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Rayna P. v. Campus Community School

United States District Court, D. Delaware

July 18, 2019

RAYNA P., et al., Plaintiffs
CAMPUS COMMUNITY SCHOOL, Defendant M.P., et al., Plaintiffs


          Gerald Austin McHugh United States District Judge

         This is an IDEA case where Plaintiffs, having prevailed on most issues, seek counsel fees. The Defendant charter school objects generally to the amount of fees sought and seeks a reduction based upon its purported inability to pay. Plaintiffs' attorneys prevailed for their clients by providing competent and diligent representation in this multi-year, complicated, highly specialized state administrative and federal litigation, and they are entitled to reasonable fees. For the reasons that follow, I grant Plaintiffs' motions in large part.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         Rayna P. and M.C., siblings, are children with disabilities. Their parents filed two separate suits in this Court on each child's behalf, appealing decisions by Delaware Special Education Due Process Hearing Officers under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). I granted the majority of parents' requested relief in both cases, thereby diverging significantly from the Due Process Panel decisions. In Rayna P.'s case, I decided that the Due Process Panel was wrong to cap relief at two years prior to May 27, 2014-the reasonable discovery date-because there is no retrospective limit on relief under the IDEA. I also granted one full day of compensatory education for every day she was present in school and 2.5 hours for each day she was absent. This contrasts with the Panel's denial of compensatory education for days on which Rayna P. was present in school and its grant of just 1 hour of compensatory education per day for days on which she was absent. I denied Rayna P.'s request for compensatory education for three summers of summer school (extended school year or ESY). In M.P.'s case, I decided that the Due Process Panel was wrong to excuse as “reasonable” a denial of free appropriate public education (FAPE) for a period of a year. I also increased the panel's allotted hourly rate for compensatory education from $17.50 to $70 and I rejected the Panel's order creating a four-year time limit on M.P.'s use of compensatory education funds, ordering instead that M.P. had until the end of his 21st year (he was 13 at the time I decided the case) to use the funds. But I upheld the Panel's denial of compensatory education for summer school (ESY).

         II. Discussion

         A. Legal Standard

         The IDEA, which formed the basis of Plaintiffs' prevailing cases and therefore applies here, is a fee-shifting statute. See 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B). It allows a court, in its discretion, to award reasonable attorneys' fees as part of the costs to the parents of a child with a disability who is the prevailing party in an IDEA case. Id. “A request for attorney's fees should not result in a second major litigation.” Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 437 (1983). “The essential goal in shifting fees (to either party) is to do rough justice, not to achieve auditing perfection.” Fox v. Vice, 563 U.S. 826, 838 (2011).

         A “prevailing party” is a party that succeeds on any significant issue in litigation which achieves some of the benefit sought in bringing suit. See Hensley, 461 U.S. at 433 (abrogated in part by statute in the context of prisoner litigation); D.F. v. Collingswood Borough Bd. of Educ., 694 F.3d 488, 501 (3d Cir. 2012). Defendants do not dispute that Plaintiffs were the prevailing parties in the underlying IDEA actions here. They prevailed on nearly every claim of requested relief save for a request for compensation for summer school (ESY), and are therefore entitled to reasonable attorneys' fees.

         Reasonable attorneys' fees are determined by “multiplying the number of hours reasonably expended by a reasonable hourly rate.” Maldonado v. Houstoun, 256 F.3d 181, 184 (3d Cir. 2001) (citing Hensley, 461 U.S. at 424). This is known as the “lodestar.” Id. “The party seeking attorney's fees has the burden to prove that its request for attorney's fees is reasonable. To meet its burden, the fee petitioner must ‘submit evidence supporting the hours worked and rates claimed.'”[1] Rode v. Dellarciprete, 892 F.2d 1177, 1183 (3d Cir. 1990) (quoting Hensley, 461 U.S. at 433). The presumption is that the lodestar is the reasonable fee, [h]owever, the district court has the discretion to make certain adjustments to the lodestar. The party seeking adjustment has the burden of proving that an adjustment is necessary.” Id.

         Plaintiffs seek an award of attorneys' fees and costs for both cases in the total amount of $375, 869.86, to which Defendant objects.

