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Burton v. Cleveland Heights University Heights Board of Education

United States District Court, N.D. Ohio, Eastern Division

May 24, 2018

LaRhonda Burton, et al., Plaintiffs,
Cleveland Heights-University Heights, School District Board of Education, Defendant.


          PATRICIA A. GAUGHAN United States District Court Chief Judge


         This matter is before the Court upon Plaintiffs' Motion for Attorneys' Fees Associated with the Administrative Hearing. (Doc. 33). This is an Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”) case. For the reasons that follow, Plaintiffs' motion is DENIED.


         Plaintiffs LaRhonda and Amiya Burton filed this Amended Complaint against the Cleveland Heights University Heights City School District (the “District”). This Court has previously stated the underlying facts in its Memorandum of Opinion and Order on Defendant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings and will not repeat them herein.

         Plaintiffs filed a lawsuit in this Court on January 18, 2017. They brought seven claims, in an Amended Complaint, including a claim for denial of FAPE under the IDEA, violation of IDEA, violation of the Child Find Requirement, a discrimination claim, a retaliation claim, and a claim for attorneys' fees. The parties litigated these claims for almost a year. Following discovery and motion practice, Plaintiffs requested to dismiss all of their claims without prejudice. The parties filed a Stipulated Notice of Dismissal pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 41(a)(1)(A)(ii) on January 15, 2018, and the case was closed the next day.

         Plaintiffs filed the Motion for Attorneys' Fees at issue here on January 30, 2018. Defendant opposes the motion.


         A. Jurisdiction

         Defendant argues that the Court lacks jurisdiction to consider the merits of the claim for attorneys' fees because Plaintiffs voluntarily dismissed the Amended Complaint without prejudice. For the following reasons, the Court agrees.

         Count Seven of the Amended Complaint asserts a claim for attorneys' fees under IDEA associated with the administrative hearing. However, the parties filed a stipulated notice of voluntary dismissal of all claims without prejudice. Just as the Court may not rule on the merits of any of the other claims, Defendant maintains it also lacks jurisdiction to decide the merits of Count Seven. Defendant acknowledges that the Supreme Court recognized in Cooter & Gell v. Hartmarx Corp., 496 U.S. 384 (1990), that courts retain jurisdiction to consider collateral issues, such as attorneys' fees pursuant to Rule 11, after an action is no longer pending. For example, it has been recognized that “a request for attorneys' fees under § 1988 raises legal issues collateral to and separate from the decision on the merits.” Gnesys, Inc. v. Green, 437 F.3d 482 (6th Cir. 2005) (quoting White v. New Hampshire Dep't of Employment Security, 455 U.S. 445 (1982)). Defendant asserts, however, that because the Amended Complaint included a separate substantive claim for attorneys' fees, the herein motion is not simply “collateral” to the closed action. In its reply, Plaintiffs merely contend that they have properly sought their fees pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. Pro. 54, which requires a prevailing party to seek fees by motion after a judgment. Since the Court granted the stipulated notice of voluntary dismissal, judgment has been entered. Plaintiffs do not address whether the fees issue is a collateral matter.

         As stated above, requests for attorneys' fees under § 1988, for example, raise legal issues collateral to the main cause of action and, therefore, the district court has jurisdiction after judgment or dismissal of the § 1983 complaint to entertain the motion for attorneys' fees. See also Valley Disposal, Inc. v. Central Vermont Solid Waste Management Dist., 71 F.3d 1053 (2d Cir. 1995) (Although the § 1983 complaint contained a specific request for § 1988 attorneys' fees in the prayer for relief, the court retained jurisdiction to entertain a motion for fees after the underlying complaint was dismissed because whether to award fees is a collateral issue involving questions that must be resolved after resolution of the merits, e.g., whether the party seeking fees prevailed.). In other cases, the issue of attorneys' fees is a core issue which must be sought and resolved before judgment. Vaughn v. Konecranes, Inc., 2016 WL 5219586 (E.D.Ky. Sept. 19, 2016) (citations omitted) (The issue of whether attorneys' fees were owed under a contractual indemnification provision was not merely collateral to the main issue of the enforceability of the indemnity provision.). Here, Plaintiffs request fees pursuant to IDEA incurred in the underlying administrative hearing. This is a core issue on judicial review of the due process hearing where IDEA permits any party that is dissatisfied with the administrative outcome to bring suit in state or federal court. Unlike a § 1988 application which must be addressed after resolution of the main cause of action, i.e., the § 1983 claim, the request for fees here required the Court to consider the issues of fees along with the appeal of the state level review officer's decision which has already been resolved.

         Plaintiffs insist that they have complied with Rule 54 because they filed their motion after entry of judgment. R. 54(d)(2)(B). However, the rule also states, “A claim for attorney's fees . . . must be made by motion unless the substantive law requires those fees to be proved at trial as an element of damages.” R. 54(d)(2)(A). One court has explained that “[t]his rule distinguishes legal fees that are sought as damages based on the substantive law of the claim before the trial court with legal fees that are collateral to the merits and awarded only after the adjudication of the relevant claims and entry of judgment.” Vaughn, supra (citations omitted). In this case, Plaintiffs seek fees “associated with the administrative hearing, ” which has already been resolved, as part of its civil action for review of that hearing. As such, Plaintiffs were required to raise and prove the issue of fees during the pendency of this Complaint. Id. As Plaintiffs dismissed their claim for fees without prejudice, the Court is without jurisdiction to consider fees via a motion.

         B. ...

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