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J.F., A Minor, and S.W., Individually and As Parent and Next v. Board of Education of the City of

August 26, 2011

J.F., A MINOR, AND S.W., INDIVIDUALLY AND AS PARENT AND NEXT FRIEND OF J.F., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
BOARD OF EDUCATION OF THE CITY OF CHICAGO, DISTRICT 299, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Edmond E. Chang

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

J.F., who is a minor,*fn1 and his mother, S.W., filed this suit against Defendant Board of Education of the City of Chicago, pursuant to 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3), seeking attorneys' fees and costs incurred by Plaintiffs as a result of a due-process hearing held under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq. The parties have filed cross-motions for summary judgment. R. 18, 21. For the reasons discussed below, both motions are granted in part and denied in part consistent with this opinion, and judgment will be entered for Plaintiffs in the amount of $37,339.62, plus prejudgment interest.

I.

The due process hearing at issue in this lawsuit was held in 2009. At that time, J.F. was a fifteen-year-old in seventh grade at a Chicago elementary school in District 299.*fn2 R. 19, Pls.' Stmt. of Material Facts (PSOF) ¶ 6. J.F. began attending Chicago Public Schools in first grade, and struggled academically for several years. Id. ¶ 7. In 2006, J.F.'s fifth grade teacher requested that J.F. undergo a full and individual evaluation after she observed his academic delays and erratic behavior in the classroom. R. 1-1, Pls.' Exh. A (Hearing Op.) at 4. The evaluation began in April 2006, but was halted after J.F. failed his vision exam. Id. at 5. J.F.'s evaluation resumed when he began sixth grade in the fall of 2006. Id. J.F.'s Individualized Education Program (IEP) from December 2006 stated that J.F. "has struggled academically since first grade, but wasn't identified until last year." Id. However, despite recognizing that J.F. had not received "adequate instruction" in math or reading, the District concluded that J.F. was not eligible for special education services. Id.

Two years later, J.F. continued to receive low grades and struggle in school. Id. at 6. In October 2008, his mother, S.W., wrote a letter to the school principal, requesting that J.F. be evaluated again. PSOF ¶ 8. The District denied S.W.'s request. Id. Shortly thereafter, S.W. retained Sara Mauk, an attorney with Mauk & O'Connor, LLP, to represent her and J.F. Id. ¶ 10. In February 2009, Plaintiffs, through counsel, requested a due process hearing under the IDEA. Id. ¶ 11. In March, Plaintiffs and the District attempted to resolve the dispute through mediation, but it was not successful. DSOF ¶ 6. The District also offered to settle the case, but Plaintiffs did not accept the offer. PSOF ¶ 12.

J.F.'s due process hearing took place on June 23-24 and July 18. Id. ¶ 13. On August 7, the Hearing Officer determined that the District had denied J.F. a free and appropriate public education. Id. ¶¶ 13-14. The Hearing Officer's order granted all of the relief requested by Plaintiffs, including compensatory services, a prompt IEP meeting, and placement in a therapeutic day/learning disabilities school. Id. ¶ 15. In December, Plaintiffs submitted a claim for attorneys' fees and costs in the amount of $38,378.82. Id. ¶ 16. The District objected, and this lawsuit ensued.

II.

Summary judgment is proper "if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). This standard applies to cross-motions for summary judgment. See Int'l Bhd. of Elec. Workers v. Balmoral Racing Club, Inc., 293 F.3d 402, 404 (7th Cir. 2002). The Court will "evaluate each motion on its merits, resolving factual uncertainties and drawing all reasonable inferences against the movant." Crespo v. Unum Life Ins. Co. of Am., 294 F. Supp. 2d 980, 991 (N.D. Ill. 2003).

III.

