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AKINSEYE v. DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA

March 19, 2002

OYIN AKINSEYE, ET AL. PLAINTIFF,
V.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Reggie B. Walton, United States District Judge.

AMENDED MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER*fn1

I. BACKGROUND

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.

II. ANALYSIS

A. Standard of Review

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. 2001).

In J.C. v. Regional School Dist. 10, 278 F.3d 119 (2d Cir. 2002), the Second Circuit applied the reasoning of Buckhannon to a case similar to the present case. In J.C., the parents of a child in need of special education services sued the school district for attorneys' fees after they had hired an attorney to represent them in an administrative hearing because the school board did not agree initially that the child was suffering from an educational disability. Id. at 122. Prior to the hearing, the school board's planning team held a meeting at which it determined that the child did in fact suffer from educational disabilities. Id. Both parties then concluded that there were no further issues for resolution and "jointly requested an [administrative] hearing for the sole purpose of adopting the [planning team's] results as an official decision and order." Id. At the hearing, however, the school board declined to adopt the planning team's results as an official order, fearing that doing so would expose the school system to liability for attorneys' fees. Id. Instead, the hearing officer merely read the settlement agreement into the record as an agreement between the parties and issued a final written decision dismissing the hearing as moot. Id.

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. ยง 1415(i)(3)(D)(ii)). Moreover, the Court opined ...


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