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Y.N. v. Clark County School District

United States District Court, D. Nevada

March 20, 2014

Y.N., a minor, by and through Guardian Ad Litem, and individual, LEONOR GILLAMADRID, Plaintiff(s),


JAMES C. MAHAN, District Judge.

Presently before the court is plaintiffs' motion for attorney's fees. (Doc. # 26). Defendant has responded (doc. # 27) and plaintiffs have replied (doc. # 32).

I. Background

This motion relates to an underlying due process complaint filed with the Nevada Department of Education and against the Clark County School District ("CCSD") on behalf of plaintiff "Y.N.", a minor, by and through his guardian ad litem, Leonor Gillamadrid (collectively "plaintiffs").

The underlying due process complaint alleged CCSD denied Y.N. a free appropriate public education ("FAPE") by failing to provide Y.N. with a bilingual program of education and with a certified special education teacher as required by relevant Nevada administrative codes. Plaintiffs requested that CCSD provide Y.N. with compensatory education and pay plaintiffs' attorney's fees and costs incurred in bringing the underlying due process complaint.

The parties were able to reach a settlement agreement which was finalized by order of the hearing officer. According to plaintiffs, there existed an understanding that the order provided them with the opportunity to receive attorneys' fees and costs from CCSD or, in the alternative, by filing an action in this court.

After unsuccessfully attempted to recover those costs and fees from CCSD, plaintiffs have filed the instant action.

II. Discussion

"[I]n any action or proceeding brought 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. ยง 1415(i)(3)(B)(i)(I) (emphasis added).

The term "prevailing party" is considered a legal term of art which has been defined by case law. In order to recover an award for attorney's fees based on a one's status as the prevailing party, there must be a judgment on the merits or a court-ordered change in the legal relationship between the parties via a consent decree. Buckhannon Bd. and Care Home, Inc. v. West Virginia Dept. Of Health and Human Resources, 532 U.S. 589, 604 (2001). The Supreme Court in Buckhannon made clear that such an award requires a certain level of judicial imprimatur. That court explicitly rejected the "catalyst theory", which various courts had previously used to award fees where there was not a judicially sanctioned change in the legal relationship of the parties. Id. at 605.

Although Buckhannon concerned the attorney's fees provisions of the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 and the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Ninth Circuit has held that Buckhannon 's definition of "prevailing party" also applies to the IDEA's attorney's fee provision. See Shapiro v. Paradise Valley Unified Sch. Dist. No. 69, 374 F.3d 857, 865 (9th Cir. 2004). The Shapiro court reiterated that "in order to be considered a prevailing party' after Buckhannon, a plaintiff must not only achieve some material alteration of the legal relationship of the parties, ' but that change must also be judicially sanctioned. " Id. at 865 ( quoting Roberson v. Giuliani, 346 F.3d 75, 79 (2d Cir. 2003) (emphasis added). "[A]lthough there may remain some uncertainty as to what might constitute a judicial imprimatur, ' the existence of some judicial sanction is a prerequisite in this circuit for a determination that a plaintiff is a prevailing party' and entitled to an award of attorneys' fees as part of costs under the IDEA." P.N. v. Seattle Sch. Dist. No. 1, 474 F.3d 1165, 1173 (9th Cir. 2007).

Plaintiffs allege that defendant agreed that the hearing officer's order would "provide a judicial imprimatur sufficient to confer jurisdiction to the district court for Plaintiffs to seek their attorney's fees."[1] Plaintiffs have submitted the hearing officer's order. Despite the fact that the order was never judicially sanctioned, plaintiffs' contention that the order provided it with the requisite judicial imprimatur is contradicted by the plain language of the order.

The order's only reference to attorney's fees and costs reads "... Petitioner sought an award of compensatory education as well as an award of attorney's fees and costs." (Hearing officer's order, doc. # 26-4). However the order further provides that "Respondent made a firm offer of settlement" and that "[p]ursuant to the terms of the Settlement, Petitioner received compensatory education from Respondent." ( Id. ). The order does not indicate CCSD agreed to pay attorneys' fees or costs or to reserve the issue for the court; no further reference to the issue is made in the order. The settlement agreement was attached to the order and was incorporated by reference.

The settlement agreement itself makes no reference to attorneys' fees or costs. There is no language in the order or the incorporated settlement agreement indicating that the parties reserved the issues of attorneys' fees and costs for a district court. In short, there is nothing that can be construed as a judicial sanction of the order or settlement agreement, and nothing in the terms ...

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