United States District Court for the District of Columbia
January 6, 2005.
KATHERYN KASEMAN, et al., Plaintiffs,
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, et al., Defendants.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: ELLEN S. HUVELLE, District Judge
On July 7, 2004, this Court granted summary judgment on behalf
of the plaintiffs and awarded $352,714.58 in attorney's fees and
costs pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act
("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B). Kaseman v. District of
Columbia, 329 F. Supp. 2d 20, 32 (D.D.C. 2004). That decision
spawned the current dispute relating to plaintiffs' claim for the
attorney's fees incurred in pursuing the underlying fee
litigation. The central question is whether this claim for
fees-on-fees must, for attorney's fee cap purposes, be considered
the same "action" as an earlier administrative hearing which
would mean that the prevailing plaintiffs may receive no more
than $4,000 in attorney's fees or whether it is a separate
"action," therefore not subject to this $4,000 attorney's fee
cap. For the reasons set forth below, the Court deems this
litigation to be a separate and distinct action from earlier
proceedings, and therefore, plaintiffs may recover in excess of
the $4,000 in attorney's fees that they were awarded as a result
of having prevailed at the administrative level. BACKGROUND
IDEA is a federal statute that aims 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). Parents of disabled children are guaranteed the
opportunity to participate in the "identification, evaluation,
and educational placement of the child," 20 U.S.C. § 1415(b)(1),
and if they have complaints, they are entitled to an "impartial
due process hearing," 20 U.S.C. §§ 1415(b)(6), (f)(1), at which
they may be represented by counsel. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(h)(1).
Parents may then bring a suit in federal or state court.
20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2)(A). A court may award reasonable attorney's
fees to prevailing parties, both for the civil lawsuit,
20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B), and for earlier administrative proceedings. See
Moore v. District of Columbia, 907 F.2d 165, 176-77 (D.C. Cir.
1990) (en banc).
Plaintiffs, forty-two minor children and their parents or
guardians, previously prevailed in administrative hearings
against the District of Columbia Public Schools and the District
of Columbia (hereinafter collectively "DCPS") pursuant to IDEA.
This Court then granted summary judgment in plaintiffs' favor in
their subsequent suit under IDEA, 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B), to
recover attorney's fees and costs, as well as pre- and
post-judgment interest. Kaseman, 329 F. Supp. 2d at 32. In
particular, the Court entered judgment for fees and costs
covering the administrative proceedings in the amount of
$352,714.58. In addition, the Court awarded "reasonable
attorney's fees and costs incurred in this fee litigation,
subject to the submission of an affidavit within 20 days from the
date of this Order justifying those fees and costs." Id. at
32-33. Thereafter, on August 2, 2004, the Court granted
plaintiffs' unopposed Motion for Attorney's Fees, and awarded attorney's fees in the
amount of $90,926.83. It further ordered that those fees were to
be paid within sixty days. At a hearing on October 22, 2004, DCPS
argued that it could not legally comply with the Court's August 2
Order because it is precluded by law from paying more than $4,000
in fees per action and that requiring the payment of $90,926.83
to the forty-two plaintiffs would exceed this $4,000 statutory
Since fiscal year 1999, each D.C. Appropriations Act has
limited the attorney's fees that may be paid by the District of
Columbia in IDEA actions. See Kaseman, 329 F. Supp. 2d at 23 n.
1; see also Calloway v. District of Columbia, 216 F.3d 1, 4-5
(D.C. Cir. 2000). The present cap stands at $4,000. Pub.L. No.
108-335 § 327, 118 Stat. 1322 (2004).*fn1 The fiscal year
2005 Act, which is substantially the same as the fiscal years
2003 and 2004 Acts, provides in pertinent part:
None of the funds contained in this Act may be made
available to pay (1) the fees of an attorney who
represents a party in an action . . ., including an
administrative proceeding, brought against the
District of Columbia Public Schools under the
Individuals with Disabilities Education Act
(20 U.S.C. 1400 et seq.) in excess of $4,000 for that
action. . . .
DCPS argues that, for purposes of the Appropriations Acts,
plaintiffs' fees-on-fees claim is part of the same "action" as
their prior IDEA administrative proceedings. (Defs.' Mem. at 5.)
Indeed, defendants seek to define "an action" as meaning "a
single continuum" that includes both the administrative fee determination, as well as any subsequent
court action. (Defs.' Reply at 3.) Defendants see this
construction as in keeping with Congress' intent in instituting
the statutory fee cap, i.e., to produce additional resources
for direct educational services for disabled children. (Defs.'
Mem. at 4-5 (quoting Calloway, 216 F.3d at 8 and Armstrong v.
Vance, 328 F. Supp. 2d 50, 61-62 (D.D.C. 2004)).) Plaintiffs
respond by arguing that under the plain language of the
Appropriations Acts, the fees-on-fees litigation is a new
"action," and therefore the $4,000 cap applicable to the earlier
administrative proceedings does not apply to the present claim
for fees.*fn2 (Pls.' Opp. at 3.)
