Motion to Strike portions of the Complaint (Docket Entry No. 3) which was denied on July 18, 2017. (Docket Entry No. 12). Defendant thereafter filed an Answer to the Complaint on July 31, 2017, denying any culpable conduct and raising several affirmative defenses. (See generally, Def. Answer; Docket Entry No. 15). On August 1, 2017, this Court entered a scheduling order setting a Rule 16 Initial Conference for September 18, 2017 (Docket Entry No. 16), which was then rescheduled to September 28, 2017. (Docket Entry No. 18). During the Initial Conference, the parties expressed that they were amenable to settlement and they were directed to exchange what was necessary to facilitate settlement. (See Minute Entry of 9/28/2017). A telephone status conference was scheduled for October 19, 2017. (Id.) During the conference, the Court engaged in settlement discussions with counsel and scheduled a formal settlement conference for February 22, 2018. (Docket Entry No. 22).

         During the settlement conference on February 22, 2018, a number of issues were resolved with the exception of the request for fees. Thereafter the exchange of draft settlement agreements commenced. Ultimately, the parties sought judicial intervention. On May 9, 2018, after briefing from the parties, the Court decided to reconvene settlement discussions on June 1, 2018. (See Minute Entry of 5/9/2018). During the settlement conference, the parties again made significant headway and the Court decided to reconvene on June 20, 2018. (See Minute Entry of 6/1/2018). On June 20, 2018, the Court suggested a disbursement plan and set a Friendly Hearing for July 24, 2018. (See Minute Entry 6/20/2018).

         On July 25, 2018, the parties notified the Court that they reached a settlement agreement. (See Docket Entry No. 29). The parties further consented to Magistrate Judge jurisdiction with respect to Plaintiff's anticipated fee application, as the parties could not reach an agreement with respect to what was a reasonable fee for Plaintiff's counsel. (Order and Notice of Consent to Jurisdiction by U.S. Magistrate Judge of 7/11/2018; Docket Entry No. 27). On August 16, 2018, the Court entered an Order approving a settlement in the amount of $90, 000 to be deposited with the Court for the benefit of M.O.'s education. (Docket Entry No. 30). Plaintiff then filed the current Motion for Attorneys' Fees. (Docket Entry No. 32). The Court directed the parties to submit a status update regarding the issue of fees by October 8, 2018. (See Text Order of 9/9/2018; Docket Entry No. 33). After reviewing the parties' correspondence, the Court adjourned the return date on the motion until November 5, 2018. (See Text Order of 9/10/2018; Docket Entry No. 35). Defendant filed its opposition to Plaintiff's motion on November 2, 2018. (Docket Entry No. 41). Plaintiff filed her reply on November 13, 2018. (Docket Entry No. 44). The motion is therefore now fully briefed and ripe for the Court's consideration.

         I. Legal Standard

         The IDEA affords prevailing plaintiffs the right to recoup their reasonable attorneys' fees and costs. See 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B)(i). The Court must first, therefore, (1) decide whether the Plaintiff is a prevailing party, and then (2) determine the amount of reasonable fees and costs Plaintiff's counsel is owed. Defendant does not contest that Plaintiff is a prevailing party, therefore the Court will focus its analysis solely on the reasonableness of the fees requested.

         Generally, courts use the “lodestar” method in evaluating a fee application and, indeed, the lodestar calculation is presumed to yield a reasonable attorney fee award. See Machado v. Law Offices of Jeffrey, Civil Action No. 14-7401 (MAS) (TJB), 2017 WL 2838458, *2 (D.N.J. June 30, 2017). Under the lodestar method, an attorney's reasonable hourly rate is multiplied by the number of hours the attorney reasonably spent working on a matter. Interfaith Cmty. Org. v. Honeywell Int'l, Inc., 426 F.3d 694, 703 n.5 (3d Cir. 2005) (citing Blum v. Stenson, 565 U.S. 886, 888, 104 S.Ct. 1541, 79 L.Ed.2d 891 (1984) (citations omitted)).

         The “party seeking attorney fees bears the ultimate burden of showing that its requested hourly rates and the hours it claims are reasonable.” Id. (citing Rode v. Dellarciprete, 892 F.2d 1177, 1183 (3d Cir. 1990)). “Reasonable hourly rates are typically determined based on the market rate in the attorney's community for lawyers of similar expertise and experience.” Machado, 2017 WL 2838458, at *2 (citing Interfaith, 426 F.3d at 713). Evans v. Port Auth. of N.Y. and N.J., 273 F.3d 346, (3d Cir. 2001). The attorney seeking fees bears the burden of establishing that the rate requested “constitutes a reasonable market rate for the essential character and complexity of the legal services rendered.” Smith v. Philadelphia Hous. Auth., 107 F.3d 223, 225 (3d Cir. 1997). With respect to the hours claimed, it is incumbent upon the Court to “exclude hours that are not reasonably expended.” Rode, 892 F.2d at 1183 (citing Hensely v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433, 103 S.Ct. 1933, 76 L.Ed.2d 40 (1983)). “Hours are not reasonably expended if they are excessive, redundant, or otherwise unnecessary.” Id. The Court, however, may not reduce a fee award sua sponte. Instead, “it can only do so in respect to specific objections made by the opposing party. But once the opposing party has made a specific objection, the burden is on the prevailing party to justify the size of its request.” Interfaith, 426 F.3d at 711 (citing Bell v. United Princeton Props., Inc., 884 f.2d 713, 719 (3d Cir. 1989).

         Further, while the lodestar calculation is “strongly presumed to yield a reasonable fee” (Washington v. Phila. County Ct. of C.P., 89 F.3d 1031, 1035 (3d Cir. 1996) (citing City of Burlington v. Dauge, 505 U.S. 557, 112 S.Ct. 2638, 120 L.Ed.2d 449 (1992)), “[t]he court can adjust the lodestar downward if the lodestar is not reasonable in light of the results obtained.” Rode, 892 F.2d at 1183 (citing Hensley, 461 U.S. at 434-37). “Indeed, ‘the most critical factor' in determining the reasonableness of a fee award ‘is the degree of success obtained.'” Farrar v. Hobby, 506 U.S. 103, 114, 113 S.Ct. 566, 121 L.Ed.2d 494 (1992) (quoting Hensley, 461 U.S. at 436). As such, where a plaintiff has achieved only limited or partial success, “the product of hours reasonably expended on the litigation as a whole times a reasonable hourly rate may be an excessive amount.” Hensely, 461 U.S. at 436. When a fee award based on the lodestar calculation would be excessive, the Court may exercise its measured discretion to reduce same. Farrar, 506 U.S. at 115; see Machado, 2017 WL 2838458, at *2. In fact, the Court “retains a great deal of discretion in deciding what a reasonable fee award is” (Bell, 884 F.2d at 721), and, it is understood that “in determining whether the fee request is excessive . . . the court will inevitably engage in a fair amount of ‘judgment calling' based upon its experience with the case and the general experience as to how much a case requires.” Evans, 273 F.3d at 362.

         II. Analysis

         A. Reasonable Hourly Rate

         Here, Plaintiff seeks to recover attorneys' fees for the work done by professionals at the law firm of John Rue & Associates. The following represents ...


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