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BLACKMAN v. DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA

May 10, 2001

MIKEISHA BLACKMAN, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
V.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, ET AL., DEFENDANTS. JAMES JONES, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS, V. DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Paul L. Friedman, United States District Judge

OPINION AND ORDER

On September 13, 2000, the Court issued a Memorandum Opinion and Order awarding plaintiff Michael Edmonds $32,709.25 in attorneys' fees and costs. The Court ordered defendants to pay a portion of the attorneys' fees and all of the costs immediately and stayed the payment of the remainder of the fee award "pending the outcome of the Petties appeal and/or until the [fee] cap [enacted by Congress] expires or is repealed." Blackman v. District of Columbia, Civil Action No. 97-1629, Opinion at 3 (D.D.C. Sept. 13, 2000). Plaintiff seeks payment of the balance of the fee on the ground that the court of appeals has now decided Petties. Defendant opposes the motion. Upon consideration of the arguments of the parties, the Court finds no reason to maintain the stay. It therefore grants plaintiff's motion and directs the District of Columbia immediately to pay the remainder of the attorneys' fees previously awarded.
I. BACKGROUND
These consolidated actions were filed under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, to enforce the rights of the plaintiff class members under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq., and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 701 et seq. Plaintiff Michael Edmonds is a member of the Blackman class. On September 13, 2000, the Court issued a Memorandum Opinion and Order in which it analyzed plaintiff Edmonds' August 30, 1999, motion for attorneys' fees and costs under the framework set forth in Blackman v. District of Columbia, 59 F. Supp.2d 37 (D.D.C. 1999) ("Blackman II"). See Blackman v. District of Columbia, Civil Action No. 97-1629, Opinion at 1 (D.D.C. Sept. 13, 2000) (Memorandum Opinion and Order regarding the claim of Michael Edmonds) ("Blackman III"). Plaintiff originally sought $33,595.00 in attorneys' fees and $27.25 in costs for a total of $33,622.25. The Court concluded that plaintiff was reasonably entitled to $32,682 in attorneys' fees, a reduction of $913.00, along with the $27.25 in costs, for a total award of $32,709.25.

Although the Court awarded plaintiff $32,709.25 in attorneys' fees and costs, defendants were required to pay only $287.25 of the award at that time — $27.25 in costs plus $260.00 in attorneys' fees — because of the statutory limitations of Section 129 of the District of Columbia Appropriations Act of 2000, Pub.L. No. 106-113, 113 Stat. 1501 (1999).*fn1 Section 129 set a cap of $60 per hour and an overall cap of $1,560 per student with respect to proceedings brought against the District of Columbia under the IDEA.*fn2 In its September 13, 2000 Opinion and Order, the Court stayed payment with respect to the remainder of the award of attorneys' fees pending the expiration or repeal of the statutory cap and/or a decision by the court of appeals in Petties v. District of Columbia, Civil Action No. 95-148.

