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Lincoln-Sudbury Regional School District v. Mr. And Mrs. W.

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

May 1, 2018

LINCOLN-SUDBURY REGIONAL SCHOOL DISTRICT, Plaintiff and Counterclaim-Defendant,
v.
MR. and MRS. W., Defendants and Counterclaim-Plaintiffs, and WALLIS W., Counterclaim-Plaintiff,
v.
BUREAU OF SPECIAL EDUCATION APPEALS, Counterclaim-Defendant.

          ORDER ON PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR ATTORNEYS' FEES AND COSTS

          F. Dennis Saylor IV United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Lincoln-Sudbury Regional School District, as the prevailing party in this lawsuit, has moved for attorneys' fees and related costs. For the reasons stated below, the motion will be granted in part and denied in part.

         I. Background

         Wallis W. was a minor child who attended Lincoln-Sudbury High School. On September 30, 2012, she was injured during a field-hockey practice and suffered a concussion. After seeing a doctor, she was instructed to stay home from school for about two weeks, and refrain from physical activity for another two weeks or so after that. The doctor's orders were communicated to the school, which complied with them in all respects. Various accommodations were made to help Wallis catch up on the work she missed.

         However, Wallis struggled in her intensive mathematics class throughout the school year. In May 2013, eight months after the concussion, her math teacher recommended that she take an advanced, but less rigorous, course for the following year. Her parents, Mr. and Mrs. W., then claimed that Wallis was disabled and that the school had failed to provide reasonable accommodations, precipitating a lengthy dispute. In September 2013, Mr. and Mrs. W. removed Wallis from Lincoln-Sudbury and enrolled her at Lawrence Academy, a private school.

         The parents brought a proceeding before the Board of Special Education Appeals (“BSEA”). The hearing officer issued a decision on April 1, 2016, finding that Wallis was not impaired during the 2012-2013 academic year and that she was not denied access to the school curriculum. The hearing officer also found that the parents' claim was “patently frivolous” and brought for an “improper purpose.” After the decision, the district initiated this action to recover its attorneys' fees and costs under 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B), and Mr. and Mrs. W. counterclaimed to reverse the hearing officer's decision. On January 25, 2018, this Court granted the district's motion for summary judgment, agreeing with the hearing officer's finding that the parents' claims were both frivolous and brought for an improper purpose, and finding that an award of reasonable fees was proper. The Court then directed the parties to file briefs and supporting affidavits and exhibits concerning the calculation of attorneys' fees and costs.

         II. Legal Standard

         In the First Circuit, courts follow the so-called “lodestar” method for calculating reasonable attorneys' fees. Tenn. Gas Pipeline Co. v. 104 Acres of Land, 32 F.3d 632, 634 (1st Cir. 1994); see also Hutchinson ex rel. Julien v. Patrick, 636 F.3d 1, 13 (1st Cir. 2011). The lodestar method involves “multiplying the number of hours productively spent by a reasonable hourly rate to calculate a base figure.” Torres-Rivera v. O'Neill-Cancel, 524 F.3d 331, 336 (1st Cir. 2008) (citing Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983)).

         In fashioning the lodestar, the first step is to calculate the number of hours reasonably expended by the attorneys for the prevailing party, excluding those hours that are “excessive, redundant, or otherwise unnecessary.” Hensley, 461 U.S. at 434; see also Grendel's Den, Inc. v. Larkin, 749 F.2d 945, 950 (1st Cir. 1984) (explaining that a court should subtract “hours which [are] duplicative, unproductive, excessive, or otherwise unnecessary”). “[T]he court has a right-indeed, a duty-‘to see whether counsel substantially exceeded the bounds of reasonable effort.'” United States v. Metro. Dist. Comm'n, 847 F.2d 12, 17 (1st Cir. 1988) (quoting Pilkington v. Bevilacqua¸ 632 F.2d 922, 925 (1st Cir. 1980)).

         After determining the number of hours reasonably expended, a court's second step in calculating the lodestar requires a determination of a reasonable hourly rate-a determination that is benchmarked to the “prevailing rates in the community” for lawyers of like “qualifications, experience, and specialized competence.” See Gay Officers Action League v. Puerto Rico, 247 F.3d 288, 295 (1st Cir. 2001). In determining a reasonable hourly rate, a court must consider “the type of work performed, who performed it, the expertise that it required, and when it was undertaken.” Grendel's Den, 749 F.2d at 951. The moving party bears the burden of establishing an attorney's level of skill and experience, and when that party fails to provide documentation as to the attorney's qualifications, a court may reduce the hourly rate. See, e.g., Martinez v. Hodgson, 265 F.Supp.2d 135, 142 (D. Mass. 2003).

