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Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Court awards attorney fees after parent rejected settlement offer for inadequacy of attorney fees

Y.B. v. Williamson County Bd. of Educ., Slip Copy, 2009 WL 4061311 (M.D.Tenn.,2009): Parent rejected settlement proposals that initially contained no fees and subsequently contained inadequate fees. The matter went to hearing and the state level hearing officer ordered the enforcement of the terms of settlement to which the parties had agreed at the resolution session. The parent sued for attorney fees. The district argued that the parent was not a prevailing party–an argument rejected by the Court– and that even if the parent was a prevailing party, the fees should be limited to the amounts previously offered by the district on the theory that the district had offered the ultimately obtained relief prior to hearing.

Consistent with every court that has looked at this issue in the last few years, this court found that attorney fees are a legitimate consideration for a parent when assessing the adequacy of a settlement offer.

neither the Offer of Judgment nor the June 13, 2007 settlement offer make any mention of attorneys' fees or contain any proviso indicating who is the “prevailing party.” Moreover, even if either of these proposed agreements would have, at some point, acquired the “necessary judicial imprimatur” that would allow the plaintiff to seek attorneys' fees in this proceeding, both of these documents contain language clearly stating that the proposed settlement would be the “full and final agreement of all issues raised in the due process complaint in this matter.”

This language would have presented significant challenges to the plaintiff in terms of recovering attorneys' fees in a subsequent proceeding such as this one. Therefore, the relief that the plaintiff obtained from the AJ, whose Final Order did not foreclose further litigation on the attorneys' fees issue and explicitly deemed the plaintiff the “prevailing party,” was plainly “more favorable” than the offers of settlement, which were silent on the “prevailing party” issue, would have arguably foreclosed future litigation, and certainly put the issue of attorneys' fee recovery into significant question.