Argued and Submitted, Pasadena, California February 9, 2016.
Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of California. D.C. No. 8:13-cv-01965-MWF-JC. Michael W. Fitzgerald, District Judge, Presiding.
Individuals with Disabilities Education Act / Attorney Fees
The panel affirmed the district court's award of attorney fees to plaintiff, the parent of a child with a disability, following administrative proceedings under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
The panel affirmed the district court's decision not to award fees for services performed subsequent to a written settlement offer because the relief obtained at the administrative hearing was not more favorable to the plaintiff than the settlement offer, and the plaintiff was not substantially justified in rejecting the offer.
The panel held that the district court did not abuse its discretion by lowering counsel's requested rate. The panel also held that an issue regarding paralegal fees was barred by collateral estoppel.
Tania L. Whiteleather (argued), Law Offices of Tania L. Whiteleather, Lakewood, California, for Plaintiff-Appellant.
Jonathan J. Mott (argued), Parker & Covert LLP, Tustin, California, for Defendant-Appellee.
Before: M. Margaret McKeown and Sandra S. Ikuta, Circuit Judges, and Robert W. Pratt, Senior District Judge.[*]
Robert W. Pratt, District Judge:
This case involves a due process complaint filed under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (" IDEA" ) against Defendant-Appellee Anaheim Union High School District (the " District" ) by Petitioner-Appellant Monica Beauchamp (" Beauchamp" ) on behalf of her son, J.E. The administrative process that followed was bifurcated into an expedited and a non-expedited hearing. Beauchamp and J.E. prevailed at both hearings. This appeal concerns the district court's award of attorney fees to Beauchamp's attorney, Tania Whiteleather (" Whiteleather" ), following the nonexpedited hearing. The district court awarded $7,780 in fees, substantially less than the $66,420 requested. The primary rationale for the district court's reduction was its conclusion that Beauchamp had unreasonably rejected a timely settlement offer. The district court also lowered Whiteleather's requested hourly rate from $450 to $400, and rejected a request for paralegal fees. For the reasons that follow, we affirm the district court's award in its entirety.
In early February 2012, J.E., then a sophomore in high school, was involved in a disciplinary incident at Kennedy High School (" Kennedy" ) in the District. The District instituted disciplinary procedures against J.E., removed him from Kennedy, and placed him at a community day school. In late February 2012, Beauchamp requested that the District evaluate J.E. for special education services; the District performed an evaluation and J.E. was found eligible under the categories of " emotional disturbance" and " other health impaired" based on a diagnosis of anxiety and attention deficit disorder. Beauchamp subsequently filed an IDEA due process complaint against the District on March 26, 2012, arguing that the District had evidence of J.E.'s disability as far back as March 2010, and that the District's failure to evaluate him until March 2012 violated IDEA and denied J.E. a free and appropriate public education (" FAPE" ) for the two intervening years.
Pursuant to IDEA, the administrative proceeding was bifurcated. The first hearing was expedited and examined whether the District had a " basis of knowledge" that J.E. was a child with a disability at the time it removed him from Kennedy. On May 9, 2012 the administrative law judge (" ALJ" ) issued a favorable decision for J.E. The District appealed to the district court and the ALJ's findings were affirmed on May 21, 2013. The district court also awarded attorney fees for Whiteleather's work in the expedited proceeding, but lowered her requested hourly rate, and rejected a request for paralegal fees. That decision was affirmed by this court in related appeal Anaheim Union High School District v. J.E., No. 13-56738, 2016 WL 695979 (9th Cir. Feb. 22, 2016).
While the expedited-hearing appeal was pending before the district court, the parties engaged in settlement discussions with regard to the non-expedited proceedings, which focused on whether the District violated its " childfind" obligations under IDEA by failing to timely evaluate J.E. for special education services. By letter dated September 28, 2012, the District made a settlement offer to Beauchamp and J.E. that included the following relief: (1) 80 hours of individual tutoring by a credentialed special education teacher; (2) reimbursement of the costs of a private evaluation conducted by Perry D. Passaro, Ph.D; (3) 20 hours of compensatory counseling services by a credentialed school psychologist; and (4) reimbursement of reasonable attorney fees and costs. The offer was made with the understanding that the District would not make an admission on the childfind issue or abandon its appeal from the expedited hearing. The District's offer further stated that " ...