U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit

PHILADELPHIA – The financial condition of the School District of Philadelphia, among other reasons, was not enough to convince the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit to overturn an award of attorneys fees issued by a trial court in an administrative due process action.

Judge Theodore A. McKee ruled the School District would still provide payment of attorney’s fees to appellees E.C. and C.O., who filed a lawsuit on behalf of their child C.C.O., alleging the School District violated both the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA) and Section 504 of the Americans with Disabilities Act, in its treatment of their child.

“During the administrative process, the parents established that the school district denied their child a free appropriate public education (FAPE). As a result, the hearing officer awarded the parents all relief sought as well as attorneys’ fees,” McKee said.

“The school district appeals the attorneys’ fee award, arguing that the appellees’ charged hours were excessive, the fee lodestar should be reduced to account for the appellees’ degree of success, and the award should have taken into consideration the financial condition of the school district. We find these arguments unpersuasive and affirm the district court’s ruling in whole,” McKee added.

To begin, the School District argued the appellees’ charged hours were calculated incorrectly, pointing to a “reasonable” 2:1 ratio of preparation to hearing time from Elizabeth S. v. School District of Philadelphia, which it said should reduce the number of charged hours from 226.4 to 50.

“First, the school district misrepresents that the parents’ attorneys charged a total of 226.4 hours to prepare for their due process hearing. As the parents accurately point out, this calculation not only includes the time the attorneys spent preparing for the hearing, but all attorney activities from Nov. 2, 2012, through Sept. 23, 2013 – the day after the due process decision was issued,” McKee said. “In reality, the district court found that the parents’ attorneys spent a total of 115 hours – not 226.4 – preparing for the due process hearing. Elizabeth S. nowhere suggests that a 2:1 ratio should be applied to all attorney activities.”

McKee said the 2:1 ratio was only appropriate in that prior case because counsel in that matter was a very experienced attorney, whereas only one of E.C. and C.O.’s lawyers had that level of expertise – and if the formula were to be applied, it should only be used for the more experienced attorney, who only billed eight of the 115 hours.

“In any event, the district court is not bound by the 2:1 ratio set forth in Elizabeth S. The school district’s argument in this regard is disingenuous because the district court found that the school district’s attorneys spent nearly as many hours preparing for the hearing even though the parents bore the burden on each claim they presented,” McKee said.

Though the School District argued the Third Circuit should reduce the fee lodestar because E.C. and C.O. were not successful on all of their claims, but McKee denied this rationale as well.

“The Philadelphia School District argues that the fee lodestar should be reduced by at least 16.66 percent because the parents were unsuccessful on two of their six claims. But as the Supreme Court has explained, a failure to succeed on every claim does not preclude a plaintiff from recovering full compensation,” McKee said.

“Although the school district claims that district courts have reduced fee lodestars in other cases where the plaintiffs did not prevail on all their legal theories, they fail to cite a single case where this is true…district courts have held that plaintiffs’ failure to prevail on all their legal theories do not justify reductions in attorneys’ fees where the plaintiffs obtained excellent results, as the parents did here,” McKee continued.

McKee added the current financial state of the School District cannot release it from its monetary obligation in this matter.

“We both recognize and sympathize with the school district’s well-documented and extremely unfortunate budgetary difficulties…[but] that concern can neither be visited upon the shoulders of these plaintiffs, nor excuse the school district from its statutory obligation of paying the reasonable fees here…accordingly, we will affirm the district court’s award of attorneys’ fees,” McKee said.

The appellant is represented by Miles H. Shore of the School District of Philadelphia’s Office of General Counsel, in Philadelphia.

The appellees are represented by David J. Berney and Vanita Kalra of the Law Offices of David J. Berney, also in Philadelphia.

U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit 15-1825

U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania case 2:13-cv-06047

From the Pennsylvania Record: Reach Courts Reporter Nicholas Malfitano at nickpennrecord@gmail.com

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