United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division
BOARD OF EDUCATION OF EVANSTON-SKOKIE COMMUNITY CONSOLIDATED SCHOOL DISTRICT 65, Plaintiff,
D. MICHAEL RISEN; ILLINOIS STATE BOARD OF EDUCATION; and L.J., by and through his parents and next friends, JAMES J. and MELISSA C., Defendants.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
THOMAS M. DURKIN, District Judge.
The Board of Education of Evanston-Skokie Community Consolidated School District 65 (the "District") brought this Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA") suit, 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq., against L.J. and his parents following a decision of the impartial hearing officer ("IHO") in favor of L.J. and his parents (the "Defendants"). The Court previously ruled on the parties' summary judgment motions and affirmed all of the IHO's reimbursement award aside from the cost of L.J.'s tuition for the summer of 2011 and the cost of additional private services (beyond transportation) for the 2011-12 school year. R. 63. Before the Court is the Defendants' fee petition pursuant to 20 U.S.C. § 1415. R. 73. For the following reasons, the Court, in its discretion, awards $159, 801.92 to Defendants' counsel.
The IDEA contains a fee-shifting provision which allows "the [C]ourt, in its discretion, [to] 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). The first issue in determining "whether the Parents are entitled to attorneys' fees [is] whether they prevailed." Bd. of Educ. of Oak Park v. Nathan R., 199 F.3d 377, 382 (7th Cir. 2000). "[P]revailing party' under 20 U.S.C. § 1415(e)(4)(B) has the same meaning as the phrase does in 42 U.S.C. § 1988." Id. Accordingly, for purposes of the statute, a party "prevails" when "he or she obtains actual relief on the merits' of a claim that materially alters the legal relationship between the parties by modifying the defendant's behavior in a way that directly benefits the plaintiff.'" Linda T. v. Rice Lake Area Sch. Dist., 417 F.3d 704, 707-08 (7th Cir. 2005) (quoting Farrar v. Hobby, 506 U.S. 103, 111-12 (1992)). Neither party here disputes that Defendants qualify as a "prevailing party, " so the Court finds they are entitled to reasonable fees.
In determining what constitutes reasonable attorney's fees for a given case, courts use the "lodestar" method-i.e., looking to "the hours reasonably expended multiplied by the reasonable hourly rate, " Johnson v. GDF, Inc., 668 F.3d 927, 929 (7th Cir. 2012)-because "[t]here is a strong presumption that the lodestar calculation yields a reasonable attorneys' fee award." Picket v. Sheridan Health Care Ctr., 664 F.3d 632, 639 (7th Cir. 2011). "Once the petitioning party provides evidence of the proposed fees' reasonableness, the burden shifts to the other party to demonstrate the award's unreasonableness." Wachovia Sec., LLC v. Banco Panamericano, Inc., 674 F.3d 743, 759 (7th Cir. 2012).
The parties dispute what constitutes a reasonable fee award in this case. In their motion for fees, the Defendants requested $198, 851.50 plus $720.72 in expenses, for a total of $199, 602.22. R. 73 at 5; R. 75 at 33. This is less than the initial fee demand tendered to the District on July 22, 2013, which asked for $201, 777.50 plus $720.72 in expenses, R. 79-1; but more than the Defendants' final demand of $184, 931.90 plus $720.72 in expenses, for a total of $185, 652.62. R. 80-1. The District does not object to a substantial portion of the $198, 851.50 requested or the reasonableness of the hourly rate charged by Defendants' counsel. Instead, the District puts forth four arguments as to why the award should be lower than the amount claimed: (1) the Court cannot award fees related to the mediation session; (2) the fees for participating in an IEP meeting are excessive; (3) the fees for preparing the fee petition are excessive; and (4) the Defendants only achieved a partial measure of success, so the overall amount should be reduced 50%. R. 79; R. 80 at 1-2. The Court addresses each of the four areas in turn.
I. Mediation Fees
The District has requested a reduction of $7, 427.00, the equivalent of 19.4 hours, for the Defendants' claimed fees for preparing for, traveling to and from, and attending the parties' mediation. R. 79 at 8-9. It claims the fees are unrecoverable pursuant to 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(D)(iii) or, if recoverable, are excessive because Defendants' counsel only charged 2.8 hours for the actual participation in the mediation and.5 hours for travel time, and "16.1 hours for preparation for a mediation session... is totally excessive." R. 79 at 8-9 (citing R. 73-7 at 7). The Defendants' oppose both arguments.
20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(D)(iii) provides:
Opportunity to resolve complaints. A meeting conducted pursuant to subsection (f)(1)(B)(i) shall not be considered-
(I) a meeting convened as a result of an administrative hearing or judicial action; or
(II) an administrative hearing or judicial action for purposes of this paragraph.
In other words, meetings conducted pursuant to § 1415(f)(1)(B)(i) are excluded from any attorneys' fees that otherwise could be awarded. The question here is whether § 1415(f)(1)(B)(i) encompasses the ...