The first place to turn to determine the meaning of "action" is
the plain language of the statute. "When Congress wants to use an
appropriations act to limit court authority, it knows precisely
how to do so." Calloway, 216 F.3d at 9. Congress could have
defined "action" with particularity, but instead it left the term
unexplained, except to provide that it also encompasses "an
administrative proceeding." Thus, the plain language of the
statute does not provide any guidance as to the question under
review. Despite this lack of statutory guidance, defendants attempt to
argue that the phrase "action, including an administrative
proceeding," necessarily means that Congress affirmatively
combined all court and administrative proceedings for fee cap
purposes. (Defs.' Mem. at 6.) The argument is unavailing, for the
phrase merely makes clear that a fee cap applies not only to
civil actions explicitly authorized by IDEA, but also to
administrative hearings. See Moore, 907 F.2d at 176-77 (holding
that attorney's fees may be awarded to a prevailing party at an
administrative hearing). It sheds no light whatsoever on the
pertinent question of what constitutes "an action."
Just as the plain language of the Appropriations Act provides
no insight into whether an administrative proceeding and a
subsequent civil suit seeking attorney's fees are the same
"action," the legislative history cited by the defendants is
equally uninformative. While it is clear from the statute that in
enacting fee caps Congress intended to rein in litigation costs
for IDEA claims, the only legislative history cited by defendants
is a statement by Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison concerning the
fiscal year 2002 D.C. Appropriations Act, the only year since
1999 in which Congress imposed no cap on fees incurred that
year. The quote, moreover, provides no clarification as to the
meaning of "action;" rather, it only shows that Congress wanted
to preclude 2002 appropriations from being used to pay prior
years' attorney's fees. (Defs.' Mem. at 4 (quoting Armstrong,
328 F. Supp. 2d at 61-62).)
Given this absence of unambiguous statutory language or "clear
indications of Congress' intent" with respect to this issue, see
Calloway, 216 F.3d at 11 (quoting National Treasury Employees
Union v. Devine, 733 F.2d 114, 120 (D.C. Cir. 1984)), the Court
will turn to "the customary meaning of words" for guidance. See id. at 12
(quoting United States v. Dickerson, 310 U.S. 554, 562 (1940)).
"`[A]ction' is generally defined as a judicial proceeding in
which one asserts a right or seeks redress for a wrong."
1 Am.Jur. 2d Actions § 4 (2004) (emphasis added). This definition
suggests that Congress included the phrase "action, including an
administrative proceeding" to make clear that the fee cap
encompassed an administrative hearing conducted pursuant to
20 U.S.C. §§ 1415(f)(1), as well as a "judicial proceeding."
However, for the reasons already discussed concerning the
statute's plain language, this definition does not help to
discern whether "action" should be construed to mean that an
administrative proceeding and a suit for fees constitute one
action or separate actions.
Defendants further note that "[a]n appeal is a continuation of
an original proceeding and not a new action." (Defs.' Mem. at 5-6
(quoting 1 Am. Jur. 2d Actions § 4).) But this proposition is
likewise unhelpful to understanding the meaning of "action," for
contrary to defendants' argument, the instant proceeding is not
akin to an appeal of the earlier administrative hearing. Indeed,
this Court has already reached this very conclusion. "Because
district courts have the exclusive jurisdiction to award
attorney's fees under section 1415(i)(3)(B) of IDEA, an action
for attorney's fees is not akin to an appeal from an
administrative decision." Kaseman, 329 F. Supp. 2d at 25
(citing Zipperer v. Sch. Bd. of Seminole County, Fla.,
111 F.3d 847, 851 (11th Cir. 1997)). See also Armstrong,
328 F. Supp. 2d at 54-55 (action for IDEA attorney's
fees is akin to a "de novo civil action under the IDEA" and is
"wholly different" from an appeal of a hearing officer decision);
Moore, 907 F.2d at 171 ("[T]he text and
structure of [IDEA] directly support the inference that Congress intended
section 1415(e)(4) to provide an independent cause of action for fees." (emphasis added)); id. at 167
(distinguishing between civil actions in federal court and
administrative proceedings and finding that Congress intended to
authorize fees for prevailing parties in both types of
proceedings); Akinseye v. District of Columbia, 193 F. Supp. 2d 134,
142-43, 144 (D.D.C. 2002)
(adopting rationale that an IDEA civil action for attorney's fees is
"not analogous to the appeal of an agency hearing, but is rather an
independent action predicated on statutory liability").*fn3
Therefore, because the instant suit is not an appeal of a prior
administrative determination, defendants' argument must be rejected.
Finally, defendants refer to the definition of proceeding. "As
ordinarily used, [`proceeding'] is broad enough to include all
methods of invoking the action of courts and is generally
applicable to any step taken to obtain the interposition or
action of a court." (Defs.' Mem. at 6 (quoting 1 Am. Jur. 2d
Actions § 3).) But this definition is both irrelevant and
unhelpful. "Action," not "proceeding," is the term at issue.
