United States District Court, District of Columbia
September 30, 2002
GLORIA ADAMS, AS NEXT FRIEND OF THE MINOR CHILD, DANIEL ADAMS, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, DEFENDANT.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Leon, District Judge.
This case comes before the Court on defendant's motion to
dismiss and to sever parties and claims. Plaintiffs seek
attorney's fees and costs pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the
Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"),
20 U.S.C. § 1400. Defendants move to dismiss the action on two separate
grounds: (1) plaintiffs are not "prevailing parties" that are
entitled to attorney's fees under the IDEA; (2) plaintiffs
failed to state a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Defendants also
move to sever the parties and issues. For the reasons set forth
below, the Court grants the defendant's motion to dismiss and
denies the defendant's motion to sever the parties and issues.
IDEA guarantees children with disabilities a free and
appropriate public education, emphasizing a special education
that meets students' particular needs.
20 U.S.C. § 1400(d)(1)(A). To reach this goal, Congress conditioned funding
on school districts establishing procedures to safeguard the
students. School districts, for example, must set up
individualized education plans ("IEPs") for disabled children.
20 U.S.C § 1415(d)(2)(A). If the parents feel that their
children's needs are not being met, they have a right to an
"impartial due process hearing," 20 U.S.C § 1415(f)(1), and at
the hearing the parents have "the right to be accompanied and
advised by counsel," 20 U.S.C § 1415(h)(1). If the parents are
"aggrieved" by the administrative hearing, they can file a civil
action with a federal or state court. 20 U.S.C § 1415(i)(2)(A).
Importantly, IDEA also includes a feeshifting provision: "In any
action or proceeding, . . . the court, in its discretion, may
award reasonable attorneys' fees as part of the costs to the
parents of a child with a disability who is the prevailing
party." 20 U.S.C. § 1451(i)(3)(B).
The plaintiffs alleged violations by the defendant, the
District of Columbia Public Schools System ("DCPS"), under IDEA.
All 159 plaintiffs subsequently either entered into a written
settlement agreement with the defendant, participated in an
administrative hearing, or both. DCPS paid attorney's fees to
each plaintiff, but plaintiffs claim in the present action that
they are entitled to the difference between the amount already
paid and the amount they claimed as a prevailing party (i.e.,
the full market rate for attorney's fees) under either IDEA or,
in the alternative, under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. DCPS seeks to
dismiss all claims based on either its contention that a
settlement agreement does not qualify the plaintiffs as
"prevailing parties" or because plaintiffs failed to state a
claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. DCPS also move to sever the
parties and issues.
The Court cannot grant a motion to dismiss pursuant to Federal
Rule of Civil
Procedure 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, 78 S.Ct. 99, 2 L.Ed.2d 80 (1957); Kowal v. MCI
Communications Corp., 16 F.3d 1271, 1276 (D.C.Cir. 1994). Thus
in evaluating the defendant's motion the Court will assume the
truth of all of the factual allegations set forth in the
plaintiffs complaint. See Doe v. United States Dep't of
Justice, 753 F.2d 1092, 1102 (D.C.Cir. 1985), and will construe
the complaint liberally in favor of the plaintiff. Schuler v.
United States, 617 F.2d 605, 608 (D.C.Cir. 1979).
A. Buckhannon and Settlement of IDEA Claims
The plaintiffs seek attorney's fees as a "prevailing party"
under 20 U.S.C. § 1451(i)(3)(B). Whether the plaintiffs are
prevailing parties, however, depends on the application of the
Supreme Court's decision in Buckhannon Board & Care Home v.
West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources,
532 U.S. 598, 121 S.Ct. 1835, 149 L.Ed.2d 855 (2001). In
Buckhannon, the Supreme Court rejected the so-called "catalyst
theory" for acquiring attorney's fees, id. at 605, 121 S.Ct.
1835, which contends that a plaintiff can qualify for attorney's
fees if the lawsuit brought about a voluntary change in the
defendant's conduct. Id. at 601, 121 S.Ct. 1835. In
Buckhannon, for example, the plaintiff alleged that its
lawsuit caused the state legislature to revoke the statutory
clause at issue in the case, thus rendering moot the plaintiffs
action. Id. at 601, 121 S.Ct. 1835. The Supreme Court held
that this type of nonjudicial and voluntary action does not
warrant characterizing the plaintiff as a prevailing party under
applicable fee-shifting provisions. Instead, the Supreme Court
held that there must be a "judicially sanctioned change in the
legal relationship of the parties" for the plaintiff to be
awarded attorney's fees as a prevailing party. Id. at 604, 121
While Buckhannon involved the American with Disabilities Act
of 1990 and the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988, the Supreme
Court's ruling was clearly intended to apply to fee-shifting
provisions beyond those considered in Buckhannon. Indeed the
Supreme Court: (1) emphasized that Congress enacted fee-shifting
provisions in many statutes; (2) noted that it has "interpreted
these fee-shifting provisions consistently," id. at 604 n. 4,
121 S.Ct. 1835 (citing Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433
n. 7, 103 S.Ct. 1933, 76 L.Ed.2d 40 (1983)); and (3) cited
Hensley v. Eckerhart, where it had previously emphasized that
the "standards" for interpreting "prevailing party" in
fee-shifting statutes "are generally applicable to all cases in
which Congress has authorized an award of fees to a `prevailing
party'" 461 U.S. at 433 n. 7, 103 S.Ct. 1933. Moreover, this
circuit recently held that the Buckhannon decision not only
applies broadly to fee-shifting provisions, see Oil, Chemical
and Atomic Workers International Union v. Department of Energy,
288 F.3d 452, 455 (D.C.Cir. 2002), but that voluntary settlement
agreements reached before, or during, an "action or proceeding"
is not a
sufficient basis to qualify a plaintiff as a prevailing party
eligible to receive attorney's fees. Id. at 459.*fn2
In Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers, a union requested
information from the United States Enrichment Corporation
("USEC") under the Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA"). When the
USEC refused to provide the requested information, the union
brought a civil action in federal court. The district court
denied the USEC's motion to dismiss, substituted the Department
of Energy as defendant, and held several status conferences.
