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Henrico County School Board v. Matthews

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Richmond Division

May 20, 2019

HENRICO COUNTY SCHOOL BOARD, Plaintiff,
v.
GREGORY MATTHEWS, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Robert E. Payne Senior United States District Judge.

         This matter is before the Court on ATTORNEY CHARLOTTE P. HODGES MOTION FOR DEFENDANT'S [sic] ATTORNEY'S FEES & COSTS (ECF No. 173) . The Court has reviewed the supporting, opposing, and reply memoranda, and argument was heard on April 29, 2019. For the following reasons, ATTORNEY CHARLOTTE P. HODGES MOTION FOR DEFENDANT'S [sic] ATTORNEY'S FEES & COSTS (ECF No. 173) will be denied.

         BACKGROUND

         This case is an appeal of a due process hearing in which Defendants Tonie and Gregory Matthews (the "Matthews") claimed that Plaintiff Henrico County School Board (the "School Board") was not providing their autistic son, G.M., a free appropriate public education ("FAPE"), which is a requirement for all public schools under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. § 1400, et seq. The Matthews were not satisfied with G.M.'s progress under the School Board's program, so they initiated a due process hearing under IDEA. They sought the help of two so-called "advocates," Kandise Lucas and Sa'ad El-Amin, to advocate for private placement with the Faison School, a school that specializes in educational programming for students with autism.[1] The administrative hearing officer who presided over the due process hearing agreed with the Matthews, holding that the School Board failed to provide G.M. a FAPE and awarding G.M. private school placement as a compensatory service for the School Board's failure.

         As permitted by IDEA, the School Board filed this action against the Matthews, appealing the administrative hearing officer's decision. The Matthews retained Charlotte Hodges to be their counsel in this case, and Hodges noted her appearance on March 15, 2018. NOTICE OF APPEARANCE (ECF No. 9). While representing the Matthews, Hodges filed various motions, including a motion for preliminary injunction and a motion to dismiss. Hodges also represented the Matthews as they prepared for, and participated in, a settlement conference.

         On July 20, 2018, during a settlement conference with Magistrate Judge Young, it was brought to the Court's attention that the Matthews had moved from Henrico County to New Kent County. Hodges represented the Matthews until July 23, 2018 when the Court allowed the Matthews to terminate her services. ORDER (ECF No. 77) . The Matthews retained new counsel (Michael B. Gunlicks) shortly thereafter. The Court allowed the School Board to take any depositions of, and to subpoena any documents from, the Matthews, Lucas, El-Amin, and Hodges related to the change in residence by the Matthews. ORDER (ECF No. 79).

         Discovery disclosed that, on March 13, 2018, the Matthews signed a lease for their New Kent residence; that, in early May, they began the process of moving to the New Kent residence; and that the move was completed in mid-May. Discovery also disclosed that the Matthews discussed with Lucas and Hodges, the subject of a move to New Kent County.[2] Discovery also showed that, by December 2018, the Matthews had arranged for New Kent County to provide funding for G.M. to attend Faison School.

         After the completion of discovery about the move to New Kent County, the School Board filed HENRICO COUNTY SCHOOL BOARD'S MOTION FOR SANCTIONS (ECF No. 129) against Hodges, among others.[3] The School Board alleged that Hodges violated Rule 11 for signing DEFENDANTS' MOTION FOR PRELIMINARY INJUNCTION AND PENDENTE LITE RELIEF (ECF No. 23) (which was signed by Hodges after the Matthews had moved to New Kent County) without investigating whether the Matthews had moved to New Kent County after Hodges was on notice of the possibility that the Matthews would be moving to New Kent County. The School Board also argued that Hodges should be sanctioned under the Court's "inherent powers" for never disclosing that the Matthews had moved to New Kent County. See generally MEMORANDUM IN SUPPORT OF HENRICO COUNTY SCHOOL BOARD'S MOTION FOR SANCTIONS (ECF No. 130) . That motion was heard on December 4, 2018. At that hearing, Hodges was represented by Brenda Page. The Court decided not to sanction Hodges under either theory because the evidence did not show that she knew of the Matthews' move, when she made filings in this case. Further, the Court found that the Matthews' conduct, in having meetings away from their home and in making a request to have G.M. picked up from Tonie Matthews' work instead of her home, made it understandable that Hodges did not know that the Matthews had moved.

         At that same hearing, the Court asked the parties whether the underlying case was moot. The parties (the School Board and the Matthews), by counsel, agreed that the underlying case was moot and that the School Board no longer was obliged to help pay for G.M.'s Faison placement under the IDEA. Afterward, the Court entered an ORDER dated December 14, 2018 (ECF No. 159) dismissing the case as moot, but retaining jurisdiction over the sanctions issues.

         Hodges then filed ATTORNEY CHARLOTTE P. HODGES MOTION FOR DEFENDANT'S [sic] ATTORNEY'S FEES & COSTS (ECF No. 173), asking for attorney's fees and costs in the sum of $90, 172.25. However, during the hearing on April 29, 2019, Hodges conceded that the case became moot in May 2018, so she agreed that she is owed no more than $28, 771.10 in attorney's fees and $223.75 in costs.

         DISCUSSION

         In her motion, Hodges argues that, because the administrative hearing officer determined that Henrico County had denied G.M. a FAPE, and because G.M. was enrolled at Faison School (at the Faison School's expense) while he resided in Henrico, Hodges is entitled to attorney's fees because the Matthews "clearly substantially prevailed in their Due Process Complaint." MEMORANDUM IN SUPPORT OF ATTORNEY CHARLOTTE P. HODGES MOTION FOR DEFENDANT'S [sic] ATTORNEY'S FEES & COSTS (ECF No. 174) at 2-3.

         Hodges' claim for attorney's fees fails because the request does not comply with the statute's plain language. The statute provides:

In 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 ...

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