See Pub.L. No. 108-335 § 327. In addition, the phraseology of
the statutes plainly indicates that "administrative proceeding"
is included as an illustration of the kind of action as to the
which the cap applies. Given the structure of the sentence, even
if the generic term "proceeding" might normally "subsume an
initial adjudicative activity and any subsequent court-related
efforts to vindicate the same claimed right" (Defs.' Mem. at 6), in the instant context, the
term is more specific "administrative proceeding" and this
is clearly a type of "action," rather than the other way around.
In any event, the definition of "proceeding," like that of
"action," does not answer the question of whether an
administrative hearing and a subsequent suit for attorney's fees
constitute a single "action" or separate actions for purposes of
the fee cap.
Having failed to resolve this dilemma by looking to the term's
customary usage, the Court instead relies on caselaw to discern
the meaning of the statute. There is a "very strong presumption"
that appropriation acts do not change substantive law,
Calloway, 216 F.3d at 9 (quoting Building & Construction
Trades Dept., AFL-CIO v. Martin, 961 F.2d 269, 273 (D.C. Cir.
1992)) (internal quotation marks omitted), and this Circuit has
held that "[t]he D.C. Appropriations Acts [containing attorney's
fees caps] do not amend the IDEA. . . ." Algeria v. District of
Columbia, 2004 U.S. App. LEXIS 25138, at *20 (D.C. Cir. Dec. 3,
2004). In the absence of explicit statutory language, "when
appropriations measures arguably conflict with the underlying
authorizing legislation, their effect must be construed
narrowly." Calloway, 216 F.3d at 9 (quoting Donovan v.
Carolina Stalite Co., 734 F.2d 1547, 1558 (D.C. Cir. 1984))
(internal quotation marks omitted). Thus, this Court must
construe "action" in the manner most likely to enable plaintiffs
to enforce their rights under IDEA. To do so, the Court concludes
that the earlier administrative proceedings and the instant
attorney's fee litigation are distinct "actions" subject to
separate fee caps.
This result is consistent with this Circuit's requirement that
prevailing parties be fully compensated (or in this case, up to
the amount of the applicable fee cap) for all claims for which
they are entitled to attorney's fees, and its treatment of
fees-on-fees actions as generally being distinct from the underlying claims and as being separately
compensable. See Turner v. D.C. Bd. of Elections & Ethics,
354 F.3d 890, 898-99 (D.C. Cir. 2004).*fn4 For instance, in
Turner, the Court viewed later fees-on-fees litigation as
involving "distinct claims" and as being "fractionable" from the
earlier proceedings, and therefore, each action was to be
considered separately. Id. at 899. Cf. Armstrong,
328 F. Supp. 2d at 55 (quoting J.B. v. Essex-Caledonia Supervisory
Union, 943 F. Supp. 387, 390 (D.Vt. 1996)) ("In a fee claim
action, a court makes a judgment regarding an entirely different
set of factual and legal questions, considering whether and to
what extent the claimant is a prevailing party, as well as the
reasonableness of the time spent and the hourly rate charged."
(internal quotation marks omitted)).
Moreover, the Court cannot agree with defendants' argument that
the approach adopted here will defy Congress' intent to avoid
undue diversion of District funds from educational to IDEA
litigation purposes. (Defs.' Mem. at 7.) Rather, it is sincerely
hoped that the result reached here will motivate defendants to
avoid unnecessary fee litigation by promptly paying prevailing
parties the fees and costs incurred at the administrative hearing
stage. As is clear from the Court's prior opinion in this case,
defendants unjustifiably refused or delayed paying the fees of
parties who had prevailed at the administrative level despite
their statutory right to prompt payment. As a result of
defendants' recalcitrance, they needlessly forced plaintiffs to
seek court intervention. Clearly, it was within defendants' power
to avoid this type of unnecessary litigation, thereby conserving
the District's resources and hopefully realizing Congress' goal
of making more money available for the real beneficiaries of the
IDEA the disabled children of this community. See Calloway,
216 F.3d at 8-9.
In addition, if the Court were to adopt defendants' approach,
it would undercut IDEA's purpose of assisting disabled children.
If attorneys are limited to a combined $4,000 cap for both the
administrative hearing and the federal court litigation regarding
fees, there would be a powerful disincentive for attorneys to
undertake IDEA representation given the District's longstanding
and well-documented practice of either not paying or delaying the
payment of fees and costs to prevailing parties. Defendants'
position would also serve to encourage defendants to continue in
their practice of stonewalling legitimate fee requests.
Therefore, as recognized in Calloway, defendants' suggestion
that one cap be applied to both the administrative proceeding and
the ensuing fee litigation would effectively change parents'
rights under the IDEA in violation of the "very strong
presumption that appropriation acts do not amend substantive
law." 216 F.3d at 9 (internal quotation marks omitted).
Based on the foregoing, the Court concludes that this is a
separate action not subject to the same $4,000 cap as was
applicable to the administrative proceeding. As a result,
defendants are required to pay the fees awarded by this Court in
its August 2, 2004 Order.*fn5 SO ORDERED.