The opinion of the court was delivered by: Reggie B. Walton, United States District Judge.
AMENDED MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER*fn1
This action was brought on behalf of 121 minor children by either their
parents, guardians, or court appointed education advocates to recover
interests for the alleged late payments of their attorneys' fees that
were voluntarily paid by the District of Columbia ("District") for legal
services provided by their attorneys during administrative proceedings
initiated under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act
("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq. The administrative proceedings
were brought to require the District of Columbia Public Schools ("DCPS")
to provide special education services to the 121 children. The complaint
alleges that each of the cases was ultimately resolved during the
administrative process, by either voluntary settlement agreements or due
process hearings that in both circumstances resulted in underlying
findings that the DCPS had violated the IDEA. Complaint at ¶ 8.*fn2
The complaint further contends that the DCPS acknowledged that all of the
plaintiffs were prevailing parties because it reimbursed them for their
attorneys' fees. Complaint at ¶ 2; see also Plaintiffs' Opposition to
Defendant's Motion to Dismiss Complaint ("Defendant's Motion") at 4-5.
Defendant District of Columbia moves for the dismissal of the
plaintiffs' claims pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) on two theories.
First, the District argues that the claims for attorneys' fees by those
plaintiffs whose cases were resolved by settlement agreements are barred
by the Supreme Court's recent decision in Buckhannon Board and Care
Home, Inc. v. West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources,
532 U.S. 598 (2001). Second, the District contends that all of the
plaintiffs' claims should be dismissed because they were all filed
untimely. For the reasons set forth below, the Court grants defendants'
motion in part, and denies it in part.
A complaint cannot be dismissed under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) "unless it
appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in
support of his claim which would entitle him to relief." Conley v.
Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46 (1957). The plaintiff must be
given "the benefit of all inferences that can be derived from the facts
alleged," and the court must construe the complaint liberally in favor of
the plaintiff. Schuler v. Dep't of State, 617 F.2d 605, 608 (D.C. Cir.
1979); see also, Sheppard v. Dickstein, Shapiro, Morin & Oshinsky,
59 F. Supp.2d 27, 31 (D.D.C. 1999). Accordingly, the complaint is
afforded "spacious interpretation" under the federal rules. Schuler, 617
F.2d at 608.
B. Buckhannon's Impact On The Plaintiffs Who Settled Their Claims
The 67 plaintiffs who settled their administrative cases, along with
all of the other plaintiffs in this case for that matter, can only
prevail in their efforts to recover interests for the alleged late
payments of their attorneys' fees if they had a statutory right to receive
attorneys' fees. See Bailey v. District of Columbia, 839 F. Supp. 888,
893 (D.D.C. 1993) (District of Columbia can be required to pay interest
for late payment of attorneys' fees). In their complaint and in their
Supplement to Complaint, plaintiffs admit that the settlement agreements
they reached with the District, "rarely, if ever, included provisions for
payment because reimbursement is a statutory requirement." (Complaint at
¶ 1; Supplement to Complaint at 4). However, plaintiffs argue that the
District's reimbursement to the plaintiffs who settled their cases was an
acknowledgment by the District that those plaintiffs prevailed.
(Plaintiff's Supplement to Complaint at 4). Although the defendant does
not directly address plaintiffs' position about how the payments should
be construed, it does opine that Buckhannon contradicts plaintiffs'
position regarding its obligation to pay the plaintiffs who settled their
cases. In any event, even if the payments were acknowledgments of the
DCPS's belief about its liability, that cannot have the legal effect of
conferring a statutory right to receive the fees if one does not actually
exist. See Key Tronic Corp. v. United States, 511 U.S. 809, 819 (1994)
(attorney fees generally not available "to a prevailing party absent
explicit statutory authority") (citing Alyeska Pipeline Serv. Co. v.
Wilderness Soc'y, 421 U.S. 240, 262 (1976)). The Court's task is to rule
on the defendant's motion to dismiss under the standard for evaluating
Rule 12(b)(6) motions. Therefore, the Court looks only to the complaint
to inquire whether plaintiffs have advanced claims that will entitle them
to relief. See Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46 (1957). A Rule
12(b)(6) motion to dismiss should be granted only where "it appears
beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of
his claim which would entitle him to relief." Id.
