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Kaseman v. Dist. of Columbia

January 6, 2005

KATHERYN KASEMAN, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ellen Segal Huvelle United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

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 fee cap.

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....

Id.

ANALYSIS

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 ...


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