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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Are attorney fees available on settlement agreements after all?

Jankey v. Poop Deck: This is a 9th Circuit ADA case in which attorney fees were an issue. The parties had entered into a settlement agreement. The District Court denied attorney fees; the Court of Appeals reversed in a case that could have significant impact in the special education arena. Of relevance,

In a case pursued under the ADA, a court, “in its discre-
tion, may allow the prevailing party . . . a reasonable attor-
ney’s fee.” 42 U.S.C. § 12205. “[F]or a litigant to be a
‘prevailing party’ for the purpose of awarding attorneys’ fees,
he must meet two criteria: he must achieve a material alter-
ation of the legal relationship of the parties, and that alteration
must be judicially sanctioned.” P.N. v. Seattle Sch. Dist. No.
1, 474 F.3d 1165, 1172 (9th Cir. 2007) (internal quotation
marks omitted). In other words, the alteration must have a “ju-
dicial imprimatur.” Buckhannon Bd. & Care Home, Inc. v. W.
Va. Dep’t of Health & Human Res., 532 U.S. 598, 605 (2001).

Here, the district court dismissed Plaintiff’s case pursu-
ant to a settlement agreement between the parties under which
the court retained jurisdiction to enforce the settlement.
Defendants argue that those actions by the district court do
not constitute a sufficient judicial imprimatur. That argument
is foreclosed by Skaff v. Meridien North America Beverly
Hills, LLC, 506 F.3d 832 (9th Cir. 2007) (per curiam). There,
we held that a “settlement agreement and the district court’s
order dismissing the case[, which] provided that the district
court would retain jurisdiction to enforce the agreement,” sat-
isfied the requirements of Buckhannon to render the plaintiff
a prevailing party under the ADA. Id. at 844 & n.12. The set-
tlement agreement in this case both authorized judicial
enforcement of its terms and expressly referred resolution of
the issue of attorney fees to the district court.

The IDEA by its terms makes resolution agreements enforceable in federal court. This should be sufficient to give rise to the right to fees, assuming that the terms of the agreement otherwise make the parent a prevailing party. This theory will soon be tested. Stay tuned.

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