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Abraham v. District of Columbia

September 30, 2004

DEVON MICHELLE ABRAHAM, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Rosemary M. Collyer United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

This lawsuit was filed on January 8, 2001, by Ronald L. Drake, attorney-at-law, on behalf of a group of parents of approximately 125 disabled children who require special education services from the District of Columbia Public Schools ("DCPS"). Mr. Drake seeks to recover attorneys' fees arising from his representation of these clients in administrative proceedings to secure rights established by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq., and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 701 et seq. The administrative proceedings at issue appear to have been completed between March 1996*fn1 and 2001.

Despite attempts at mediation, the parties have been unable to resolve a single one of these fee claims. While there are many reasons for this failure, the present posture of the case precludes any settlement without judicial determination of certain outstanding legal issues. The parties have submitted briefs discussing the facts and issues of law in dispute, as well as the appropriate billing rate for Mr. Drake. The Court will address them in turn.

I. BACKGROUND

Congress enacted IDEA to ensure that disabled children receive "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). Parents of a disabled child must be notified of any proposed change in "the identification, evaluation, or educational placement of the child," and are permitted to challenge "any matter relating [there]to[.]" Id. §§ 1415(b)(3)(B), (b)(6). After the possibility of mediation, parents are afforded the opportunity to have their complaints considered in "an impartial due process hearing[.]" Id. § 1415(f). IDEA specifies certain "safeguards" for the hearing process, including "the right to be accompanied and advised by counsel[.]" Id. § 1415(h)(1). Any party aggrieved by the result of such a hearing may "bring a civil action... in any State court of competent jurisdiction... or in a district court of the United States...." Id. § 1415(i)(2)(A). Not surprisingly, having provided explicitly for the safeguard of counsel for parents, IDEA also contemplates the award of attorneys' fees. At § 1415(i)(3), which grants jurisdiction to federal district courts, the statute provides that, "[i]n any action or proceeding brought under this section, 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." Id. § 1415(i)(3)(B). Attorneys' fees "shall be based on rates prevailing in the community in which the action or proceeding arose for the kind and quality of services furnished" without a bonus or multiplier. Id. § 1415(i)(3)(C). No attorneys' fees may be awarded "for services performed subsequent to the time of a written offer of settlement to a parent" if the offer is made more than ten days before the administrative proceeding, it is not accepted, and "the court or administrative hearing officer finds that the relief finally obtained by the parents is not more favorable to the parents than the offer of settlement." Id. §1415(i)(3)(D). If, however, a parent is the prevailing party and "was substantially justified in rejecting the settlement offer[,]" an award of attorneys' fees and costs may be made despite § 1415(i)(3)(D). Id. § 1415(i)(3)(E).

Each disabled child covered by IDEA is entitled to an "individualized education program" ("IEP") that is developed and overseen by an "individualized education program team ("IEP Team") consisting of the parents of the child, special education teachers, and others. Id. § 1414(d). Attorneys' fees may not be awarded for any meeting of an IEP Team "unless such meeting is convened as a result of an administrative proceeding or judicial action...." Id. § 1415(i)(3)(D)(ii). IDEA specifically provides for mediation of disputes over the education of a child with a disability. Id. §§ 1415(b)(5), (e). No attorneys' fees are available for a mediation that precedes the filing of a complaint relating to the education of a disabled child*fn2 or the placement of such a child in an alternative educational setting under § 1415(k). Id. § 1415(i)(3)(D)(ii). However, at the discretion of the State (here, the District of Columbia), attorneys' fees may be paid for such pre-complaint mediation. Id.

II. ANALYSIS

The specifics of the underlying administrative proceedings are not before the Court. The complaint alleges that all plaintiffs are or were "prevailing parties" in the administrative forum and that DCPS has "arbitrarily and without cause or justification refused to pay the amount of the bill submitted," or has made "only a partial payment thereon." Compl. ¶¶ 8, 9. The District of Columbia denies any wrong-doing and notes that, even today, plaintiffs' counsel has not submitted his billing records in an intelligible format for review and evaluation. On January 14, 2004, DCPS presented six defenses to the plaintiffs' claims:

1. The plaintiff is not a prevailing party because the [due process] hearing terminated in a settlement and not a decision in the plaintiff's favor.

2. The plaintiff is not a prevailing party because, even though a purported Hearing Officer Decision issued, that decision was no more than the recognition of a settlement.

3. The claim is time barred by either the statute of limitations, the doctrine of laches, or both.*fn3

4. The claimed hours are not associated with the actual litigation of a due process hearing....

5. [The p]laintiff failed to exhaust its administrative remedies by submitting invoices to [DCPS] for payment.

6. The claim arose after filing of this suit and has not been brought within this case by amendment of the complaint. Notice of Prelim. Defenses, Attachment A at 1-2. As a result, DCPS, after three and one half years of litigation and numerous efforts and hours at settlement and mediation, ...


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