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ARMSTRONG v. VANCE

August 4, 2004.

BYRON ARMSTRONG, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
PAUL VANCE, et al., Defendants.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: PAUL FRIEDMAN, District Judge

OPINION

This matter is before the Court for consideration of defendants' motion to dismiss and plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment. Plaintiffs filed this action seeking attorneys' fees for their counsel's work at the administrative stage to enforce plaintiffs' due process rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq., and counsel's work in litigating plaintiffs' right to attorneys' fees. Plaintiffs subsequently moved for summary judgment, and defendants responded with a motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and for failure to state a claim under Rule 12 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Upon consideration of the parties' briefs, the Court concludes that it is appropriate to grant in part and deny in part defendants' motion to dismiss, and to deny plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment. I. BACKGROUND

A. Statutory Background

  The IDEA seeks to "ensure that all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for employment and independent living." 20 U.S.C. § 1400(d)(1)(A). As a condition of receiving funds under the Act, the IDEA requires that school districts adopt procedures to ensure appropriate educational placement of special needs students. See 20 U.S.C. § 1413. In addition, school districts must develop comprehensive plans for meeting the special educational needs of such students. See 20 U.S.C. § 1414(d)(2)(A). Known as "individualized education programs," or IEPs, these plans must include "a statement of the child's present levels of educational performance, . . . a statement of measurable annual goals, [and] a statement of the special education and related services . . . to be provided to the child. . . ." 20 U.S.C. § 1414(d)(1)(A).

  Parents who object to their child's IEP are entitled to an impartial due process hearing, see 20 U.S.C. § 1415(b)(6), (f)(1), at which they have a "right to be accompanied and advised by counsel." 20 U.S.C. § 1415(h)(1). Parents "aggrieved by" a hearing officer's findings and decision may bring a civil action in either state or federal court without regard to the amount in controversy. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2). Section 1415(i)(3)(B) of the IDEA gives courts authority to "award reasonable attorneys' fees as part of the costs to the parents of a child with a disability who is the prevailing party," which includes the authority to award fees to a party who has prevailed in an administrative due process proceeding. See Moore v. District of Columbia, 907 F.2d 165, 166 (D.C. Cir. 1990) (en banc). The amount of fees awarded is based "on rates prevailing in the community in which the action or proceeding arose for the kind and quality of services furnished." 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(C).

  B. Procedural History of this Action

  In each of the 94 separate claims that are part of this action, plaintiffs requested administrative due process hearings under Section 1415(i)(3) of the IDEA as a response to defendants' alleged failure to provide plaintiffs with a free and appropriate education. See Plaintiffs' Motion for Summary Judgment, Statement of Material Facts Not in Genuine Dispute ("PSMF") ¶¶ 2-3. Plaintiffs assert that they prevailed at the administrative level either by receiving a favorable hearing officer determination ("HOD") or by securing a settlement agreement that provided plaintiffs the relief they had requested. See id. at ¶¶ 3, 5. Plaintiffs then submitted attorneys' fee requests to defendants following the conclusion of each administrative proceeding, and received partial payments of the fee requests. See id. ¶¶ 3-4. Specifically, defendants paid fee requests up to the amount allowed under a statutory cap in the District of Columbia appropriations law that expressly limited the amount that defendants could pay for IDEA attorneys' fees. See id. ¶ 13; Defendants' Memorandum in Opposition to Plaintiffs' Motion for Summary Judgment, Defendants' Statement of Material Facts as to Which There Is a Genuine Issue ("DSMF") at 2. Plaintiffs subsequently filed their complaint in this Court on December 28, 2001, claiming prevailing party status and seeking the outstanding balances on the aforementioned fee applications in light of what plaintiffs deemed as a change in the appropriations bill for fiscal year 2002 that they assert eliminated the fee cap. During the course of the administrative proceedings but prior to plaintiffs' suit, the Supreme Court announced in Buckhannon Board & Care Home, Inc. v. West Virginia Dept. of Health & Human Resources, 532 U.S. 598 (2001), a new rule regarding the definition of "prevailing party" in fee-shifting statutes such as the IDEA. In response to Buckhannon, defendant District of Columbia Public Schools ("DCPS") Director of Mediation and Compliance Paula Perelman issued a memorandum to the special education bar addressing the Supreme Court's decision. In the memorandum DCPS represented that
effective September 1, 2001, DCPS will not pay attorneys' fees incurred in the course of executing a settlement agreement with an attorney representing a parent alleging a violation of the IDEA unless the payment of these fees is a negotiated term of the settlement agreement in question. DCPS will pay attorneys' fees attendant to settlement agreements before this date that include no language regarding attorneys' fees to the extent permitted by law. In doing so, however, DCPS admits to no liability for the payment of such fees.
  Motion for Summary Judgment, Ex. 2, Memorandum of August 31, 2001 from Paula Perelman to Attorneys Who Represent Parents Who Prevail Against the D.C. Public Schools in Action Brought Under the Individuals With Disabilities Act ("Perelman Memorandum").

  II. DISCUSSION

  Plaintiffs seek summary judgment on the ground that they are prevailing parties, that their fee requests are reasonable, and that the statutory cap that restricted the amount defendants could pay for attorneys' fees under the IDEA was eliminated by Congress. See Memorandum of Points and Authorities in Support of Plaintiffs' Motion for Summary Judgment ("Pls.' Mem."). Defendants oppose plaintiffs' motion, and have moved to dismiss plaintiffs' complaint asserting that all the requests for attorneys' fees are untimely, that the claims by plaintiffs who entered settlement agreements are barred under Buckhannon, and that the statutory cap still effectively applies to plaintiffs' claims. See Memorandum of Points and Authorities in Support of Defendant's Motion to Dismiss Complaint ("Defs.' Dism. Mem.").

