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R. M. M. v. Minneapolis Public Schools Special School District No. 1

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

December 15, 2017

R.M.M., a minor child, by and through her Mother and Natural Guardian, T.M., Plaintiffs,
v.
Minneapolis Public Schools, Special School District No. 1; and Minneapolis School Board, Defendant. Special School District No. 1, Minneapolis Public Schools, Plaintiff,
v.
R.M.M., by and through her Parents, O.M. and T.M., Defendants Special School District No. 1, Minneapolis Public Schools, Plaintiff,
v.
R.M.M., by and through her Parents, O.M. and T.M., Defendants

          Amy J. Goetz & Andrea L. Jepsen, School Law Center, LLC, 452 Selby Avenue, Suite 2E, St. Paul, Minnesota 55102, for R.M.M., by and through her Parents, O.M. and T.M.

          Laura Tubbs Booth, Booth Law Group, LLC, 10520 Wayzata Boulevard, Suite 200, Minnetonka, Minnesota 55305, for Minneapolis Public Schools, Special School District No. 1, and Minneapolis School Board.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          SUSAN RICHARD NELSON, UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT JUDGE

         This matter is before the Court on the Motion for Attorney Fees and Costs filed by R.M.M. [Doc. No. 107]. For the reasons set forth herein, the motion is granted in part and denied in part.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Factual Background

         This Court's June 27, 2017 Order [Doc. No. 105] provides a detailed explanation of the underlying facts and issues in these lawsuits. See R.M.M. by and through T.M. v. Minneapolis Pub. Schs., Nos. 15-cv-1627 (SRN/HB) & 16-cv-3085 (SRN/HB), 2017 WL 2787606 (D. Minn. June 27, 2017). In brief, R.M.M. is a minor student, who was voluntarily enrolled at Annunciation Catholic School (“ACS”), a private school in Minneapolis. Id. at *2. In 2014, her mother filed an administrative complaint with the Minnesota Department of Education on her behalf, alleging that the Minneapolis School District (“the School District”) had violated its location, identification, and evaluation (“child-find”) obligations under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (“IDEA”), 20 U.S.C. § 1400, et seq., as well as Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (“Section 504”), and had denied R.M.M. a free appropriate public education (“FAPE”) while she attended the private school. R.M.M., 2017 WL 2787606, at *2.

         The Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) dismissed as moot the child-find claim, held a due process hearing on the FAPE claim, and ruled that the School District had denied R.M.M. a FAPE starting in January 2014. Id. He required the School District to provide or pay for additional instruction for R.M.M. in reading, writing, and mathematics. Id.

         In 2015, the child's mother, T.M., and the School District respectively initiated two lawsuits in this Court.[1] Id. R.M.M. sought review of the dismissal of the child-find and pre-January 2014 FAPE claims, and further asserted discrimination claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and Section 504. Id. The School District appealed the ALJ's decision on the FAPE claims, arguing that the ALJ lacked jurisdiction over them, and had erroneously awarded relief. Id. Following the parties' cross motions to dismiss, this Court concluded that R.M.M.'s parents were entitled to a due process hearing on their child-find and FAPE claims, and, under Minnesota state law, R.M.M. had an individual right to a FAPE commensurate with her public school peers. See R.M.M. v. Minneapolis Pub. Schs., Nos. 15-cv-1627 (SRN/HB) & 15-cv-1855 (SRN/HB), 2016 WL 475171, at *16 (D. Minn. Feb. 8, 2016). The Court reinstated the child-find claim and remanded the matter to the ALJ for adjudication. Id.

         In March 2016, the School District filed an appeal with the Eighth Circuit, limited to the question of whether R.M.M. had an individual right to a FAPE and to a due process hearing on the issue of a FAPE. See Special Sch. Dist. No. 1 v. R.M.M., 861 F.3d 769, 770 (8th Cir. 2017). The Eighth Circuit held that Minnesota state law granted R.M.M. the right to a FAPE and that under both federal and state law, R.M.M.'s parents had a right to a due process hearing to dispute the provision of a FAPE. Id. at 774-78.

         In May 2016, the ALJ held a due process hearing on the remanded child-find claim. (See ALJ's July 1, 2016 Order at 2, Ex. C to Goetz Aff. [Doc. No. 111].) He found that the School District had failed to provide a FAPE, (see id. at 17), and awarded compensatory education and retroactive reimbursement for the costs of an assessment, and $21, 145 for tuition and related services for the 2015-16 school year at a private school, as well as tuition through the 2017-18 school year. (Id. at 19-20.)

         R.M.M. and her parents filed the instant motion for attorneys' fees and costs based on the attorneys' fees provision of the IDEA, 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3). (Pls.' Mot. at 1-2.) They contend that they prevailed in these matters, citing the judgments entered in this Court on June 28, 2017 in Case Number 15-1627 [Doc. No. 106], and in Case Number 16-3085 [Doc. No. 35], and in the Eighth Circuit's June 29, 2017 judgment in Appellate Case Number 16-1601. They seek to recover attorneys' fees totaling $312, 283.78, costs and filing fees totaling $400, plus pre- and post-judgment interest. (Pls.' Mem. Supp. for Attys.' Fees (“Pls.' Mem.”) at 22-23 [Doc. No. 110].)

         The School District opposes this motion. It divides the underlying procedural history into two separate administrative actions, arguing that Plaintiffs did not “prevail” under federal law-under which attorneys' fees are recoverable-in the “first action.” (Defs.' Opp'n Mem. at 2 [Doc. No. 113].) It contends that Plaintiffs are not entitled to any fees and costs for work performed in the “first action, ” because relief was afforded only under state law, and state law does not provide for attorneys' fees. (Id. at 1-7.) As to the remanded “second action” on Plaintiffs' child-find claim, the School District concedes that Plaintiffs are entitled to some fees. (See id. at 7.) However, the School District seeks a reduction from the requested amount, arguing that R.M.M. did not prevail on all of her claims, and the fees were excessive, redundant, or should otherwise be excluded. (See Id. at 7-21.)

         II. DISCUSSION

         A. Prevailing Party

         The IDEA provides for the discretionary award of reasonable attorneys' fees “ to a prevailing party who is the parent of a child with a disability.” 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B). The Eighth Circuit has observed that to be a “prevailing party” for purposes of IDEA attorneys' fees, a litigant must obtain “‘actual relief on the merits of his claim that materially alters the legal relationship between the parties by modifying the defendant's behavior in a way that directly benefits the plaintiff.'” Neosho R-V Sch. Dist. v. Clark, 315 F.3d 1022, 1030 (8th Cir. 2003) (quoting Birmingham v. Omaha Sch. Dist., 298 F.3d 731, 734 (8th Cir. 2002); Farrar v. Hobby, 506 U.S. 103, 111-12 (1992)).

         Accordingly, in Neosho, the Eighth Circuit found that the student was a prevailing party, because the administrative panel altered the legal relationship between the parties by granting the student a right to a behavior management plan that the school district had previously denied. 315 F.3d at 1030. Similarly, in Birmingham, the court found that the student was a prevailing party where she was awarded compensatory education to remedy a right that her school had previously denied her. 220 F.3d at 857.

         Here, however, the School District argues that R.M.M. was not a prevailing party for purposes of her initial administrative action because she prevailed on her FAPE claim only under state law, and ...


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