Author: Omer A. Khan, Attorney at Law
On April 28, 2020, the U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of California granted a parent’s motion for attorney’s fees against a Local Educational Agency (LEA) on top of fees it already owed, as result of the LEA’s failure to timely pay the amount owed. (Quatro v. Tehachapi Unified School District (2020) 120 LRP 10671.) on top of fees it already owed, as result of the LEA’s failure to timely pay the amount owed. (Quatro v. Tehachapi Unified School District (2020) 120 LRP 10671.) One month prior, the court had ruled in favor of the parent in a motion to enforce a judgment for the amount of $177,144 that the LEA had failed to pay the parent within the prescribed statutory period. This motion resulted in an additional $10,142 of fees imposed on the LEA.
Plaintiff was the mother of a kindergartner with orthopedic impairments. The parent initially won a ruling in January 2016 for a denial of a free appropriate public education (FAPE); the order granted Student 12 hours of services by a Board Certified Behavior Analyst. The LEA appealed, and in May 2017, the District Court issued a judgment in favor of the parents, awarded $135,876.75 in attorneys’ fees and $2,805.00 in costs. This decision was upheld in November 2018 by the Court of Appeals.
The LEA was required to pay the amount due by June 30, 2019; it failed to do so.
The parent filed a petition in District Court to enforce the judgment in February 2020 to collect the amount owed. The LEA contended that the delay was reasonable; there was a lack of funds available to pay the full amount of $138,681.75 to the parent and the matter would be addressed at the March 10, 2020 board meeting.
The District Court rejected this contention. The Court noted that, even by the March 18, 2020 Board meeting, the Board was “merely told the payments were still unresolved.” The Court questioned whether the LEA had addressed the payment at issue and its dedication to comply with its legal obligation under Government Code § 970.5 to pay the judgments owed. The Court ordered the LEA to pay the amount owed by June 30, 2020, plus interest for every day the LEA was late. At this point, the LEA owed the parent $177,144 in total fees.
Finally, in April 2020, the parent filed a petition to recover attorneys fees for this latest round of litigation. The District Court agreed that the parent was entitled to an award for fees on her motion for enforcement of judgment; this holding added an additional $10,142 to the amount owed by the LEA, resulting in a grand total of $187,286
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) includes a fee-shifting provision that allows a prevailing parent to recover reasonable attorney’s fees, subject to certain limitations. In addition, courts have allowed parents to recover attorney’s fees for their counsel’s work on claims brought under this fee-shifting provision. In other words, “fees on fees” may be available where attorney continue to work on the case after a court’s award of attorney’s fees. Moreover, Government Code § 970.5 obligates LEAs to pay judgments owed within the fiscal year the judgment becomes final. The statute imposes interest payments if the LEA is late in satisfying these debts. As a result, LEAs must demonstrate urgency in arranging payments of such judgments. This case should serve as a cautionary tale: the initial amount owed by the LEA was $138,681.75, but due to the delay the Court imposed an additional $48,604.25 in costs. If the LEA absolutely cannot make the payments within the fiscal year, it should demonstrate that it is taking the judgment seriously using proper documentation.