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Lincoln School District v. Rhode Island Council On Elementary and Secondary Education

Superior Court of Rhode Island

March 12, 2019

LINCOLN SCHOOL DISTRICT, Plaintiff,
v.
RHODE ISLAND COUNCIL ON ELEMENTARY AND SECONDARY EDUCATION and D. DOE by and through his parents, Defendants.

         Providence County Superior Court

          For Plaintiff Michael J. Polak, Esq.

          For Defendant Amy R. Tabor, Esq., Paul V. Sullivan, Eq.

          DECISION

          VOGEL, J.

         Defendant D. Doe (Doe) and his Parents (collectively, Defendants) bring this Motion to Modify or Suspend that portion of a Decision which addressed Attorney's fees that the Court previously had entered in this case. (Defs.' Mot. to Modify or Suspend the Decision of 12/21/18 as it Pertains to Attorney's Fees as Provided by the Order Entered on 3/15/18.) They contend that as the prevailing parties in this litigation, brought pursuant to the Children with Disabilities Act, G.L. 1956 § 16-24-1, they are entitled to attorney's fees and costs under that statute. Plaintiff Lincoln School District (District) and Defendant Rhode Island Council on Elementary and Secondary Education (Council) have objected to the motion. This Court exercises jurisdiction over this matter pursuant to G.L. 1956 §§ 42-35-15, 16-39-4, and 42-92-3(b).

          I Facts and Travel

         The Court included a detailed recitation of the facts in this case in a Decision which was issued on December 21, 2018. See Lincoln Sch. Dist. v. Rhode Island Council on Elementary and Secondary Education and D. Doe by and through his parents, C.A. No. PC-2018-0379 (filed Dec. 21, 2018). In that Decision, the Court upheld a ruling of the Council, ordering the District to provide Doe-an eleven year old boy who suffers from severe to profound hearing loss-with special education services in the form of a teacher of the deaf (TOD) for all hours of academic instruction at Doe's private school. Id. at 1, 2. In doing so, the Court also ordered the District to reimburse Doe's parents for the costs that they previously had incurred in paying for a TOD at the private school since the 2015-2016 school year. Id. at 25.

         In their counterclaims, Defendants sought a preliminary injunction to enforce the Council's decision and requested attorney's fees. (Defs.' Answer and Countercl.) The Court denied both counterclaims. Defendants now ask the Court to modify or suspend its ruling as it pertains to the denial of attorney's fees, contending that § 16-24-1 is a remedial statute which should be interpreted liberally to permit the recovery of attorneys' fees. The District and the Council object to the motion.

         II Standard of Review

         Defendants have labeled their motion as one to "Modify or Suspend" the Court's ruling with respect to its denial of attorney's fees under § 16-24-1. Essentially, however, they are seeking the Court to reconsider that portion of its previous Decision regarding attorneys' fees. It is well settled that "[t]he Superior Court Rules of Civil Procedure, similar to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, do not provide for a motion to reconsider." Sch. Comm. of City of Cranston v. Bergin-Andrews, 984 A.2d 629, 649 (R.I. 2009). However, the Court "applies a liberal interpretation of the rules to 'look to substance, not labels[, ]' . . . [and has] allowed 'motions to reconsider' to be treated as motions to vacate under Rule 60(b) of the Superior Court Rules of Civil Procedure." Id. (internal citation omitted.)

         Additionally, '"[a] motion to vacate a judgment is left to the sound discretion of the trial justice and such a ruling will not be disturbed absent an abuse of discretion.'" Santos v. D. Laikos, Inc., 139 A.3d 394, 398 (R.I. 2016) (quoting Turdo v. Main, 132 A.3d 670, 680 (R.I. 2016)). Superior Court Rules of Civil Procedure 60(b) provides in pertinent part: "On motion and upon such terms as are just, the court may relieve a party or a party's legal representative from a final judgment, order, or proceeding for the following reasons: . . . (6) Any other reason justifying relief from the operation of the judgment." Super. R. Civ. P. 60(b).

         In the instant matter, the Court has exercised its discretion to allow the parties to file briefs on this issue. See Order, Mar. 15, 2018. Having carefully considered the arguments of the parties, the Court herein renders its Decision on the motion.

         III Analysis

         Defendants contend that as the prevailing parties in this appeal, they are entitled to recover attorney's fees and costs under § 16-24-1. Specifically, they argue that § 16-24-1, which is silent with respect to attorneys' fees, is a remedial statute which must be construed liberally to allow such fees and costs; otherwise, parents would be out-of-pocket for attempting to vindicate the right of their disabled child to receive a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) under the statute. They further contend that as the definition of FAPE under § 16-24-1 is almost identical to that of the ...


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