The primary purpose of the IDEA is "to ensure that all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education." 20 U.S.C. § 1400(d)(1)(A). Parents who disagree with a local educational agency's "identification, evaluation, or educational placement of [their] child, or the provision of a free appropriate education to such child," may request an impartial due process hearing conducted by the appropriate state educational agency. §§ 1415(b)(6)(A), (f)(1)(A). The IDEA contains a fee-shifting provision whereby "the court, in its discretion, may award reasonable attorney's fees as part of the costs to a prevailing party who is the parent of a child with a disability." § 1415(i)(3)(B). Federal courts have jurisdiction over attorneys' fees suits resulting from an IDEA administrative proceeding. § 1415(i)(3)(A); Bd. of Educ. of Oak Park v. Nathan R., 199 F.3d 377, 380-81 (7th Cir. 2000); John M. v. Bd. of Educ. of City of Chicago, Dist. 299, 612 F. Supp. 2d 981, 990 (N.D. Ill. 2009).

A.

As an initial matter, the District's argument that Plaintiffs' claim is barred by the applicable statute of limitations is unpersuasive. R. 22 (Def.'s Br.) at 5-8. Under the IDEA, a plaintiff has 120 days from the time the administrative decision becomes final to file a suit for attorneys' fees under 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B). McCartney C. v. Herrin Cmty. Unit Sch. Dist. No. 4, 21 F.3d 173, 175 (7th Cir. 1994) (borrowing 120-day period from the Illinois School Code). Specifically, the administrative decision becomes final "upon exhaustion of all judicial remedies by the school district." Id. In this case, the Hearing Officer rendered his decision on August 7, 2009. Under the Illinois School Code, the District had 120 days to challenge the Hearing Officer's decision by filing an action in any court of competent jurisdiction. 105 ILCS 5/14-8.02a(i). Thus, the District had until December 5 to challenge the decision, and when the District did not, the administrative decision became final on that date. Accordingly, Plaintiffs' claim accrued on December 5, 2009 and Plaintiffs timely filed this lawsuit on January 28, 2010, within the 120-day limitations period for seeking attorneys' fees. Rosemary B. v. Bd. of Educ. of Cmty. High Sch. Dist. No. 155,52 F.3d 156, 158 (7th Cir. 1995) (the limitation period for an attorney's fees case brought in Illinois under the IDEA commences after the 120-day period found in the Illinois School Code); Dell v. Bd. of Educ., Dist. 113, 32 F.3d 1053, 1063-64 (7th Cir. 1994); see also M. v. Bd. of Educ. of City of Chicago, 2010 WL 2698285, at *3 (N.D. Ill. July 7, 2010).

The District argues that the proper accrual date for Plaintiffs' fees suit is the date the District indicated its intent to comply with the Hearing Officer's order. Def.'s Br. at 5-6. According to the District, the 120-day limitations period does not promote judicial economy because IDEA plaintiffs often know whether or not the District will appeal the administrative decision well before the expiration of the 120-day time period to appeal. In this case, the District points to an e-mail dated August 18, 2009 from Plaintiffs' attorney, Sara Mauk, summarizing the parties' phone conversation that morning. Id. at 6; R. 23-2, Def.'s Exh. G. In the e-mail, Mauk states that her understanding was "that the district would be agreeable to revise the current IEP of [J.F.] for placement at therapeutic day school (Acacia) and an IEP meeting per the hearing order of August 8, 2009 at Acacia 4 to 6 weeks after placement." Def.'s Exh. G. Thus, the District argues, it was clear to Plaintiffs' counsel that the District did not intend to appeal the Hearing Officer's decision in J.F.'s case. Def.'s Br. at 6. Moreover, the District argues, even if the August 18 date is set aside, the District's intent to comply with the Hearing Officer's order was surely evident when it held the IEP meeting for J.F. on September 17. Id. at 6. The District argues that it is inefficient and unnecessary to provide Plaintiffs with additional time to file a fee petition after the District has "clearly" informed Plaintiffs' counsel that it would begin implementation of the Hearing Officer's order. Id. at 6-7.

The Court is not persuaded by the District's argument. First, "indicating its intent to comply" with the Hearing Officer's order does not necessarily mean that the District has definitively decided to waive its right to appeal the order. In this case, the District claims that it informed Plaintiffs' counsel of its intent to comply with the order during a telephone conversation on August 18, 2009. DSOF ΒΆ 33. However, it is debatable whether Plaintiffs' counsel understood this conversation about intent to mean that the District had conclusively determined -- within eleven days of receiving the Hearing Officer's decision -- to forgo an appeal. And even if ...


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