Distress Won’t Let Philly Off the Hook for Fees

     PHILADELPHIA (CN) – Parents who won relief for their disabled child can recover attorneys’ fees though budget cuts have left the Philadelphia School District in financial distress, a federal judge ruled.
     U.S. District Judge Judge Petrese Tucker ordered the district on Thursday to pay $34,000 to the Law Offices of David Berney, which represented Charles O. and Elizabeth C. in their complaint under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act.
     The parents said their learning-disabled child was not given proper evaluation or education, and ultimately reached a settlement that compelled the district to pay all “reasonable attorney’s fees and costs.”
     Last year, the district’s budget was slashed by hundreds of million of dollars, forcing the closure of dozens of schools and firing of thousands of faculty and staff. Another round of cutbacks meanwhile hit the school this year.
     Calling itself distressed under state law, the district argued that it is entitled to at least a reduction in attorneys’ fees of at least 15 percent. It cited precedent set by the 3rd Circuit in Alizadeh v. Safeway Stores, which ruled that courts have the discretion to limit attorneys’ fees in light of financial constraints of a losing party.
     Judge Tucker found Thursday, however, that Alizadeh applied only to losing plaintiffs. The court had explicitly excluded its holding from applying to losing defendants, Tucker noted.
     The district also argued that the Eastern District had allowed West Chester University, a state-run university, to escape some attorneys’ costs after it claimed budgetary hardship.
     Judge Tucker emphasized, however, that the case against West Chester involved a Title IX complaint, and that the plaintiff’s lawyer was seeing $162,000.
     The suit was an act of public service and, given the size of the fees, awarding the full costs to the plaintiff’s attorney would have amounted to a windfall, the ruling continues.

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