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Nader v. ST. Tammany Parish School Board

United States District Court, E.D. Louisiana

May 29, 2019

BENJAMIN NADER, a minor child, by and with his parents, ET AL.
v.
ST. TAMMANY PARISH SCHOOL BOARD

         SECTION “R” (3)

          ORDER AND REASONS

          SARAH S. VANCE UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Before the Court are the parties' dueling motions for summary judgment on plaintiffs' claim for attorneys' fees under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The Court finds that plaintiffs are not entitled to attorneys' fees under the IDEA. It therefore grants defendant's motion for summary judgment and denies plaintiffs' motion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. The IDEA

         This case arises out of an IDEA complaint and due process hearing against defendant St. Tammany Parish School Board.[1] The IDEA “is a Spending Clause statute that seeks to ensure that ‘all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education.'” Schaffer v. Weast, 546 U.S. 49, 51 (2005) (quoting 20 U.S.C. § 1400(d)(1)(A)). To receive federal funding under the Act, each state must comply with certain conditions, including procedural safeguards set forth in § 1415. See 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a), (a)(6)(A). One of these conditions is that each state must allow “any party to present a complaint . . . with respect to any matter relating to the identification, evaluation, or educational placement of [a] child, or the provision of a free appropriate public education to such child.” Id. § 1415(b)(6)(A). If the matter cannot be resolved through an informal meeting, complaining parents have a right to an “impartial due process hearing” conducted by a state or local educational agency, as provided by state law. Id. § 1415(f)(1)(A), (f)(B)(ii). The IDEA also permits a prevailing party in that due process hearing to recover its attorneys' fees by bringing a subsequent action in federal court. See Id. § 1415(i)(3).

         B. Factual Background

         Plaintiff Benjamin Nader is a student with disabilities in the St. Tammany Public School System, and the son of plaintiffs James and Michelle Nader.[2] On October 20, 2017, James and Michelle Nader filed a special education due process request, pursuant to the IDEA and Louisiana's implementing regulations, to determine whether defendant's actions or inactions violated Benjamin's rights to a free appropriate public education.[3]A hearing on this request was conducted from February 19 to 22, 2018, before Administrative Law Judge William H. Cooper, III.[4]

         James Nader served as lead counsel during these administrative proceedings.[5] James Nader is a practicing attorney, licensed in Louisiana, Texas, and Oklahoma, and is a shareholder and director at the law firm of Lobman, Carnahan, Batt, Angelle & Nader in New Orleans.[6] Sarah Didlake, an associate attorney at Lobman, Carnahan, Batt, Angelle & Nader, also provided legal services in connection with Benjamin's administrative proceeding.[7]

         On March 12, 2018, Judge Cooper issued a written Decision and Order on the due process request.[8] He held that defendant had denied Benjamin “a free and appropriate public education by segregating him and not accommodating or modifying his school work or study guides in a manner reasonably calculated to enable him to receive educational benefits.”[9] Judge Cooper ordered defendant to provide Benjamin with curriculum specialists in social studies and science who would, in a timely manner, “accommodate and modify each week's school work and study guides.”[10]

         On April 11, 2018, plaintiffs filed this complaint, stating that as the prevailing parties in the administrative proceedings, they are entitled to attorneys' fees under the IDEA.[11] Plaintiffs and defendants now both move for summary judgment on plaintiffs' claim.[12]

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         Summary judgment is warranted when “the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986); Little v. Liquid Air Corp., 37 F.3d 1069, 1075 (5th Cir. 1994). When assessing whether a dispute as to any material fact exists, the Court considers “all of the evidence in the record but refrain[s] from making credibility determinations or weighing the evidence.” Delta & Pine Land Co. v. Nationwide Agribusiness Ins. Co., 530 F.3d 395, 398-99 (5th Cir. 2008). All reasonable inferences are drawn in favor of the nonmoving party, but “unsupported allegations or affidavits setting forth ‘ultimate or conclusory facts and conclusions of law' are insufficient to either support or defeat a motion for summary judgment.” Galindo v. Precision Am. Corp., 754 F.2d 1212, 1216 (5th Cir. 1985); see also Little, 37 F.3d at 1075. “No genuine dispute of fact exists if the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the nonmoving party.” EEOC v. Simbaki, Ltd., 767 F.3d 475, 481 (5th Cir. 2014).

         If the dispositive issue is one on which the moving party will bear the burden of proof at trial, the moving party “must come forward with evidence which would entitle it to a directed verdict if the evidence went uncontroverted at trial.” Int'l Shortstop, Inc. v. Rally's, Inc., 939 F.2d 1257, 1264-65 (5th Cir. 1991) (internal citation omitted). The nonmoving party can then defeat the motion by either countering with evidence sufficient to demonstrate the existence of a genuine dispute of material fact, or by “showing that the moving party's evidence is so sheer that it may not persuade the reasonable fact-finder to return a verdict in favor of the moving party.” Id. at 1265.

         If the dispositive issue is one on which the nonmoving party will bear the burden of proof at trial, the moving party may satisfy its burden by pointing out that the evidence in the record is insufficient with respect to an essential element of the nonmoving party's claim. See Celotex, 477 U.S. at 325. The burden then shifts to the nonmoving party, who must, by submitting or referring to evidence, set out specific facts showing that a genuine issue exists. See Id. at 324. The nonmovant may not rest upon the pleadings, but must identify specific facts that establish a genuine issue for trial. See, e.g., id.; Little, 37 F.3d at 1075 (“Rule 56 mandates the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” (quoting Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322)).

         III. DISCUSSION

         The IDEA states that “[i]n any action or proceeding brought under this section, 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)(I). Defendant does not contest that the Naders were the “prevailing party” in the administrative proceeding. The parties instead dispute whether “a prevailing party who is [a] parent” may be awarded attorneys' fees when that parent served as his child's lead counsel. The parties further dispute whether plaintiffs can recover attorneys' fees in connection with Didlake's legal services.

         A. James Nader

         The Second, Third, Fourth, and Ninth Circuits are the only circuits that have addressed whether an attorney-parent who appeared on his child's behalf in an IDEA proceeding can recover attorneys' fees as a prevailing party. See Ford v. Long Beach Unified Sch. Dist., 461 F.3d 1087 (9th Cir. 2006); S.N. ex rel. v. Pittsford Cent. Sch. Dist., 448 F.3d 601 (2d Cir. 2006); Woodside v. Sch. Dist. Of Phila. Bd. of Educ., 248 F.3d 129 (3d Cir. 2001); Doe v. Bd. of Educ. of Balt. Cty., 165 F.3d 260 (4th Cir. 1998). Each held that the attorney-parent could not recover attorneys' fees. Id. No court in this district has addressed this question.

         In Doe, the Fourth Circuit grounded its decision in an application of Kay v. Ehrler, 499 U.S. 432 (1991). In Kay, the Supreme Court held that a pro se plaintiff who is an attorney cannot be awarded attorney's fees under the fee-shifting provision of the Civil Rights Attorney's Fees Awards Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b). See 499 U.S. at 437. The Supreme Court reasoned that the “overriding statutory concern” in the fee-shifting ...


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