Mr. L v. Sloan

U.S. Supreme Court

___ F.3d ___ (2nd Cir. 2006) 2006 U.S. App. LEXIS 12260

May 18, 2006

The issue presented on this appeal is whether the United States Supreme Court’s controversial holding regarding attorney’s fees in Buckhannon Bd. & Care Home, Inc. v. W. Va. Dept. of Health & Human Serv.,1 applies to a “prevailing defendant”? If so, was the Appellant here a “prevailing defendant”? The Second Circuit Court of Appeals held that a “prevailing party” under the federal fee-shifting statute is one who has achieved a judicially sanctioned change in the legal relationship among the parties, such as a judgment on the merits or a court-ordered consent decree, applies to “prevailing defendant” cases and further held that plaintiff here was not a prevailing defendant under this standard.

Plaintiff, Mr. L, the father and guardian of M., a student attending a school with a program designed for children with emotional disturbance, requested that his son be permitted to attend regular education classes in the Norwalk public schools. In view of the fact that M. required special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”), the Planning and Placement Team (“PPT”) opposed Mr. L’s request and consequently requested a special education due process hearing to obtain an order permitting it to continue providing special education services to M.2 After a series of hearings, a comprehensive evaluation of M., and a diagnostic special education placement, the parties informed the due process hearing officer that they were discussing settlement. The hearing officer then established two successive deadlines by which the parties should file a stipulation, however neither party did so and the case was thereafter dismissed without prejudice. The parties had in fact reached an agreement on the placement of M., but they had been unable to agree on the language describing this placement for purposes of a stipulation.

Mr. L then filed suit in federal district court seeking attorney’s fees under IDEA as a prevailing party in the administrative proceeding. The defendant filed a motion for summary judgment on the ground that the plaintiff was not a prevailing party because the parties had entered into a private settlement that was never approved by a hearing officer. The district court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment and Mr. L appealed.

The appeals court tackled the question of whether the plaintiff, the parent of a child with a disability, was a prevailing party to whom the district court could have awarded attorney’s fees? Mr. L sought attorney’s fees as a prevailing defendant because the Board had initiated the due process hearing.

The court looked to Buckhannon for guidance. In Buckhannon, the Supreme Court held that a “prevailing party” is one who has achieved a judicially sanctioned change in the legal relationship of the parties, via a judgment on the merits of a court-ordered consent decree, and rejected the view that a party who obtains a favorable private settlement may be awarded attorney’s fees.3

The Court also looked to the case of A.R. v. N.Y. City Dep’t of Educ.,4 where the court held that a winning party in an IDEA administrative proceeding is a “prevailing party” under Buckhannon’sprinciples. The court in this case stated that “administrative consent decrees,” like administrative orders, create material alteration of the legal relationship of the parties necessary to permit an award of attorney’s fees, but noted that where an administrative proceeding results in a purely private settlement, there is no administrative imprimatur and thus no “prevailing party” underBuckhannon.5

Mr. L argued that the holding in Buckhannon only applied to prevailing plaintiff cases and that as a prevailing defendant he was entitled to attorney’s fee. In considering a claim for attorney’s fees under a federal fee-shifting statute, a district court must make two determinations. First, it must determine whether the party seeking the award is in fact a prevailing party and, second, if the party is a prevailing party, the court must determine whether that party should be awarded attorneys fees. The court here found that the rule of Buckhannon applied at the first step of the analysis, regardless of whether the prevailing party was a plaintiff or a defendant, and further held that Mr. L was not a prevailing defendant.

The parties’ settlement here was purely private and therefore did not constitute an administratively sanctioned change in the legal relationship of the parties that was judicially enforceable. Although the parties’ here were able to enter into a settlement, the settlement was neither approved by the hearing officer nor incorporated into the order of dismissal and therefore Mr. L was not a prevailing party to whom the district court could have granted attorney’s fees.

Footnotes:

  1. Buckhannon Board & Care Home, Inc. v. West Virginia Department of Health & Human Services, 532 U.S. 598, 121 S. Ct. 1835, 149 L. Ed. 2d 855 (2001).
  2. See 20 U.S.C § 1415(f)
  3. Buckhannon Board & Care Home, Inc. v. West Virginia Department of Health & Human Services, 532 U.S. at 604, 605.
  4. A.R. v. N.Y. City Dep’t of Educ., 407 F.3d 65.
  5. A.R. v. N.Y. City Dep’t of Educ., 407 F.3d at 77.

The case may be accessed through electronic research services (LEXIS or WESTLAW) or by going to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals website at www.ca2.uscourts.gov.

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