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Scott M. and Geysy M., Individually and As Parents and Next Friend of Ryan M v. Board of Education of the City of Chicago

March 25, 2011

SCOTT M. AND GEYSY M., INDIVIDUALLY AND AS PARENTS AND NEXT FRIEND OF RYAN M.,
PLAINTIFFS,
v.
BOARD OF EDUCATION OF THE CITY OF CHICAGO, DISTRICT 299, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Magistrate Judge Geraldine Soat Brown

Judge Virginia M. Kendall

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Geraldine Soat Brown, United States Magistrate Judge.

This case comes before the court on the motion for attorneys' fees and costs brought by plaintiffs Scott M. and Geysy M., individually and as parents and next friends of Ryan M. (collectively, "plaintiffs"). (Pls.' Mot.) [Dkt 34.] Plaintiffs seek "fees on fees": the fees incurred by plaintiffs in their successful effort to recover attorneys' fees incurred in a due process hearing under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. For the reasons set forth below, plaintiffs' motion is granted in part and denied in part, and fees and costs are awarded in the amount of $27,636.80 against defendant Board of Education of the City of Chicago, District 299 (the "Board").

Background

Plaintiffs initially brought this lawsuit under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B), seeking attorneys' fees and costs incurred in a due process hearing against the Board. (Compl.) [Dkt 1.] The IDEA authorizes a fee award to a parent who prevails in a due process hearing to resolve a dispute over special education services. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B). The District Judge determined that plaintiffs prevailed in a due process hearing seeking more intensive special education services for their then four-year-old child, Ryan M. (Mem. Op. & Order, Aug. 9, 2010.)

For convenience, the underlying proceedings will be referred to as the "Due Process Hearing," the lawsuit filed to recover fees incurred in the Due Process Hearing will be referred to as the "Fee Suit," and the present motion to recover fees incurred in the Fee Suit will be referred to as the "Fees-on-Fees Claim." Plaintiffs are represented in the Fee Suit by attorneys from the law firm Mauk & O'Connor, LLP, but were represented in the Due Process Hearing by attorneys from the Children's Law Group. (Pls.' Mot., Ex. E ¶ 1, Affidavit of Michael A. O'Connor.)

After plaintiffs filed the Fee Suit, the parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment on the same day [dkt 14, 19], and each side filed a memorandum of law, a Local Rule 56.1 statement, a response to the other side's statement, a response to the other side's motion, and a reply brief. [Dkt 15, 17, 20, 21, 22-27.] Upon leave of court, plaintiffs further supplemented their reply. [Dkt 28, 30, 31.] Plaintiffs requested attorneys' fees in the amount of $95,173.02, and the Board argued for a fee award of $53,577. [Dkt 15, 20.] The District Judge granted in part and denied in part the parties' cross-motions, and awarded plaintiffs $78,079.32 in attorneys' fees, plus prejudgment interest.*fn1

(Order, Aug. 9, 2010.) [Dkt 32.] The District Judge reduced the requested amount from $95,173.02 to $78,079.32 for unsupported or excessive requests for non-legal research, travel time, and duplicative entries, and fifteen percent overall to account for plaintiffs' relative degree of success at the Due Process Hearing. (Mem. Op. & Order at 30.)

Plaintiffs now bring this Fees-on-Fees Claim seeking attorneys' fees and costs in the amount of $31,531.80 incurred in litigating the Section 1415(i)(3)(B) claim in the Fee Suit and for time spent on the Fees-on-Fees Claim. (Pls.' Mot. at 1; Pls.' Reply at 1.) [Dkt 42.] Specifically, plaintiffs claim $24,640.30 for litigating the Fee Suit, $4,611.50 for the Fees-on-Fees Claim through the filing of the present motion, and $2,280 for drafting the reply brief in the Fees-on-Fees Claim. (Pls.' Mot. at 3; Reply at 1.) The Board raises several objections to plaintiffs' fee requests and proposes an award in the amount of $11,766.67. (Def.'s Resp. at 2.) [Dkt 41.]

Plaintiffs have submitted correspondence between counsel for the parties showing they attempted to reach an agreement as to fees pursuant to Local Rule 54.3(d), but were unable to do so. (Pls.' Mot., Exs. B, C.) The parties have also filed the requisite joint statement under Local Rule 54.3(e) setting forth the fees requested and the disputes about the fees. ("Jt. Stmt.") (Pls.' Mot., Ex. A.)