To determine whether plaintiffs are entitled to recover interest on the
attorneys' fees they received, the first inquiry the Court must make is
whether plaintiffs were "prevailing parties" within the meaning of the
IDEA. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B) ("the court, in its discretion, may
award reasonable attorneys' fees . . . to the parents of a child with a
disability who is the prevailing party."). The District argues that the
Supreme Court's decision in Buckhannon forecloses the 67 plaintiffs who
settled their cases from recovering interests under the IDEA on the late
payment of the attorneys' fees they received because, as a result of the
ruling in Buckhannon, these plaintiffs are not prevailing parties within
the meaning of the statute. For the reasons set forth below, the Court
now holds that the defendant is correct.
Although the Court's analysis of the term "prevailing party" in
Buckhannon was in the context of the Fair Housing Amendments Act ("FHAA")
(42 U.S.C. § 3613(c)(2)) and the Americans with Disabilities Act
("ADA") (42 U.S.C. § 12205), the Court suggested that its analysis
would be applicable to all similar fee shifting statues. See Buckhannon,
532 U.S. at 603 n. 4 ("We have interpreted these fee-shifting provisions
consistently . . . and so approach the nearly identical provisions here")
(citation omitted). After Buckhannon, the Court's reasoning has been
applied by other courts to other similar fee-shifting statues. See, e.g.,
Smyth et al. v. Rivero, No.CIV.A.00-2453, 2002 WL 245978, at * 1 (4th
Cir. Feb. 21, 2002) (applying the Supreme Court's rationale in Buckhannon
to deny plaintiffs' attorneys' fees under 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b)); New
York State Federation of Taxi Drivers v. Westchester County Taxi &
Limousine Comm'n, 272 F.3d 154, 158 (2d Cir. 2001) (same). In addition,
the Buckhannon reasoning has specifically been applied to cases arising
under the IDEA. J.C. v. Regional School Dist. 10, 278 F.3d 119, 123-124
(2d Cir. 2002); J.S. v. Ramapo Central School District, 165 F. Supp.2d 570
(S.D.N.Y. 2001); John T. v. Delaware County Intermediate Unit,
No.CIV.A.98-5781, 2001 WL 1391500 (E.D.Pa. 2001); Brandon K. v. New Lenox
Sch. Dist., No.CIV.A.01-4625, 2001 WL 1491499 (N.D. Ill. Nov. 23, 2001);
Luis R. v. Joilet Township H.S. Dist., No.CIV.A.01-4798, 2002 WL 54544
(N.D.Ill. Jan. 15, 2002); Baer v. Klagholz, 786 A.2d 907 (N.J.Super.
Although the district court found that the parents were the prevailing
party and granted the parent's motion for attorney fees pursuant to the
IDEA, the Second Circuit reversed, holding that Buckhannon (which was
issued subsequent to the district court's decision), precluded a finding
that the parents were the "prevailing party" and therefore prohibited an
award of attorneys' fees under the statute. Id. at 124. Like the
plaintiffs in J.C., plaintiffs argue in the present case that the IDEA
differs from other statutes with fee-shifting provisions and requires a
different interpretation of the term prevailing party because the IDEA's
"multi-tiered administrative process [is] designed to function without
any court involvement." Id. The Second Circuit found this argument
"unpersuasive" because the ADA, which was at issue in Buckhannon, also
requires that the parties "exhaust administrative processes prior to
litigation." Id. The plaintiffs in J.C. also argued that the IDEA is
designed to encourage informal resolution of student educational
placements, which would be undermined by applying Buckhannon to
settlements under the IDEA because parents would avoid settlements at the
Individualized Educational Placement (IEP) stage and pursue due process
hearings or civil litigation where they could recover attorneys' fees.
Id. In rejecting this argument, the court noted that even prior to
Buckhannon, Congress did not permit recovery of attorneys' fees for
participation in IEP proceedings that were not held pursuant to an
administrative proceeding or judicial action. Id. (citing
20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(D)(ii)). Moreover, the Court opined ...