United States District Court, D. New Jersey
HONORABLE TONIANNE J. BONGIOVANNI, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE
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.
Background and Procedural History
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).
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).
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).
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.
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.
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)).
“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).
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.
Reasonable Hourly Rate
Plaintiff seeks to recover attorneys' fees for the work
done by professionals at the law firm of John Rue &
Associates. The following represents ...