         After determining the reasonable number of hours and hourly rate, the court may adjust the lodestar upward or downward based on a number of factors. Spooner v. EEN, Inc., 644 F.3d 62, 68 (1st Cir. 2011). Those factors include:

(1) the time and labor required; (2) the novelty and difficulty of the questions; (3) the skill requisite to perform the legal service properly; (4) the preclusion of employment by the attorney due to acceptance of the case; (5) the customary fee; (6) whether the fee is fixed or contingent; (7) time limitations imposed by the client or the circumstances; (8) the amount involved and the results obtained; (9) the experience, reputation, and ability of the attorneys; (10) the ‘undesirability' of the case; (11) the nature and length of the professional relationship with the client; and (12) awards in similar cases.

Diaz v. Jiten Hotel Mgmt., 741 F.3d 170, 177 n.7 (1st Cir. 2013) (quoting Hensley, 461 U.S. at 430 n.3).

         III. Analysis

         Plaintiff seeks $200, 412.50 in attorneys' fees, plus related costs and expenses of $5, 167.61. In their opposition, defendants raise four principal objections to plaintiff's requests. They contend that (1) 74.3 hours for time expended on “unrelated” matters should be deducted; (2) a global reduction in hours by 40% is warranted because of excessive block billing and unproductive work; (3) plaintiff's attorneys' hourly rates were unreasonably high; and (4) costs should be limited to court filing fees. The Court will address each objection in turn.

         A. Alleged Unrelated Matters

         Defendants first request that the Court reduce attorneys' fees by 74.3 hours for “unrelated work.” (Opp. at 13). Of those challenged 74.3 hours, defendants identified entries totaling 11.4 hours they contend are “directly attributable to unrelated matters” and block billing entries totaling 62.9 hours they contend contain “unrelated matters.” (Id. at 8-9). Plaintiff has conceded that 0.8 hours, attributable to time spent on reviewing an “Open Meeting Law” complaint and consulting with the Office of the Attorney General, should be deducted. (Reply at 9). The eliminated fees associated with that time have already been incorporated into plaintiff's $200, 412.50 fee request.[1]

         The parties dispute whether fees for related state-court matters are recoverable. Defendants had brought suit against plaintiff in state court concerning issues arising out of the same facts as the BSEA proceeding. Plaintiff was represented by different counsel in the state-court proceeding, and Attorney Ehrens, plaintiff's lead counsel in this suit, consulted with that counsel. (Def. Ex. 1). However, in its complaint, plaintiff stated that it was seeking fees and costs “to defend against Mr. and Mrs. W.'s claims in the administrative proceeding below . . . and the prosecution of [the federal court] action.” (Compl. ¶ 37). Plaintiff did not state it was seeking to recover fees for state-court matters, even assuming (without deciding) that such fees would be recoverable here. Accordingly, the Court will deduct an appropriate amount of time.

         Plaintiff's attorneys represent that only 9.8 hours are directly attributable to Attorney Ehrens's efforts in the state-court action. (Reply at 11-12).[2] The Court has reviewed the parties' briefs and supporting affidavits and finds that representation appears to be accurate. Accordingly, 9.8 hours will be deducted from the total number of hours for Attorney Ehrens.

         Defendants further request an additional reduction of 62.9 hours that were block billed, alleging that the listed activities included matters from both this litigation and the related state-court action. Rather than attempt to parse those entries, the Court will address the block-billing issue separately.

         B. Alleged Block Billing and Unproductive Work

         Based on billing reports provided to plaintiff by its counsel, it appears that plaintiff requests compensation for 982.7 hours worked. The billing reports may be summed up as follows:

         Period 1 (BSEA Hearing): September 26, 2014 to April 4, 2016

• Attorney Sowyrda-3.9 hours
• Attorney Ehrens-491.2 hours[3]
• Attorney Ehrens-13.5 hours of travel

         Period 2 (Federal Litigation Phase 1): April 5, 2016 to April 30, 2017

• Attorney Sowyrda-2.4 hours
• Attorney Ehrens-201.2 hours
• Attorney Ehrens-1 hour of travel
• Paralegal-17.1 hours

         Period 3 (Federal Litigation Phase 2): May ...


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