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Dominickl., and Dominiquel., Individually and As Parent and Next Friend of Dominickl v. Board of Education of the City of Chicago

September 25, 2012

DOMINICKL., AND DOMINIQUEL., INDIVIDUALLY AND AS PARENT AND NEXT FRIEND OF DOMINICKL., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
BOARD OF EDUCATION OF THE CITY OF CHICAGO, DISTRICT 299, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Ronald A. Guzman

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

The matter is before the Court on the motion of Dominick L., a minor, and Dominique L., individually and as Dominick's parent and next friend (collectively referred to as "Plaintiffs"), for attorney's fees pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3) (2006). Plaintiffs contend that they are entitled to attorney's fees as the prevailing parties in their due process hearing with the Board of Education of the City of Chicago, District 299 ("Board"). Both parties move for summary judgment. For the reasons set for below, the Court grants Plaintiffs' motion and denies the Board's motion.

I. FACTS

At the time of the due process hearing, Dominick was a seventeen-year-old male suffering from mild cognitive impairment and emotional disorder. (Pls.' Stmt. Undisp. Fact, Dkt. # 21, ¶ 6.) These disabilities made him eligible for special education. (Id.) Dominick was performing significantly below grade level in all areas and failed numerous classes. (Id. ¶¶ 8, 11.) Plaintiffs met with the Board throughout a series of Individualized Educational Program ("IEP") meetings, where Plaintiffs requested that Dominick be transferred to a smaller therapeutic school. (Id. ¶ 10.) The Board denied the transfer, and Plaintiffs subsequently retained an attorney and requested, on March 24, 2011, a due process hearing ("Hearing"). (Id. ¶¶ 11-12.) Plaintiffs alleged that the Board violated the IDEA by denying Dominick a free and appropriate public education ("FAPE"). (Id.)

The Hearing commenced on September 14, 2011, continued for three days, and closed on September 21, 2011. (Id. ¶ 15.) While the Hearing was pending, the Board transferred Dominick to a therapeutic school. (Id. ¶ 13.) The Board proposed settlement offers to Plaintiffs on September 2, 2011 ("Settlement # 1") and on September 9, 2011 ("Settlement # 2"). (Def.'s Stmt. Undisp. Fact, Dkt. #16, ¶ 3.) Plaintiffs, however, rejected both settlement offers and proceeded to the Hearing. (Id. ¶ 4.) Settlement # 1 required the Board to provide independent psychological and vocational evaluations, a reading remediation program, intervention and transition plans, 100 hours of after-school speech therapy, and sixty minutes per week of social and psychological services. (Id., Ex. A.) Settlement # 2 included the additional terms of offering a speech and language evaluation by Mr. Arnell Brady, an assistive technology evaluation, an occupational therapy evaluation, a reading remedies program taught through the Orton-Gillingham method, and sixty minutes per week of speech language services. (Id., Ex. B.)

Following the Hearing, the independent hearing officer ("IHO") ruled in favor of the Plaintiffs. (Pls.' Stmt. Undisp. Fact, Dkt. # 21, ¶ 15a.) The IHO granted Dominick assistive technology, occupational therapy, and vocational assessments. (Def.'s Stmt. Undisp. Fact, Dkt. #16-1, Ex. D.) In addition, the IHO ruled that Dominick should receive sixty minutes per week of direct speech and language therapy along with thirty minutes per week of speech and language therapy in the classroom. (Id.) Lastly, the IHO's ruling indicated that Dominick should receive 160 hours of after-school speech and language therapy. (Id.) The IHO directed that all of these services be provided or funded by the Board. (Id.) In her ruling, the IHO noted that the Board allowed Dominick to struggle and fail for three years of high school, and addressed Dominick's situation only when he requested the Hearing. (Pls.' Stmt. Undisp. Fact, Dkt. #21, ¶ 16.)

On November 4, 2011, Plaintiffs claimed $40,247.97 for attorney's fees through the Hearing. (Id. ¶ 17.) Plaintiffs submitted supplemental fee petitions totaling an additional $9,375.75 for implementing the IHO's orders through May 1, 2012. (Id. ¶¶ 18-19.) In total, Plaintiffs claimed $49,623.72 in attorney's fees for work performed by attorney Michael A. O'Connor and paralegal Peter J. Godina. (Id. ¶ 19.) Plaintiffs submitted information that O'Connor's rates were $405.00 per hour and Godina's rates were $105.00 per hour. (Id. ¶ 23.)

II. SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARD

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); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). At the summary judgment stage, we "do not evaluate the weight of the evidence, judge the credibility of witnesses or determine the ultimate truth of the matter." Atanus v. Perry, 520 F.3d 662, 671 (7th Cir. 2008). Therefore, all evidence and reasonable inferences are construed in favor of the non-moving party to determine if there is a genuine issue of material fact. Magin v. Monsanto Co., 420 F.3d 679, 686 (7th Cir. 2005).

III. DISCUSSION

In addition to asserting that they should receive the full amount of attorney's fees they are requesting, Plaintiffs argue that they are entitled to prejudgment interest. For its part, the Board argues that any fees awarded to Plaintiffs should be reduced because: (1) Plaintiffs were not successful on all of their claims, which made the IHO order not more favorable than the settlement offers and (2) paralegal Godina billed an excessive number of hours to prepare documents for the prehearing conference and Hearing. The Board also contends that Plaintiffs are not entitled to prejudgment interest.

A. Plaintiff Is A Prevailing Party

Under the IDEA, the trial court has discretion to award attorneys' fees to a "prevailing party." 20 U.S.C. § 1415 (i)(3)(B)(i) (2006). The term "prevailing party" is a legal term of art that Congress intended to be defined similarly throughout its statutes. T.D. v. LaGrange Sch. Dist. No. 102, 349 F.3d 469, 476 (7th Cir. 2003) (noting that the Seventh Circuit interprets the IDEA consistently with § 1988 to define a prevailing party). Therefore, a plaintiff "'prevails' when actual relief on the merits of his claim materially alters the legal relationship between the parties by modifying the defendant's behavior in a way that directly benefits the plaintiff." Farrar v. Hobby, 506 U.S. 103, 112 (1992) (noting that even nominal changes can alter the legal relationship to make one a prevailing party). In this case, the IHO granted Plaintiffs substantial remedies at the Board's expense, which makes Plaintiffs the prevailing parties. See

T.D., 349 F.3d at 479 (noting that a party can prevail in a due process or administrative hearing, ...


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