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Justin R., By and Through His Mother Jennifer R v. Kathryn Matayoshi

February 23, 2012

JUSTIN R., BY AND THROUGH HIS MOTHER JENNIFER R., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
KATHRYN MATAYOSHI, IN HER OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS SUPERINTENDENT OF THE HAWAII PUBLIC SCHOOLS; AND DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION, STATE OF HAWAII, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Leslie E. Kobayashi United States District Judge

ORDER REJECTING THE MAGISTRATE JUDGE'S AMENDED FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATION TO GRANT IN PART AND DENY IN PART PLAINTIFFS' MOTION FOR AWARD OF ATTORNEY'S FEES AND COSTS

On December 29, 2011, the magistrate judge filed his Amended Findings and Recommendation to Grant in Part and Deny in Part Plaintiffs' Motion for Award of Attorney's Fees and Costs ("Amended F&R"). Defendants Kathryn Matayoshi, in her official capacity as Superintendent of the Hawaii Public Schools, and the Department of Education, State of Hawai`i ("the DOE", both collectively "Defendants") filed their objections to the Amended F&R ("Amended Objections") on January 12, 2012. Plaintiffs Justin R. ("Student"), by and through his mother, Jennifer R. (collectively "Plaintiffs"), filed their response to the Objections ("Amended Response") on January 26, 2012. The Court finds this matter suitable for disposition without a hearing pursuant to Rule LR7.2(d) of the Local Rules of Practice of the United States District Court for the District of Hawai`i ("Local Rules"). After careful consideration of the Amended Objections, Amended Response, and the relevant legal authority, the Court HEREBY REJECTS the Amended F&R for the reasons set forth below.

BACKGROUND

The parties and the Court are familiar with the factual and legal history of this case, and the Court will only discuss the events that are relevant to the review of the Amended F&R.

In the instant action, Plaintiffs challenge the administrative hearings officer's ("Hearings Officer") Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law and Decision ("Decision"), filed on October 11, 2010. The Hearings Officer concluded that he lacked subject matter jurisdiction over Plaintiffs' request for impartial hearing ("2009-2010 Request for Impartial Hearing") because Plaintiffs were merely trying to enforce the provisions of a prior settlement agreement with the DOE ("2010 Settlement Agreement") and were not challenging the identification, evaluation or educational placement of Student or the provision of a free and appropriate public education ("FAPE"). Justin R. v. Matayoshi, Civil No. 10-00657 LEK-RLP, 2011 WL 2470624, at *5 (D. Hawai`i June 17, 2011).

On June 17, 2011, this Court issued its Order Affirming in Part and Reversing in Party the Hearings Officer's October 11, 2010 Decision ("Remand Order"), affirming the Decision to the extent that it dismissed the portion of Plaintiffs' 2009-2010 Request for Impartial Hearing seeking to enforce the 2010 Settlement Agreement. Id. at *15. The Court also reversed the Decision to the extent that it dismissed: 1) the portion of Plaintiffs' 2009-2010 Request for Impartial Hearing alleging that Student's March 3, 2009 individualized educational program ("IEP") and October 28, 2009 IEP did not provide a FAPE; and 2) the portion of the 2009-2010 Request for Impartial Hearing challenging the failure to review Student's math and reading goals. Id. The Court urged that, on remand, "the [Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs ("DCCA")] expedite this matter to the fullest extent possible because Student has either graduated or will graduate at the end of the 2010-2011 extended school year." Id.

Before the district court returned the record to the DCCA for the remand, however, the magistrate judge held a settlement conference on July 6, 2011. The minutes of the settlement conference state, inter alia: "Case is settled. Counsel shall file within 30 days a stipulation of settlement to have the Court determine reasonable attorneys fees if any, recoverable by Plaintiff." [Dkt. no. 34.] On July 18, 2011, the magistrate judge approved and filed a Stipulation for Retention of Jurisdiction on the Issue of Attorney's Fees and Costs and Order ("Stipulation and Order"). [Dkt. no. 36.] It states, in its entirety:

WHEREAS, a verbal settlement was reached by the parties at the settlement conference held in this matter with the Honorable Richard L. Puglisi on July 6, 2011;

WHEREAS, the settlement does not include Plaintiffs' claim for an award of their reasonable attorney's fees and costs;

NOW, THEREFORE, IT IS HEREBY STIPULATED AND AGREED by and between the parties hereto, through their respective undersigned attorneys, and with the approval of the Court, that the Court shall retain jurisdiction to determine the issue of Plaintiffs' entitlement to reasonable attorney's fees and costs, if any. [Id. at 2.] The parties did not put the terms of the settlement on the record or submit a stipulation for the dismissal of Plaintiffs' claims, and the district court did not enter a judgment.

On September 5, 2011, Plaintiffs filed their Motion for Award of Attorney's and Costs ("Fee Motion").*fn1 On November 18, 2011, after briefing by the parties, the magistrate judge filed his Findings and Recommendation to Grant in Part and Deny in Part Plaintiffs' Motion for Award of Attorney's Fees and Costs ("F&R"). The magistrate judge found that Plaintiffs are the prevailing party for purposes of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004 ("IDEA") based on the parties' agreement to settle the instant action ("the CV 10-00657 Settlement Agreement") and concluded that they are entitled to reasonable attorneys' fees and costs pursuant to 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B). [F&R at 5-7.] The magistrate judge recommended an award of $51,790.55 in attorneys' fees and $865.09 in costs, but allowed the parties to submit supplemental briefing regarding Plaintiffs' request for additional fees and costs beyond the time period Plaintiffs addressed in the Fee Motion. [Id. at 19-20.] Defendants filed objections to the F&R on December 2, 2011 ("Objections"), and Plaintiffs filed a response to the Objections on December 12, 2011 ("Response").

The magistrate judge issued the Amended F&R after the parties filed their supplemental briefs. The Amended F&R includes the same prevailing party analysis, [Amended F&R at 6-8,] but the magistrate judge increased the recommended award to $56,460.62 in attorneys' fees and $865.09 in costs [id. at 23-24].

I. Defendants' Amended Objections

In their Amended Objections, Defendants incorporate by reference the factual and legal arguments in their Objections and their December 12, 2011 response to Plaintiffs' supplemental fee request, which Plaintiffs filed on November 28, 2011. [Amended Objections at 2.] Defendants argue that the CV 10-00657 Settlement Agreement does not render Plaintiffs the prevailing party for purposes of an award of attorneys' fees and costs. Defendants acknowledge that their obligations under the CV 10-00657 Settlement Agreement constitute a material alteration in the parties' relationship. [Id. at 11.] Defendants, however, argue that the CV 10-00657 Settlement Agreement does not render Plaintiffs the prevailing party because it lacks a sufficient judicial imprimatur on the alteration of the parties' relationship. Further, Defendants argue that, if the Court is inclined to award attorneys' fees and costs to Plaintiffs, the recommended attorneys' fee award in the Amended F&R is excessive. Defendants state that they have the same objections to Plaintiffs' original ...


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