Thursday, November 02, 2006

Ninth Circuit Discusses Award of Attorney’s Fees to “Prevailing Party” in IDEA Case

Per Park, ex rel. Park v. Anaheim Union High School Dist., 464 F.3d 1025 (9th Cir. Sep 28, 2006):

The district court abused its discretion in concluding that Appellants were not the prevailing party. See Shapiro ex rel. Shapiro v. Paradise Valley Unified Sch. Dist., 374 F.3d 857, 865 (9th Cir.2004). Given the narrow discretion a district court has to deny fees in claims brought under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the district court's decision ignored not only the letter of the law, but also the spirit and purpose of allowing attorney's fees in cases where parents have been forced to litigate for years against school districts to obtain all or even part of what the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires in the first place. Accordingly, we reverse the decision of the district court holding that Appellants were not the prevailing party, and we remand for a determination of reasonable fees. See Farrar v. Hobby, 506 U.S. 103, 112-16, 113 S.Ct. 566, 121 L.Ed.2d 494 (1992) (outlining a two-step inquiry in determining attorney's fees).

. . .

That Appellants failed to prevail on all of their claims does not preclude a determination that they were the prevailing party. "[T]he prevailing party inquiry does not turn on the magnitude of the relief obtained." Hobby, 506 U.S. at 111, 113-14, 113 S.Ct. 566 (holding that even an award of nominal damages confers prevailing party status and explaining that a "prevailing party" need only "obtain an enforceable judgment against the defendant from whom fees are sought"). Accordingly, a prevailing party need not succeed on all issues, but only on " 'any significant issue.' " Parents of Student W., 31 F.3d at 1498 (emphasis added) (quoting Hensley, 461 U.S. at 433, 103 S.Ct. 1933). Moreover, a prevailing party need not achieve all of the relief claimed, but merely "some of the benefit the parties sought in bringing the suit." Id. (internal quotation marks omitted); see also Shapiro, 374 F.3d at 865 ("[I]t is also true that a party may be accorded prevailing party status by being awarded 'some relief by the court [.]' " (quoting Buckhannon Bd. & Care Home, Inc. v. W. Va. Dep't of Health & Human Res., 532 U.S. 598, 603-04 (2001))); Me. Sch. Admin. Dist. No. 35 v. Mr. & Mrs. R., 321 F.3d 9, 15 (1st Cir.2003) (noting that a prevailing party must "succeed on the merits of a claim or defense," but that "a party may be considered 'prevailing' even without obtaining a favorable final judgment on all (or even the most crucial) of her claims"), quoted in Shapiro, 374 F.3d at 865. Here, Appellants have clearly prevailed in obtaining some of the relief they sought.

Moreover, a prevailing party need not prevail on what may be considered the "central" issue of the case. In Texas State Teachers Ass'n, the Supreme Court found that the teachers' union was the prevailing party in its § 1983 claim challenging a school board policy, even though the union had not been granted relief on what was identified by a divided panel of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals as the "main thrust" of the action. 489 U.S. at 787, 109 S.Ct. 1486 (internal quotation marks omitted). Rejecting the "central issue" test for determining prevailing party status, the Court held that a party could be deemed "prevailing" even despite failure on a "central" issue as long as the party had prevailed on "any significant issue in litigation which achieve[d] some of the benefit the parties sought in bringing suit." Id. at 791-93, 109 S.Ct. 1486 (alteration in original) (internal quotation marks omitted). The Court noted that distinguishing between success on primary and secondary issues, or on central and tangential issues, is "essentially unhelpful" in defining a prevailing party. Thus, whether Appellants' successes are on "central" or "primary" issues is irrelevant; the only salient question is whether the claims on which they prevailed are significant.[T]he district court abused its discretion in holding that Appellants were not the prevailing party, a decision that would serve not only to deny Joseph the relief he deserves, but also to violate the requirements and purpose of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Accordingly, we hold that Appellants were the prevailing party. . . .

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