         B. Number of Hours Reasonably Expended

          “Counsel for the prevailing party should make a good faith effort to exclude from a fee request hours that are excessive, redundant, or otherwise unnecessary, just as a lawyer in private practice ethically is obligated to exclude such hours from his fee submission.” Hensley, 461 U.S. at 434. The court may also exclude any excessive or redundant hours. Maldonado, 256 F.3d at 184. Counsel should maintain billing time records in a manner that will enable a reviewing court “to determine if the hours claimed are unreasonable for the work performed.” Washington v. Phila. Cty. Ct. Com. Pleas, 89 F.3d 1031, 1037 (3d Cir. 1996) (internal citations omitted). That is, a fee petition should be sufficiently specific and include “‘some fairly definite information as to the hours devoted to various general activities, e.g., pretrial discovery, settlement negotiations, and the hours spent by various classes of attorneys, e.g., senior partners, junior partners, associates.'” Id. (quoting Rode, 892 F.2d at 1190).

         Defendant challenges Plaintiffs' billing records for vagueness and lack of specificity. I find the items listed in Plaintiffs' attorneys' billing records sufficiently specific to allow me to determine whether the hours claimed are unreasonable for the work performed. Plaintiffs' attorneys bill for items such as “research case law governing statute of limitations, ” “review of file materials regarding strategy” and “preparation of correspondence to Hearing Officer, ” and “in-person discussion with counsel.” Such entries are sufficiently specific. See Washington, 89 F.3d at 1037 (holding that entries such as “research, ” “review, ” “prepare, ” “letter to, ” and “conference with” met standards of specificity).

         Hours Spent on Intraoffice Communications

         Defendants protest that Plaintiffs seek to generate an inordinate amount of presumably unnecessary “fees for excessive intraoffice communications and fees for communications with clients, none of which would ordinarily be passed on to clients.” I disagree. By Defendant's count, Plaintiffs' attorneys' billing records contain 768 references to “intraoffice communications. While this number appears high at first glance, a closer look at Plaintiffs' billing records suggests an appropriate amount of time spent on internal communications.

         Plaintiffs' billing records are organized by date, not by task or attorney. I note that this is far from ideal, requiring the court to expend time tallying the hours spent on intraoffice communications.” Having undertaken that tally, I calculate that Plaintiffs' attorneys billed 183.48 hours in the Rayna P. matter and 187.025 hours in the M.P. matter for intraoffice communications over a course of 4.5 years or approximately 236 weeks of litigation. That amounts to approximately 1.5 hours per week. Plaintiffs explain that most of the intraoffice communications involved more junior attorneys consulting with more senior supervisory attorneys, an assertion supported by my review of the billing records. A junior attorney consulting more senior attorneys about a complicated special education matter for a total of 1.5 hours per week seems perfectly reasonable. The records reflect that lower-billing junior attorneys did the bulk of the work on both matters and relied on the work and contributions of senior-more expensive-attorneys only when necessary. That had the effect of minimizing the total fees generated. For these reasons I reject Defendant's argument that Plaintiffs' attorneys' fees should be discounted for time spent on intraoffice communications.

         Duplication Across Cases

         Defendant also suggests-again without identifying the numbers it relies upon to reach its mathematical conclusion-that only 54% of Plaintiffs' attorneys' work on these two cases was unique. That is, Defendants suggest that 46% of the work done on each individual case was identical to the work done on the other case and therefore redundant. I fail to see how this could be.

         “‘A reduction for duplication is warranted only if the attorneys are unreasonably doing the same work.'” Damian J. v. Sch. Dist. of Phila., 2008 WL 1815302 at *4 (E.D. Pa. Apr. 22, 2008) (quoting Rode, 892 F.2d at 1187) (emphasis in original). Defendant does not allege that such was the case here: that two or more attorneys unreasonably did the same work. Rather, Defendant seemingly argues that single attorneys were billing twice for identical work done on two very different cases.

         “A reduction for duplication is [] warranted when a single attorney bills twice for the same work.” Sch. Dist. Phila. v. Kirsch, 2017 WL 131808, at *6 (E.D. Pa. Jan. 11, 2017) (emphasis added). But Rayna P. and M.P.'s cases were not identical and required similar but not identical work. Rayna P. and M.P. are two different children with distinct IDEA claims involving distinct facts, who were involved in two separate Due Process hearings, and then brought two separate cases before this Court appealing those hearing determinations. The only place there has been substantive overlap in legal work and briefing has been in this fee petition, which ...

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