This Court has held that the statutory cap does not limit the Court's authority to award reasonable attorneys' fees in cases brought pursuant to the IDEA, even though the statutory cap may limit the District's ability to pay the full amount of the fees awarded in a given fiscal year so long as the fee cap remains on the books. See Calloway v. District of Columbia, Civil Action No. 99-0037, Order (D.D.C. May 14, 1999). The court of appeals affirmed this Court's decision in Calloway, holding that the statutory cap does not limit the power of a court to award attorneys' fees above the amount set by the cap, only the authority of the District to make payments of attorneys' fees in excess of the cap. See Calloway v. District of Columbia, 216 F.3d 1, 9-12 (D.C. Cir. 2000).
In Petties, another class action suit in which plaintiffs have challenged the District's delivery of special education services, the Court held on May 12, 1999 that the statutory cap on attorneys' fees (at that time Section 130) does not apply at all to actions brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 to enforce rights accorded under the IDEA. See Petties v. District of Columbia, Civil Action No. 95-148, Motions Hearing (D.D.C. May 12, 1999) ("5/12/99 Tr.") at 77-86, 97-103; see also Petties v. District of Columbia, 55 F. Supp.2d 17, 18 (D.D.C. 1999). On October 6, 2000, the court of appeals decided that it had no jurisdiction to review this Court's award of attorneys' fees in Petties and would not have jurisdiction until this Court enters a final judgment in that case. See Petties v. District of Columbia, 227 F.3d 469, 472 (D.C. Cir. 2000)
II. DISCUSSION
Plaintiff argues that because the court of appeals now has issued a decision in Petties, the Court should lift the stay placed on the payment of the remainder of the attorneys' fees previously awarded and require the District to make payment in full within 30 days. Defendants respond that the Court issued the stay pending appeal in Petties to allow the D.C. Circuit to rule on the merits of this Court's decision that the statutory attorneys' fee cap did not apply to cases brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, an issue still not decided by the Circuit. See Petties v. District of Columbia, 227 F.3d at 472. Because the Petties appeal was decided on jurisdictional grounds rather than on the merits, defendants urge the Court to allow the stay to remain in place either until the statutory cap on attorneys' fees is lifted by Congress or until the Petties class action litigation is settled and this Court issues a final, appealable order.
When it ordered the District to make only a partial payment of attorneys' fees on September 13, 2000, the Court operated under the assumption that the court of appeals in Petties would reach the merits of the issue that was so vigorously litigated before this Court — whether the statutory attorneys' fees cap did or did not apply to actions brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 to enforce rights under the IDEA. See Blackman III, Civil Action No. 97-1629, Opinion at 1; Blackman II, 59 F. Supp.2d at 39; Blackman v. District of Columbia, Civil Action No. 97-1629, Opinion at 8-15 (D.D.C. June 3, 1998) ("Blackman I"). The court of appeals did not deal with the merits of this Court's decision in Petties, however, and — in view of the tortuous path this litigation has taken and continues to take — it may not do so for years to come, if ever. In the meantime, this Court has held that while the statutory cap on attorneys' fees applies to actions brought directly under the IDEA, it does not apply at all to actions brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 to enforce rights accorded under the IDEA. See 5/12/99 Tr. at 77-86, 97-103; Petties v. District of Columbia, 55 F. Supp.2d at 18; Blackman II, 59 F. Supp.2d at 39. In the absence of a decision to the contrary by the court of appeals, this Court's decision in Petties governs fee applications in this and all related or similar special education cases.
The District's argument that, despite this Court's decision in Petties, the statutory fee cap applies to attorneys' fees sought in Blackman is unavailing. In essence, it argues that Section 1983 has been invoked in the Blackman cases merely as a procedural device to bring IDEA violations into court and that Blackman is really an IDEA case; thus, the statutory cap on attorneys' fees should apply. The District also argues that even if Section 1983 is not being used by plaintiffs simply as a procedural device, the Court should adopt a broad interpretation of the statutory cap based on its legislative history; under this broad interpretation, the statutory fee cap would apply in the Blackman, Jones and similar cases because they concern the IDEA. Finally, the District suggests that because plaintiff Edmonds has failed to prove defendant's custom or practice of denying a constitutional or statutory right and has alleged no constitutional or statutory basis for his claim other than the IDEA, this case may not proceed under Section 1983.
The problem with defendants' arguments is that the Court already has considered and rejected them in Petties and in Blackman I. In Petties, the Court read Section 1415(i) of the IDEA as providing that a plaintiff could bring suit under the IDEA only if he or she was "aggrieved" by a decision made by a hearing officer. See 5/12/99 Tr. at 84-85, 97. The Court concluded that the plaintiffs in the Petties class could not sue under the IDEA because they were not aggrieved by hearing officer decisions; in fact, they were successful in the administrative process and would have benefitted from those decisions if only they had been implemented by the District. See id. at 97-98.*fn3 But the District failed to follow or implement the hearing officers' decisions, and thus the Petties plaintiffs were "aggrieved by" the District's inability, unwillingness or failure to assure that the rights that plaintiffs had secured through the administrative process were realized, the District in that case having stopped paying private providers. Id. at 97-98. The Petties plaintiffs therefore had the right to seek judicial relief not under the IDEA itself, but — pursuant to clear congressional directive in a 1986 amendment to the IDEA — under the savings clause of the IDEA, Section 1415(l), a section that permits suits under Section 1983 and other relevant statutes. Id. at 84-85, 97-98; see also Walker v. District of Columbia, 969 F. Supp. 794, 796-97 (D.D.C. 1997) (Congress intended to preserve alternative civil rights remedies, including those available under Section 1983, to vindicate rights crated by the IDEA).*fn4

As this Court stated in Petties:

[W]hat Congress recognized in passing [Section] 1415(l) was that there are some people who have interests under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act or interests in special education . . . that don't qualify to go to court under [Section] 1415(i) ...

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