appeal of an agency hearing, but is rather an independent action
predicated on statutory liability. Id. Accordingly, the Eleventh Circuit
borrowed Florida's four year statute of limitations for use in actions to
recover attorneys fees in IDEA cases. Id. at 852-53.
The rationale underlying the Eleventh Circuit's holding was its
assessment that resolving claims for attorney fees was less urgent than
other relief sought under the IDEA. Moreover, the Court thought that a
longer limitation period will enhance the potential that disabled
children will receive appropriate public education because it believed
that a longer limitation period will promote greater attorney
representation of parents in IDEA proceedings. Various district courts
that have ruled consistent with the Eleventh Circuit's holding in
Zipperer, have basically employed the same analysis as the Zipperer
Although, as already indicated, the precise statute of limitations
question the Court has been asked to decide in this case does not appear
to have been addressed by any court in this Circuit, the Circuit Court of
Appeals for the District of Columbia did address a similar question in
Spiegler v. District of Columbia, 866 F.2d 461, albeit in a different
context. As noted above, Spiegler did not involve a situation concerning
attorney fees, but rather involved a civil action that had been brought
to challenge the substantive findings and decision of DCPS under the
predecessor statute of the IDEA, the Education of the Handicapped Act
("EHA"), 20 U.S.C. § 1400-1485. The challenge was brought pursuant to
§ 1415(e)(2) of the EHA, which is now 20 U.S.C. § (i)(2). The
Circuit Court of Appeals held that the proper statute of limitations to
borrow was the same 30-day District of Columbia limitation period
advanced by the District in this case, but conditioned its application on
whether parents or guardians of a disabled child are provided notice of
the availability of judicial review and the limited amount of time they
have to initiate court proceedings. Id.
In reaching its conclusion in Spiegler, the Court also noted that it
was unable to find a federal statute of limitations that "`clearly
provide[d] a closer analogy than available state statutes,'" Spiegler, 866
F.2d at 464 (quoting DelCostello v. Int'l Bhd. of Teamsters, 462 U.S. at
172), and nothing has occurred since Spiegler that would permit this
Court to conclude otherwise. The Spiegler court construed the parents'
challenge in that case to the substantive decision of the DCPS concerning
the education needs of their son as "more analogous to appeals from
administrative agencies than to a cause of action `for which a limitation
[period] is not otherwise specifically prescribed.'" Spiegler, 866 F.2d at
465 (quoting the language of D.C. Code § 12-301(8)). Moreover, the
Court concluded that the 30-day agency review limitation period was not
inconsistent with the policies underlying the EHA, when "combined with a
duty by the District to inform hearing participants of the short period
. . . Id. at 466. And this assessment was influenced by the EHA's intent,
due to the rapid development of young children, "to ensure prompt
resolution of disputes regarding appropriate education for handicapped
children," including "the judicial review process." Id. at 467.
Because the Spiegler Court was concerned only with a substantive
challenge of an administrative ruling regarding a disabled child's
education placement, an action that would now fall under 20 U.S.C. §
(i)(2), rather than an action for attorney fees initiated pursuant to 20
U.S.C. § (i)(3)(B) to recover such fees arising out of administrative
proceedings under the IDEA, Spiegler is controlling authority
only if the Court follows those cases that have concluded that attorney
fee actions are ancillary to underlying IDEA administrative proceedings
and therefore subject to state law limitation periods that govern
judicial review of administrative agency decisions. As demonstrated
already, the courts have split on this question because they do not agree
on whether attorney fee claims are "another phase of the administrative
proceeding," see, e.g., King, 228 F.3d at 625, which these Courts conclude
are more suitable for coverage by shorter limitation periods, see, e.g.,
id at 626; Powers, 61 F.3d at 555, or whether such claims are "separate
and different in kind from an action appealing the underlying
administrative decision," Curtis K. v. Sioux City Cmty. Sch. Dist., 895
F. Supp. at 1211, that do not require prompt resolution to promote the
IDEA's goals of securing expeditious education services for disabled
children. See, e.g., Zipperer, 111 F.3d at 851. As the Court in Powers
recognized, resolution of this issue "is difficult," and the divergent
views of existing precedent makes the decision even more challenging. 61
F.3d at 555-56.
