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Board of Education of Gallup-McKinley County Schools v. Native American Disability Law Center, Inc.

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

February 14, 2019

BOARD OF EDUCATION OF GALLUP-McKINLEY COUNTY SCHOOLS, Plaintiff,
v.
NATIVE AMERICAN DISABILITY LAW CENTER, INC. and MAVIS YAZZIE, as Parent of K.Y. Student, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

         THIS MATTER comes before the Court on the Motion to Dismiss filed by Defendant Native American Disability Law Center, Inc. (“NADLC”) (Doc. 9) on December 11, 2018.[1] The Court has reviewed the briefs of the parties as well as documents on file in this case. The Court further heard oral arguments on February 7, 2019 at which Attorneys Samantha Adams and Katherine Downey appeared on behalf of Plaintiff Gallup-McKinley County Schools (“GMCS”) and Attorney Maureen Sanders appeared for Defendant-Movant. Having given due consideration to the arguments of the parties, the Court finds the Motion to be well taken, and it will be granted.

         I. Procedural Posture

         In the state administrative proceeding at issue, Defendant Mavis Yazzie brought claims on behalf of her minor child pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”), 20 U.S.C. § 1415, against GMCS and against the New Mexico School for the Deaf (“NMSD”). On August 15, 2018, the hearing officer concluded that there was “no jurisdiction over GMCS” and dismissed GMCS “with prejudice from the case.” Doc. 1-10 at 11.

         The instant “Petition for Attorneys' Fees and Costs to Prevailing Party” was filed by GMCS in this court on November 7, 2018. The plaintiff school district seeks recovery of attorney fees it incurred defending in the IDEA administrative proceedings. Indeed, the IDEA provides that such attorney fees are recoverable not only “to a prevailing party who is the parent of a child with a disability, ” 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B)(i)(I), but also to a prevailing educational agency under certain circumstances:

[t]he court, in its discretion, may award reasonable attorneys' fees as part of the costs . . . (II) to a prevailing party who is a State educational agency or local educational agency against the attorney of a parent who files a complaint or subsequent cause of action that is frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation, or against the attorney of a parent who continued to litigate after the litigation clearly became frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation; or (III) to a prevailing State educational agency or local educational agency against the attorney of a parent, or against the parent, if the parent's complaint or subsequent cause of action was presented for any improper purpose, such as to harass, to cause unnecessary delay, or to needlessly increase the cost of litigation. . . .

20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B)(i)(II) & (III). Here Plaintiff GMCS seeks attorney fees both from Defendant Mavis Yazzie (K.Y.'s parent) and Defendant NADLC which represented her (through Attorney Alexis M. DeLaCruz) in the administrative proceedings.

         Solely at issue on this motion to dismiss is the timeliness of this attorney fee action. At Paragraph 8 of the Petition, Plaintiff GMCS affirmatively states that the “Petition is timely filed within 30 days of October 8, 2018, the date the Final Decision in the Underlying Case was issued” and cites to § 6.31.2.13(I)(25)(b) of the New Mexico Administrative Code (“NMAC”)[2] and our federal district's local rule - D.N.M.LR-Civ. 54.1. Defendant NADLC also cites to these same rules but insists that the 30-day deadline for filing an action for attorney fees began to run on August 15, 2018, when the hearing officer issued the order dismissing GMCS with prejudice from the administrative proceeding.

         Plaintiff, on the other hand, maintains that it was the hearing officer's entry of the October 8, 2018 “DISMISSAL ORDER” that triggered the relevant 30-day statute of limitations for this attorney fees action. That dismissal order indicated that the sole remaining respondent in the administrative proceedings - NMSD - had reached a settlement with Ms. Yazzie and that concurrence from GMCS for dismissal of case was not needed “as it was previously dismissed.” Doc. 1-11.

         II. LEGAL ANALYSIS

         A. Section 6.31.2.13(I)(25)(b) Provides the Applicable Statute of Limitations

         The parties assume that NMAC § 6.31.2.13(I)(25)(b)[3] sets forth the applicable statute of limitations for the filing of an IDEA attorney fee petition. This Court would be remiss, however, if it failed to discuss the opinions of our Chief Judge William “Chip” Johnson on the issue of the applicable statute of limitations in New Mexico for IDEA attorney fees actions. In Chavez v. Espanola Public Schools, No. 11-cv-0233 WJ/WPL, Judge Johnson noted that prior to the promulgation of the above-noted NMAC provision by the New Mexico Public Education Department (“NMPED”), he had found that New Mexico's four-year “catch all” statute of limitations governed such actions. Chavez, 795 F.Supp.2d 1244, 1246 (D.N.M. July 16, 2011) (citing Teakell v. Clovis Mun. Schs., No. 04-cv-0050 WJ/RHS, ECF No. 17 (D.N.M. June 24, 2004)).

         In Teakell, Judge Johnson acknowledged the rule that “[w]here Congress fails to provide a statute of limitations, federal courts generally borrow a limitations period from an analogous state cause of actions.” Teakell, ECF No. 17 at 4 (citing Wilson v. Garcia, 471 U.S. 261 (1985)). He further found that there are

two provisions of the IDEA relevant to this discussion: 20 U.S.C. §1415(i)(2) and § 1415(i)(3)(B) [formerly §§1415(e)(2) and (e)(4)] . . . . Section 1415(i)(2) provides for the appeal of a substantive administrative decision, whereas under § 1415(i)(3)(A) and (B), federal district courts are vested with discretion to award reasonable attorney's fees to the parents of a disabled child who is the prevailing party. . . .
How a court comes out on the issue [of the most analogous state statute of limitations] depends on how it characterizes the nature of a fee application brought under the IDEA-- i.e., whether the claim for fees is “part and parcel” of the ...

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