  A. Statute of Limitations

  Defendants argue that plaintiffs' suit is untimely because it was filed outside the applicable limitations period. A motion to dismiss for untimeliness is a motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction under Rule 12(b)(1) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. See Lacey v. United States, 74 F. Supp.2d 13, 15 (D.D.C. 1999). A motion to dismiss should not be granted unless plaintiffs can demonstrate no set of facts that supports their claim entitling them to relief. See Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46 (1957); Sparrow v. United Air Lines, Inc., 216 F.3d 1111, 1117 (D.C. Cir. 2000). In evaluating the motion to dismiss, the Court must accept the factual allegations in the complaint as true and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of plaintiffs. See Harris v. Ladner, 127 F.3d 1121, 1123 (D.C. Cir. 1997). While the complaint is to be construed liberally, the Court need not accept factual inferences drawn by plaintiffs if those inferences are not supported by facts alleged in the complaint, nor must the Court accept the plaintiffs' legal conclusions. See National Treasury Employees Union v. United States, 101 F.3d 1423, 1430 (D.C. Cir. 1996); Kowal v. MCI Communications Corp., 16 F.3d 1271, 1276 (D.C. Cir. 1994).

  Although a district court may dispose of a motion to dismiss on the basis of the complaint alone, a court may consider materials beyond the pleadings when evaluating a motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction under Rule 12(b)(1) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. "Where necessary, the court may consider the complaint supplemented by undisputed facts evidenced in the record, or the complaint supplemented by undisputed facts plus the court's resolution of disputed facts." Herbert v. National Academy of Sciences, 974 F.2d 192, 197 (D.C. Cir. 1992). This Court has interpreted Herbert to allow a court to "consider such materials outside the pleadings as it deems appropriate to resolve the question whether it has jurisdiction to hear the case." Scolaro v. D.C. Bd. of Elections and Ethics, 104 F. Supp.2d 18, 22 (D.D.C. 2000) (Kennedy, J.) (citing Herbert v. National Academy of Sciences, 974 F.2d at 197), aff'd Scolaro v. D.C. Bd. of Elections and Ethics, 2001 U.S. App. LEXIS 2747, No. 00-7176, 2001 U.S. App. LEXIS 2747, at *1 (D.C. Cir. Jan. 18, 2001); see also Ass'n of Merger Dealers, LLC v. Tosco Corp., 167 F. Supp.2d 65, 69 (D.D.C. 2001) (Hogan, C.J.) (same); Rann v. Chao, 154 F. Supp.2d 61, 64 (D.D.C. 2001) (Urbina, J.) (same).

  The parties agree that for each claim the limitations period for attorneys' fees began to run on the date that plaintiffs received the partial payments from DCPS; this constituted notice to plaintiffs that defendants did not intend to pay the remaining fees requested. See Defs.' Dism. Mem. at 11; Plaintiffs' Opposition to Defendants' Motion to Dismiss ("Pls.' Opp.") at 17. The Court therefore must determine only what limitations period applies in order to assess the timeliness of plaintiffs' claims. Defendants assert that the 30-day limitation period provided in Rule 15(a) of the Rules of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals applies to actions for attorneys' fees brought under Section 1415(i)(3)(B). See Defs.' Dism. Mem. at 9-11. Rule 15(a) provides that review of an agency decision or order must be made within 30 days after notice of the order or decision. See D.C. CT. APP.R. 15(a). Plaintiffs counter that the applicable period is three years, as provided by Section 12-301(8) of the District of Columbia Code, which provides a three-year limitations period for actions "for which a limitation is not otherwise specially prescribed." See Pls.' Opp. at 14 (quoting D.C. CODE ANN. § 12-301(8) (2001)). Upon careful consideration of the parties' briefs and the relevant case law, the Court concludes that the appropriate limitations period is three years as provided by Section 12-301(8) of the District of Columbia Code.

  Although the precise question of which limitations period applies to suits for IDEA attorneys' fees has not come before the D.C. Circuit, the court of appeals in Spiegler v. District of Columbia, 866 F.2d 461 (D.C. Cir. 1989), has determined the applicable limitations period for appeals of hearing officer determinations brought under the IDEA. In Spiegler, the court first explained that if Congress fails to establish a statute of limitations for a federal cause of action, as it has in the IDEA context, a court "may `borrow' one from an analogous state cause of action, provided that the state limitations period is not inconsistent with underlying federal policies." Id. at 463-64 (citing Wilson v. Garcia, 471 U.S. 261, 266-67 (1985)). The court then considered the same two limitations period proposed by the parties here and asked whether an appeal from a hearing officer determination was sufficiently analogous either to an administrative agency appeal or to a de novo civil action. See Spiegler v. District of Columbia, 866 F.2d at 464. The court in Spiegler concluded that the appeal of an HOD is more analogous to an appeal of an administrative agency decision than it is to a de novo civil action, in light of the quasi-appellate role the district court plays in the review of HODs, the fact that the evidence in both HOD reviews and administrative appeals primarily is the administrative record, and the deference the district court provides to the hearing officer's decision. See id. at 465-66. Finally, the court ...


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