Nevertheless, this Court has settled on borrowing a longer limitation
period. This conclusion is based on the Court's agreement with those
courts who reject the position that expedited resolution of attorney fee
disputes advance the goals of insuring that children receive proper
education services promptly. What is more likely to ensure that the
IDEA's goals are achieved is the acquisition of quality legal
representation by parents and guardians of disabled children. Zipperer,
111 F.2d at 852; Curtis K. v. Sioux City Cmty. Sch. Dist., 895 F. Supp.
at 1218-20 ("Federal law, policy, experience, and common sense, make
plain that, practically speaking, in today's complex society, attorneys
are key to obtaining relief from violations of individual and group
rights in many contexts."). Litigating claims under the IDEA is not a
simple matter. Surely, parents and guardians are likely to fare much
better if they wade into the complex sea of education law with the safety
net of an attorney. Moreover, a longer limitation period is better suited
for attorney fee actions because:
the 30-day statute of limitations suggested by
defendants provides no realistic opportunity for the
negotiation and compromise of fee claims prior to the
filing of an independent [IDEA] action for fees in
federal court . . . [A] short limitations period would
have the unwholesome effect of undermining settlement
negotiations and encouraging a wave of hastily filed
suits for attorney fees.
Curtis K. v. Sioux City Cmty. Sch. Dist., 895 F. Supp. at 1219-20. And
interestingly, plaintiffs note that they would have been forced to file a
number of individual suits, rather than the single lawsuit that was filed
on behalf of all plaintiffs, if a 30-day limitation period had been in
force. See Plaintiff's Opposition to Defendant's Motion to Dismiss
Complaint at 11.
Having concluded that a limitation period of more than 30 days should
be borrowed by the Court, an exhaustive search for the most analogous
District of Columbia statute of limitations was undertaken. This search
has failed to uncover any limitation period that is any more appropriate
to apply to the claims in this case than the 3-year limitation period of
D.C. Code § 12-301(8) proffered by plaintiffs. In that regard, there
appears to be no District of Columbia statute of limitations that
specifically controls when actions for attorney fees must be initiated.
Accordingly, there are no limitation periods that mandate when an
attorney fee action must be filed and therefore the 3-year limitation
period of D.C. Code § 12-301(8), which covers causes of actions "not
otherwise specifically prescribed . . .," is the statute most analogous
to the claims that have been filed in this case by plaintiffs.
Accordingly, that is the limitation period the Court will borrow.
D. The Accrual of the Limitation Period
Finally, the Court must decide when the 3-year limitation period
started to run. As a general rule, a "statute of limitation begins to run
`at the time when a prospective plaintiff knows or should know through
the exercise of due diligence of [his] right to recover.'" Kropinski v.
World Plan Executive Counsel — US, 853 F.2d 948, 956 (D.C. Cir.
1988) (quoting Baker v. A.H. Robins Co., 613 F. Supp. 994, 996 (D.D.C.
1985)). Ordinarily, the statutory time limit for an attorney fee claim
under the IDEA would start to run when the services provided by the
attorney were completed and the parent or guardian qualified as the
"prevailing party" under 20 U.S.C. § (i)(3)(B). However, here, all of
the plaintiffs were paid the fees they demanded and they are only seeking
interests for the alleged late payment of those fees. Thus, the Court
concludes that plaintiffs' causes of action did not accrue until they
actually received the payments and at that time realized that interest
had not been included. Cf. Powers, 61 F.3d at 558 (statute of limitations
started to run when parents' request for attorneys' fees was finally
denied). Therefore, the District's statute of limitations challenge must
be rejected since this action was initiated within 3 years after the
plaintiffs received reimbursement for their attorneys' fees.