Legal Standards

The Board does not dispute that plaintiffs prevailed in the Fee Suit -- they succeeded in securing an award of attorneys' fees, albeit somewhat reduced. See Jodlowski v. Valley View Cmty. Unit Sch. Dist., 109 F.3d 1250, 1253 (7th Cir. 1997) (prevailing party must "obtain at least some relief on the merits of his claim" (quoting Farrar v. Hobby, 506 U.S. 103, 111 (1992))). The only issue on the Fees-on-Fees Claim is the reasonableness of plaintiffs' fee request. In evaluating a fee request under the IDEA, courts apply the same standards of reasonableness that govern attorneys' fee awards in civil rights cases under 42 U.S.C. § 1988. See, e.g., M. v. Chicago Bd. of Educ., No. 10 C 2110, 2010 WL 4639259 at *1 (N.D. Ill. Nov. 8, 2010) (citing Jodlowski, 109 F.3d at 1253 n. 2); Stephanie J. v. Bd. of Educ. of Chicago, Dist. 299, No. 10 C 1359, 2010 WL 3070461 at *3 (N.D. Ill. July 30, 2010) (same). "The most useful starting point for determining the amount of a reasonable fee is the number of hours reasonably expended on the litigation multiplied by a reasonable hourly rate." Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983). That initial figure is commonly referred to as the "lodestar" amount. Spegon v. Catholic Bishop of Chicago, 175 F.3d 544, 550 (7th Cir. 1999). The party seeking the fee award bears the burden of proving the reasonableness of the hours worked and the hourly rates claimed, and the court has an obligation to exclude any hours not "reasonably expended" on the litigation. Hensley, 461 U.S. at 433-34, 436. Once the lodestar is determined, the court may adjust the award for a number of factors, including the amount involved and the results obtained, the novelty and difficulty of the questions involved, customary fees, the experience and ability of the attorney, and awards in similar cases. Id. at 429-30 and n. 3.

The party seeking a fee award bears the burden of establishing appropriate hours expended and hourly rates. Hensley, 461 U.S. at 437. In submitting a request for fees, counsel should exercise billing judgment. Id. "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." Id. at 434. Similarly, the district court has the obligation to exclude from this initial calculation any hours that are inadequately documented or that were duplicative or excessive. People Who Care v. Rockford Bd. of Educ., 90 F.3d 1307, 1314 (7th Cir. 1996). However, the court will not "eyeball" the fee request and arbitrarily cut it down because it seems excessive. Id.

Discussion

I. Lodestar

Plaintiffs seek fees divided into two categories: (1) for litigating the Fee Suit, and (2) for bringing the Fees-on-Fees Claim. (Jt. Stmt. at 1-2.) In the first category, plaintiffs seek $24,640.30, consisting of: 61.7 hours for attorney Michael O'Connor at $380 per hour; 1.4 hours for attorney Sara E. Mauk at $240 per hour; 2.5 hours for paralegal Peter Godina at $110 per hour; 1.05 hours of attorney time billed at $110 per hour; and costs of $467.80. (Id.; Pls.' Reply at 10.) In the second category, plaintiffs seek $4,611.50 for the Fees-on-Fees Claim through the filing of the motion: 11.7 hours for Mr. O'Connor at $380 per hour; 0.5 hour for Ms. Mauk at $240 per hour; 0.15 hour of attorney time billed at $110 per hour; and costs of $29. (Id.)*fn2 In addition, in their reply brief, plaintiffs request an additional $2,280 for 6 hours spent drafting the reply brief, but do not name the attorney who did the drafting. (Pls.' Reply at 1.)*fn3

The Board argues that Mr. O'Connor's hourly rate is too high, that certain of the hours claimed were excessive and duplicative of work done in other cases, and that the overall award should be reduced by 15% to reflect plaintiffs' degree of success. (Def.'s Resp. at 2; Jt. Stmt. at 2-4.) The Board's objections are individually addressed below.

A. Attorney Michael O'Connor

1. Hourly billing rate

The IDEA provides that attorneys' fees "shall be based on rates prevailing in the community in which the action or proceeding arose for the kind and quality of services furnished." 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(C). Here, plaintiffs have submitted the affidavit of Mr. O'Connor attesting that he has charged $380 per hour in special education matters since January 2009. (O'Connor Aff. ¶ 4.) Mr. O'Connor states that he has 40 years of legal experience, including extensive experience in special education matters. (Id. ¶¶ 2-3.) Moreover, plaintiffs submit a number of similar IDEA cases in which the Board did not object to Mr. O'Connor's $380 rate, and where courts accepted it as reasonable. (Id. ¶ 4; see, e.g., M. v. Chicago Bd. of Educ., 2010 WL 4639259 at *1 n. 1; Crispin R. v. Bd. of Educ. of Chicago, Dist. 299, No. 09 C 3993, 2010 WL 3701328 at *5 n. 6 (N.D. Ill. Sept. 10, 2010).) This is sufficient to establish that the $380 per hour rate charged by Mr. O'Connor is reasonable. See Spegon, 175 F.3d at 556 (holding that attorney's affidavit in conjunction with evidence of fees awarded in similar cases may establish market rate for attorney's services).

The Board objects to the $380 rate, claiming the District Judge determined that $330 per hour was reasonable for an attorney with over 20 years of experience representing parents in special education matters. (Def.'s Resp. at 2.) However, the Board mischaracterizes the District Judge's finding; she decided that the $300 per hour rate charged by plaintiffs' former attorneys from the Children's Law Group was reasonable. (Mem. Op. & Order at 12.) In reaching her decision, the District Judge cited the parties' undisputed ranges of reasonable attorneys' fees in special education law, which included $295-330 per hour for an attorney with 11 to 19 years of experience and $330-385 per hour for an attorney with more than 20 years ...


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