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Ninth Circuit Ruling: Unsuccessful bid at challenging fee awards costs school district $318,465

November 10, 2021

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By: Lily Crespo Esq.

Quick Takeaway: Districts need to weigh the potential costs and benefits of challenging fee awards they believe are excessive. While the district might prevail, it also runs the risk of increasing its liability for attorney’s fees. This district unsuccessfully argued that evidence improperly discounted by the District Court showed that the attorneys’ hourly rates were too high. Even if it won’t have to pay any extra fees to the parents, it likely incurred additional legal bills of its own because of its appeal.

What happened: Although a California district argued that a District Court used an unreasonable hourly rate when calculating an award of attorney’s fees for the parents of a sixth-grader with a disability, it could not persuade the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to reduce the fee award. The 9th Circuit affirmed a decision at 74 IDELR 198 that ordered the district to pay $318,465 in attorney’s fees.

Background: A California district will have to pay $318,465 in attorney’s fees, nearly half of which stemmed from the IDEA fee action itself, to parents who partially prevailed on their FAPE claims against the district. The 9th Circuit held in an unpublished decision that the amount awarded by the District Court at 74 IDELR 198 was not unreasonable. The three-judge panel explained that District Courts may consider a variety of evidence when determining appropriate hourly rates for attorneys involved in IDEA proceedings. Although the district argued that courts should only look at certain types of evidence, such as evidence of rates the attorneys received from paying clients, the 9th Circuit declined to adopt such a bright-line rule. “Our precedent allows IDEA plaintiffs to rely on a range of different types of evidence to carry their burden to establish an hourly rate,” the panel wrote. As such, the panel observed, the District Court did not err in accepting the parents’ evidence of hourly rates of up to $650 and discounting the district’s competing evidence. The 9th Circuit also held that the District Court’s 20 percent reduction of the parents’ fee award for the administrative proceeding, which stemmed from the parents’ limited success, did not entitle the district to a similar reduction for the “fees on fees” action. The 9th Circuit also rejected the parents’ claim that the District Court erred in reducing their fee award for the administrative hearing by 20 percent. Given that the district prevailed on three issues and the parents only obtained some relief on the remaining five issues, the panel held that the across-the-board reduction was appropriate.

The name of the case is Gordon v. Los Angeles Unified Sch. Dist. U.S. Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit. 10/27/21.

When weighing the pros and cons of an appeal, talk to your attorney so you know what you are getting into. Contact Bea, Kevin, Megan, Beth, and Lily by email or at 406-542-1300 whenever you have questions.

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