In summary, the Court concludes that the Defendant's Motion to Dismiss
Complaint must be denied because the 3-year catch-all provision of D.C.
Code § 301(8) is the appropriate statute of limitation period to
borrow from the District of Columbia for application to attorney fee
claims initiated under the IDEA. And, because all of the claims in this
case were initiated within 3 years after receipt of the attorneys' fee
payments from the defendant, all of the plaintiffs actions survive the
District's Rule 12(b)(6) dismissal motion.
WHEREFORE, it is on this 18th day of March, 2002, hereby ORDERED that
Defendant's Motion to Dismiss Complaint is granted in part and denied in
*fn2 It is unclear whether plaintiffs are contradicting ¶ 8 of the
Complaint by indicating in their opposition to the defendant's motion to
dismiss that "[t]his is also true of the two cases where there was no
hearing or settlement . . ."
*fn3 The Fourth Circuit recently elaborated on the difference between
voluntary settlement agreements and court ordered consent decrees. See
Smyth et al. v. Rivero, No.CIV.A.00-2453, 2002 WL 245978, at * 1 (4th
Cir. Feb. 21, 2002). The Court noted that it doubted the Supreme Court's
ruling in Buckhannon was intended to hold that the words "consent decree"
must literally be utilized to indicate a settlement agreement that would
be enforceable by the courts. Rather, the court opined that the Supreme
Court's definition of "prevailing party" would be satisfied by a
settlement agreement "embodied in a court order such that the obligation
to comply with its terms is court-ordered . . ." 2002 WL 245978, at *
10. The court further stated: "We will assume, then, that an order
containing an agreement reached by the parties may be functionally a
consent decree for purposes of the inquiry to which Buckhannon directs
us, even if not entitled as such." Id. (citing Buckhannon, 121 S.Ct. at
*fn4 Interestingly, the Court made this statement despite the district
court's denial of attorneys' fees for time spent preparing for and
attending the planning team meetings. Id. at 122.
*fn5 It has been held that a settlement agreement that was "transcribed
and entered into the due process hearing as a formal Agreed Order of the
Hearing Officer" changed the legal status of the parties and thus might
entitle the plaintiffs to prevailing party status. Brandon K. v. New
Lenox School Dist., No. CIV.A.01-C-4625, 2001 WL 1491499, at * 2
(N.D.Ill. Nov. 23, 2001); Jose v. Joliet Township H.S. Dist., No.
CIV.A.01-C-4798, 2001 WL 1000734, at *1-2 (N.D.Ill. Aug. 29, 2001)
(holding that plaintiff "may be entitled to prevailing party status"
where the mediation agreement entered into by the parties was read into
the record before a hearing officer). Despite these rulings, it does not
appear to this Court that entering a settlement agreement into the record
before a hearing officer at an administrative hearing or reading it into
the record before the hearing officer would afford prevailing party
status to a party under a literal reading of Buckhannon. But this Court
does believe that in order for the Supreme Court's ruling in Buckhannon
to comport with Congress' intent that parties who settle their cases at
the agency level be eligible to recover attorney's fees under the IDEA in
certain situations, the Supreme Court would seemingly have to temper its
position as articulated in Buckhannon to permit a party to obtain
prevailing party status absent actual judicial involvement of some type.
Maybe that involvement is satisfied by hearing officer participation in
the settlement process, but Buckhannon does not seem to permit that since
the hearing officer is not a judicial official.
*fn6 The Court notes that, even assuming a plaintiff could find a
predicate for filing an action in order to seek the Court's assistance in
obtaining a judicially enforceable consent decree (a position this Court
cannot fathom), a case brought prior to the completion of the
administrative process would have to be dismissed for the plaintiff's
failure to exhaust his or her administrative remedies. Thus, access to
the court for the purpose of seeking a court ordered consent decree, or
its equivalent, is an impregnable barrier that no IDEA plaintiff can