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Artichoker v. Todd County School District

United States District Court, D. South Dakota, Central Division

June 9, 2017

KAREN ARTICHOKER, LEGAL GUARDIAN AND NEXT FRIEND OF D.D., A MINOR, Plaintiff,
v.
TODD COUNTY SCHOOL DISTRICT, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER GRANTING IN PART MOTION FOR ATTORNEY'S FEES

          ROBERTO A. LANGE, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Karen Artichoker, Legal Guardian and Next Friend of D.D., filed a motion for attorney's fees under 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B), a provision of the Individuals with Disability Education Act (IDEA). Doc. 57. Artichoker seeks $65, 125 in attorney's fees for work done on D.D.'s IDEA case at both the administrative level and on appeal before this Court. Doc. 59-1 at 9. The Todd County School District opposes this motion in its entirety. Doc. 60. Finding that Artichoker prevailed on her claims within the meaning of the IDEA at the administrative level only, this Court grants attorney's fees in the amount of $32, 575, and denies all other attorney's fees.

         I. Facts

         This Court issued an Opinion and Order providing a detailed explanation of the facts and issues in this case. Doc. 54; Artichoker v. Todd Cty. Sch. Dist., No. 3:15-CV-03021-RAL, 2016 WL 7489033 (D.S.D. Dec. 29, 2016). During the 2014-2015 school year, D.D. was a 12-year old student enrolled in seventh grade at the Lakeview School on the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation, within the Todd County School District. Doc. 54 at 4-5. Following a number of behavioral issues, school absences, and meetings to develop a behavior plan, D.D. was suspended from school for the remainder of the year after bringing a knife to school. Doc. 54 at 5-7. On April 27, 2015, D.D.'s legal guardian, Artichoker, filed an IDEA complaint against the District for failing to conduct a required and requested individual special education evaluation, and failing to provide D.D. with a free appropriate public education (FAPE) and IDEA protections during D.D.'s three and a half month suspension. Doc. 54 at 7. Artichoker requested a full evaluation of D.D., an individualized education plan (IEP), compensatory education, and attorney's fees. Doc. 54 at 7. A due process hearing was scheduled before an administrative hearing examiner for July 7, 2015. Doc. 54 at 7.

         Before the due process hearing, the District made Artichoker a written settlement offer, offering D.D. a full evaluation either while placed at a short-term psychiatric care facility at the District's expense or by a "school psycholbgist/evaluator who contracts with the school;" providing D.D. a tutoring software system for summer use; and placing D.D. at a different school in the fall better able to accommodate D.D.'s needs. Doc. 23-20; Doc. 54 at 7. Artichoker rejected the offer, citing the lack of compensatory educational services and because an evaluation done by an evaluator of the District's choosing would not be sufficient. Doc. 23-23 at 1. Following the hearing but before a written decision, Artichoker resisted scheduling an evaluation because she was "not confident that [D.D.] would receive an impartial evaluation from the [District's] staff or people with whom the District has a regular contractual relationship, " because of the potential for bias, and because Artichoker "expressly requested that an evaluation be conducted by someone who is not employed by the District or have a regular contractual relationship with the District." Doc. 23-26 at 1.

         The hearing examiner issued a written decision finding in favor of Artichoker on both issues addressed: (1) "Whether the Todd County School District's failure to order an evaluation after referral and request for evaluations by the guardian violated the IDEA and deprived D.D. of FAPE, " and (2) "Whether the Todd County School District's expulsion of D.D. without the procedural safeguards of the IDEA deprive[d] her of FAPE." Doc. 19-3 at 1; Doc. 54 at 8. The hearing examiner ordered the District to complete "a full and individualized initial evaluation conducted by a qualified professional licensed in the state of South Dakota who is not regularly affiliated with the School District, " and "[s]hould DD qualify for special services under the IDEA the school is to implement those within one month." Doc. 19-3 at 11; Doc. 54 at 8. D.D. then received a full and individualized initial evaluation while placed at a residential treatment facility, qualified for, and began receiving necessary services under an IEP. Doc. 54 at 8.

