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J.O. v. Tacoma School District

United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Tacoma

January 5, 2015

J.O., Plaintiff,
v.
TACOMA SCHOOL DISTRICT, Defendant.

ORDER GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR ATTORNEY'S FEES AND COSTS

BENJAMIN H. SETTLE, District Judge.

This matter comes before the Court on Plaintiff J.O.'s motion for attorney's fees and costs (Dkt. 13). The Court has considered the pleadings filed in support of and in opposition to the motion and the remainder of the file and hereby grants in part and denies in part the motion for the reasons stated herein.

I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

On May 12, 2014, Plaintiff filed a complaint for the recovery of attorney's fees and costs. Dkt. 1.

The fees stem from an underlying administrative action under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. § 1400, et seq. ("IDEA"). On October 4, 2013, Plaintiff filed the request for an administrative hearing claiming that the Defendant Tacoma School District ("District") had denied him a free, appropriate public education for the last two years. On October 25, 2013, the District served Plaintiff with an offer of settlement, which Plaintiff rejected. The offer included compensatory education and some costs.

In February 2014, an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") held a four-day hearing on the matter. After the hearing, the ALJ found in favor of Plaintiff on some claims and denied some claims. Notably, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was entitled to compensatory as well as prospective educational and related services.

On September 30, 2014, Plaintiff filed a motion for attorney's fees and costs. Dkt. 13. On October 31, 2014, the District responded. Dkt. 21. On November 21, 2014, Plaintiff replied. Dkt. 24.

II. DISCUSSION

Pursuant to the IDEA, the Court, "in its discretion, may award reasonable attorneys' fees as part of the costs... to a prevailing party who is the parent of a child with a disability...." 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B)(i)(I). The Court may reduce a request for attorney's fees if the Court finds that

(ii) the amount of the attorneys' fees otherwise authorized to be awarded unreasonably exceeds the hourly rate prevailing in the community for similar services by attorneys of reasonably comparable skill, reputation, and experience; [or]
(iii) the time spent and legal services furnished were excessive considering the nature of the action or proceeding.

Id. § 1415(i)(3)(F)(ii)-(iii). Fees, however, may not be recovered if the Court finds that "the relief finally obtained by the parents is not more favorable to the parents than the offer of settlement." Id. § 1415(i)(3)(D)(i)(III).

In this case, the parties dispute the amount of attorney's fees that Plaintiff may recover. First, the District argues that the majority of the requested fees are barred because the ultimate award was not more favorable than the offer of settlement. Dkt. 21 at 11-13. The District concedes, as it must, that the ultimate award resulted in at least 13.5 hours of additional educational services above what the District included in the offer of settlement. Id. at 13. The District, however, argues that the Court should consider the District's offer of $2, 000 of reimbursement and the assumption that the educational services are valued at approximately $70 per hour. Id. Even if the Court adopted the District's approach, the District's monetary offer was for services "incurred by the time of the offer" (Dkt. 21 at 6), whereas the ultimate award included continuing eligibility for educational services. Based on the language of the statute, the ultimate award was more favorable than the offer. Therefore, the Court declines to deny fees based on the statutory bar.

Second, the District argues that the attorneys' hourly rates are unreasonable. Angela Sparow bills at $250 per hour, and Robert Rhode bills at $400 per hour. Dkts. 14 & 15. The Court finds that these rates unreasonably exceed the prevailing rate in the community for this type of work. For example, there is evidence in the record that the prevailing rate for a newer educational law attorney is between $180 to $200 per hour and evidence of a reasonable comparator attorney Katherine George who charges $200 per hour. Dkts. 16 & 17. Based on this evidence, the Court finds that Ms. Sparow's and ...


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