Following these actions by the district court, the parties
dismissed the claim with prejudice, stating that the government
had provided a substantial amount of the requested material. The
district court endorsed the order of dismissal. Id. at 453.
The issue was whether the union was a prevailing party, and thus
eligible for court-ordered attorney fees, in light of the
This circuit held that, because the district court did not
grant "judicial relief," the union was not entitled to
attorney's fees. Id. at 459. That is, although the district
court endorsed the order of dismissal, the court did not in any
way change the legal status of the parties. It reasoned that,
unlike consent decrees, the court assumes no oversight role once
the order is signed. The court even made clear both that the
court's order that the Energy Department complete its record
review in sixty days is "not judicial relief on the merits of
the union's complaint" and that "[s]urviving a motion to dismiss
does not alter the legal relationship between parties." Id. at
458. Thus, plaintiffs arriving at a settlement agreement,
without further evidence of specific judicial relief, are not
entitled to attorney's fees.
The Second Circuit has also found that settlement agreements
do not warrant awarding attorney's fees to the plaintiffs,
specifically applying the finding to IDEA cases. In J.C. v.
Regional School District 10, the Second Circuit held that an
IDEA settlement agreement, which was reached soon after the
plaintiff field a request for a due process hearing, did not
generate a prevailing party under the terms of the fee-shifting
provision. 278 F.3d at 124.
In this case, a settlement agreement at the IEP stage, prior
to a due process hearing, does not have the necessary "judicial
imprimatur" required by Buckhannon. While the statute
specifies that plaintiffs can recover attorney's fees for
"proceedings" and "actions," Congress specifically excluded IEP
programs from attorney fees under Section
1416(i)(3)(D)(ii). Hence Congress did not intend for the IEP to
be considered a "proceeding" or "action" under
20 U.S.C. § 1451(i)(3)(B). Thus, while IEP programs may be part of a greater
administrative scheme that the plaintiffs must exhaust before
filing an action in court, legal representation should not be
eligible for prevailing-party attorney's fees because any
resolution was not judicially sanctioned.*fn3 Accordingly, in
the absence of evidence of a specific judicial relief, this
Court grants the defendant's motion to dismiss all claims
involving a settlement agreement.*fn4
B. Attorney's Fees Under 42 U.S.C. § 1983
Plaintiffs have additionally sought attorney's fees under
42 U.S.C. § 1983 because Congress imposed a statutory cap on
attorney's fees awarded pursuant to an IDEA claim.*fn5 They
contend that various courts have allowed plaintiffs to bring
damage claims under § 1983 for violations of IDEA, see, e.g.,
Ridgewood Bd. of Educ. v. N.E., 172 F.3d 238, 252 (3rd Cir.
1999); Johnson, 190 F. Supp.2d at 46-47; Walker v. District of
Columbia, 157 F. Supp.2d 11, 30-31 (D.C. 2001); Zearley v.
Ackerman, 116 F. Supp.2d 109, 114 (D.C. 2000); but see Sellers
v. School Bd., 141 F.3d 524 (4th Cir. 1998), and that the
statutory cap does not apply to actions brought pursuant to §
1983 to enforce IDEA. See Blackman v. District of Columbia,
59 F. Supp.2d 37 (D.C. 1999); Petties v. District of Columbia,
55 F. Supp.2d 17 (D.C. 1999).
Even if the Court were to agree that the plaintiffs could have
brought damage claims under § 1983, the fact of the matter is
that they did not do so here. And since the plaintiffs must
prevail on the merits of their § 1983 claim in order to be
awarded reasonable attorney's fees as a part of costs, the
plaintiffs cannot prevail on their § 1983 argument. The
plaintiffs brought all 159 of the initial claims pursuant to
IDEA. Only when seeking to recover attorney's fees did the
plaintiffs even raise a § 1983 argument. The plaintiffs should
not be able to avail themselves of a feeshifting provision for a
statutory right not even alleged in their pleadings. In short,
plaintiffs cannot prevail on their § 1983 claims because they
C. Motion to Sever
The defendant also moves to sever the parties under Federal
Rules of Civil Procedure 20(a).*fn6 The Supreme Court,
however, has found that "the impulse is toward entertaining the
broadest possible scope of action consistent with fairness to
the parties; joinder of claims, parties and remedies is strongly
encouraged." United Mine Workers of America v. Gibbs,
383 U.S. 715, 724, 86 S.Ct. 1130, 16 L.Ed.2d 218 (1966). Since the Court
has granted the defendant's motion to dismiss claims involving a
settlement agreement, the only remaining claims are those
involving judgments pursuant to IDEA in administrative hearings,
and because of the shared facts, this Court denies defendant's
motion to sever the remaining claims.
For the foregoing reasons, it is hereby ORDERED that
defendant's motion to dismiss [# 12-1] is granted. Parties that
reach voluntary settlement agreements during the IDEA process
are not entitled to prevailing-party status for the purpose of
awarding attorney's fees under 20 U.S.C. § 1451(i)(3)(B).
Furthermore, plaintiffs cannot acquire attorney's fees under §
1983 without ever filing claims based on § 1983. Thus the only
remaining claims are those reached by hearing-officer rulings
judgments pursuant to IDEA. Finally, it is ORDERED that the
defendant's motion to sever claims [# 12-2] is dismissed.