         Following the hearing examiner's decision, but before D.D.'s evaluation was completed, Artichoker filed suit in this Court, seeking a "reversal of the hearing officer's decision that failed to award compensatory educational services." Doc. 54 at 11. The District filed a counterclaim challenging the hearing examiner's decisions on the two issues addressed. Doc. 54 at 11. This Court affirmed the hearing examiner's decision, thus denying Artichoker's request for compensatory education and denying the District's request for reconsideration of the hearing examiner's IDEA decisions. Doc. 54 at 25-26.

         Artichoker then filed a motion for attorney's fees for work done by Artichoker's counsel, Dana Hanna. Doc. 57. This motion included 130.3 hours of work done at the administrative level, and 130.2 hours of work done at the district court level in defending the District's counterclaims. Doc. 58; Doc. 59-1. At a rate of $250 an hour, Artichoker requests $65, 125 total, comprised of $32, 575 at the administrative level and $32, 550 at the district court level. Doc. 59-1 at 6, 8-9. The District opposes this motion for attorney's fees in its entirety. Doc. 60.

         II. Discussion

         A. Attorney's Fees under the IDEA

         Following an action under the IDEA, "the court, in its discretion, may award reasonable attorneys' fees as part of the costs ... to a prevailing party who is the parent of a child with a disability." 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B)(i). "A litigant is a 'prevailing party' if he obtains '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)). A party does not need to succeed on the entirety of the litigation to be considered the prevailing party under the IDEA; "[a] party prevails if it succeeded on any significant issue which achieved some of the benefit it sought." Yankton Sch. Dist. v. Schramm, 93 F.3d 1369, 1377 (8th Cir. 1996). However, "any relief obtained 'must directly benefit the plaintiff at the time of the judgment or settlement.'" Drennan v. Pulaski Cty. Special Sch. Dist., 458 F.3d 755, 757 (8th Cir. 2006) (internal alteration omitted) (quoting Warner v. Indep. Sch. Dist., No. 625, 134 F.3d 1333, 1338 (8th Cir. 1998)). Furthermore, "attorney's fees should ordinarily be awarded to the prevailing party unless 'special circumstances' exist to make an award unjust." Borengasser v. Ark. State Bd. of Educ, 996 F.2d 196, 199 (8th Cir. 1993).

         The IDEA prohibits the award of attorney's fees and costs in certain situations. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(D). "Attorneys' fees may not be awarded ... in any action or proceeding under this section for services performed subsequent to the time of a written offer of settlement to a parent, " if (1) the offer is made at least ten days before the administrative proceeding begins, (2) the offer is not accepted within ten days, and (3) "the court or administrative hearing officer finds that the relief finally obtained by the parents is not more favorable to the parents than the offer of settlement." Id. § 1415(i)(3)(D)(i). However, if the prevailing party parent "was substantially justified in rejecting the settlement offer, " attorney's fees may be awarded. Id. § 1415(i)(3)(E). A court can reduce the amount of attorney's fees awarded if it finds that (1) "the parent, or the parent's attorney . . . unreasonably protracted the final resolution of the controversy;" (2) "the amount of the attorneys' fees otherwise authorized to be awarded unreasonably exceeds the hourly rate prevailing in the community for similar services by attorneys of reasonably comparable skill, reputation, and experience;" (3) "the time spent and legal services furnished were excessive considering the nature of the action or proceeding, " or (4) "the attorney representing the parent did not provide to the local educational agency the appropriate information in the notice of the complaint." Id. § 1415(i)(3)(F).

         B. Administrative Hearing

         In order to award attorney's fees under the IDEA, this Court must first determine whether Artichoker was a prevailing party at the administrative level-whether she "succeeded on any significant issue in litigation which achieved some of the benefit [she] sought." Texas State Teachers Ass'n v. Garland Indep. Sch. Dist., 489 U.S. 782, 791-92 (1989) (internal marks and quotation removed); Yankton Sch. Dist., 93 F.3d at 1377. The Eighth Circuit has recognized that an action at the administrative level qualifies as an "action or proceeding brought under [ยง l4lfj(i)(3)(B)], " and thus a prevailing parent can ...


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