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Paris School District v. Harter

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

June 28, 2018

Paris School District Plaintiff- Appellee
v.
Cyndi Harter, as parent of A.H. Defendant-Appellant

          Submitted: April 12, 2018

          Appeal from United States District Court for the Western District of Arkansas - Ft. Smith Division

          Before GRUENDER, MELLOY, and GRASZ, Circuit Judges.

          GRASZ, Circuit Judge

         After Cyndi Harter prevailed in an administrative hearing and a judicial review proceeding, the district court[1] instructed her to file a request within fourteen days for the attorney fees to which she was entitled as the prevailing party. Harter timely filed the request, but only for the hours expended on the administrative hearing. The district court partially granted the fee request, awarding only about half the amount she requested. After this award - and after the initial deadline had long passed - Harter made another request for attorney fees, this time for the hours spent on the district court review proceeding and time spent seeking fees. The district court denied this fee request as untimely and denied Harter's request for an extension of time. Harter appeals the reduced award of attorney fees and the denial of her second fee request.

         I.

         In 2014, Harter initiated a "due process hearing," claiming that Paris School District ("PSD") violated the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA") by not providing her daughter with a free and appropriate public education ("FAPE") in the "least restrictive environment." See 20 U.S.C. §§ 1401(9), 1412(a), 1415(f). A hearing officer with the Arkansas Department of Education presided over a seven-day due process hearing spread over several weeks in late 2014 and in early 2015. See 20 U.S.C. § 1415(f). The hearing officer ruled, in large part, in favor of Harter.

         As allowed by 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2), PSD filed a civil action in Arkansas state court, challenging the findings and the relief ordered by the hearing officer. Harter, on behalf of her daughter, removed the case to federal court.

         After removal, Harter filed a pleading captioned as a "third party complaint," raising several claims against PSD and two school officials in their individual and official capacities and seeking attorney fees from PSD. The district court severed PSD's IDEA claim and Harter's request[2] for attorney fees from the non-IDEA claims by Harter against PSD and the two school officials.

         The district court ruled in the IDEA review proceeding in favor of Harter, affirming nearly all of the hearing officer's findings.[3] The district court also concluded that, as the prevailing party, Harter was entitled to attorney fees. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B). The district court "direct[ed] the parties to submit briefing as to the amount to be awarded for work done on the IDEA claim," and gave Harter fourteen days to do so.

         Fourteen days later, Harter requested $69, 206.74 in attorney fees and costs, claiming approximately 215 attorney hours of work performed on the due process hearing. A few months later, the district court granted in part and denied in part the request, awarding only $27, 000 in attorney fees (based on 108 hours at $250 per hour) and $750 in other costs. The district court concluded the reduction was warranted because Harter's attorney spent an unreasonable amount of time and incurred excessive costs for the hearing.

         About two weeks later, Harter filed another motion for attorney fees. She requested an additional $11, 350 in attorney fees, plus $400 in other costs, both for defending the hearing officer's findings in the district court review proceeding and for seeking fees for the due process hearing. The next day, the district court issued an order sua sponte, requiring Harter to explain why her second fee request should not be denied as untimely and why she failed to include the request for attorney fees related to the district court litigation in her initial fee request.

         Harter filed a response to the district court, stating that she believed the second request for attorney fees was timely and that it was her attorney's practice to bifurcate fee requests in such a manner. She further requested that, if the court found her request to be untimely, it grant an extension of time based on her attorney's good faith misunderstanding.

         The district court denied Harter's second request for attorney fees as untimely. The district court noted that its prior order "clearly directed [Harter] to submit briefing as to the amount to be awarded for work done on the IDEA claim within 14 days" and "did not indicate that [Harter's attorney] should bifurcate her costs and fees in any way." The court further denied Harter's request for an extension to file her fees request out of time, concluding that, "[w]hile the failure to file the motion in a timely manner was neglect, it was not ...


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