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Traci v. Marshall Joint School District No. 2

May 11, 2009

TRACI AND BRIAN D., AS PARENTS OF AND ON BEHALF OF THEIR MINOR CHILD C.D., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
MARSHALL JOINT SCHOOL DISTRICT NO. 2, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Barbara B. Crabb District Judge

OPINION AND ORDER

This is a civil suit brought under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and state special law in which plaintiffs Traci and Brian D. (suing on behalf of their minor child, C.D.) seek $92,872.35 in attorney fees and costs as the prevailing party in both an administrative hearing and in defendant Marshall Joint School District No. 2's appeal to this court of the administrative law judge's decision, Case No. 08-cv-187-bbc (Jan. 8, 2009). Defendant challenges plaintiffs' proposed claim for fees, arguing that it should be reduced because the hourly rate for which reimbursement is sought is excessive and the fee petition includes non-compensable fees and costs, duplicative entries and insufficient documentation. Jurisdiction is present under 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(A) and 28 U.S.C. § 1331.

Because plaintiffs are the prevailing party, I will grant the petition for an award of fees and costs. However, I find that some of the claimed fees and costs should be reduced because they are either not compensable under the statute, are unrelated to either the administrative or federal court actions or are duplicative. Accordingly, I am reducing the award to $88,964.85.

OPINION

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act provides that "the court in its discretion, may award reasonable attorneys' fees as part of the costs to the parents of a child with a disability who is a prevailing party." 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B). In addition to fees incurred in litigation, the IDEA authorizes fee awards for services rendered in administrative hearings. T.D. v. LaGrange School District No. 102, 349 F.3d 469, 479 (7th Cir. 2003); Brown v. Griggsville Community Unit School District No. 4, 12 F.3d 681, 683 (7th Cir. 1993). Defendant does not deny that plaintiffs are entitled to fees and costs as the prevailing party in the due process hearing and subsequent appeal in this court. Linda T. ex rel. William A. v. Rice Lake Area School District, 417 F.3d 704, 707-08 (7th Cir. 2005) (party prevails under IDEA when he obtains "actual relief on the merits" of claim that "materially alters the legal relationship between the parties") (quoting Farrar v. Hobby, 506 U.S. 103, 111-12 (1992)). Therefore, the remaining question is what amount constitutes a reasonable attorney fee award. Jodlowski v. Valley View Community Unit School District #365-U, 109 F.3d 1250, 1252 (7th Cir. 1997).

District courts have significant discretion in determining the amount of a fee award. Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 437 (1983). A reasonable fee is calculated using the lodestar method, which is the number of hours reasonably expended on the litigation multiplied by a reasonable hourly rate. Id. at 433. The court may exclude hours not "reasonably expended" on the litigation, such as those that the court deems excessive, redundant or unnecessary. Id. at 434.

A. Hourly Rate

In support of their petition, plaintiffs submit an affidavit from their attorney, Lynn Novotnak, who avers that plaintiffs incurred $88,192.50 in attorney fees (billed at an hourly rate of $275) and $4,679.85 in costs, totaling $92,872.35. Dkt. #28. Defendant argues that Novotnak's hourly rate is excessive because her actual rate for special education cases at the time of the administrative hearing was $200. In support of its assertion, defendant cites an October 2007 affidavit submitted by Novotnak in Jamie S. v. Milwaukee Board of School Directors, Case No. 01-C-928 (E.D. Wis.), in which she avers that "depending on the nature and complexity of the case, I charge clients $200.00 per hour in special education matters." Dkt. #24, Exh. A at ¶ 4. In reply, Novotnak explains that she regularly reduces her hourly rate because many of the families that she works with are low income and cannot afford legal counsel. Dkt. #25. She maintains that $275 is her actual hourly rate for such cases.

Although I agree that it appears that Novotnak received $200 per hour in special education cases, at least in 2007, section 1415(i)(3)(C) of the IDEA provides that attorney fees "shall be based on rates prevailing in the community in which the action or proceeding arose for the kind and quality of services furnished." Given this mandate, I find that an hourly rate of $275 is reasonable. Plaintiffs have submitted affidavits from three other Wisconsin attorneys who practice in the area of special education: Susan Gramling, Jeffrey Spitzer-Resnick and Robert Theine Pledl. All attest that Novotnak's rate is a reasonable market rate for special education law. Defendant asserts incorrectly that none of the affiants address the market rate in Madison, Wisconsin, where this court sits. Although Gramling discusses only the Milwaukee, Wisconsin market rate, Spitzer-Resnick and Thiel aver that $275 conforms to the market rates in both Madison and the Western District of Wisconsin. Spitzer-Resnick avers that his own regular hourly rate is $275.

Equally unpersuasive is defendant's attempt to challenge Novotnak's hourly rate on the ground that her affidavit is misleading with respect to the number of years she has been practicing special education law. Although I do not find the affidavit to be misleading or vague, Novotnak resolves any ambiguity regarding her special education ...


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