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CA court reduces attorneys’ fees for parents because school district clearly documents counseling services aimed at meeting IEP goals

September 01, 2021

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By: Lily Crespo Esq.

Quick takeaway: When determining whether requested relief is reasonable, districts should consider whether the underlying litigation justified the number of hours spent and whether other factors warrant discounting fees.

What happened: On August 24, the U.S. District Court, Central District of California ordered a district to reimburse parents $9,635 for tuition incurred during the 2017-18 SY, $3,695 for private psychological counseling, and $115,915 in attorney” fees in after finding that the district denied their child a free and appropriate education and violated its child find obligations under the IDEA.

Background: A California district will have to reimburse the parents of a10th-grader with tuition, counseling costs, and half of what they requested in attorney’s fees. The parents of a student appealed an ALJ’s decision at 119 LRP 25486. U.S. District Judge Fitzgerald found the district violated its child find obligation. The parents were directed to detail their requested relief. They sought $213,831 in attorney’s fees, reimbursement for two year’s tuition, private psychological counseling services, and the costs of acting lessons they asserted were postsecondary transition services. J

  • udge Fitzgerald explained that courts have discretion to award attorney’s fees to a prevailing party in IDEA proceedings and consider prevailing market rates for similar legal services, the difficulty of the case, the degree of success, whether the parents were justified in rejecting a settlement offer, or if they unreasonably protracted litigation.
  • The court remarked that the three-month delay to evaluate had “a snowball effect,” and the teen “essentially lost her entire ninth-grade year.” It determined that reimbursement for the 2017-18 SY and counseling costs was equitable. Because the district didn’t challenge the attorneys’ hourly rates, the court approved them. It noted the parents prevailed on only three of 20 issues and reasoned they achieved limited success, warranting a substantial reduction in fees.
  • And, the court found, they unreasonably protracted litigation, demanding more than two times a settlement offer, and the attorneys’ hours were unreasonably high compared to the limited success. However, the court held that the parents were substantially justified in rejecting a settlement offer because it required an extremely broad waiver of the teen’s rights under the IDEA and they believed they would eventually recover more. Accordingly, Judge Fitzgerald imposed a “fifty-percent haircut” to the parents’ requested fees, reducing them to $115,915.

What the decision means for educators: Here, the district was able to cut the requested attorneys’ fees in half by showing that the parents contributed to drawing out litigation and attorneys’ hours were excessively high in comparison to their limited success. This case illustrates how detailed documentation through the course of litigation saves school districts from excessive court fees.

As you consider these and other issues, we recommend you speak with your school lawyer or contact Bea, Kevin, Megan, Beth, and Lily by email or at 406-542-1300 to discuss these issues.

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