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Spilsbury v. District of Columbia

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA


March 31, 2005

ROBERT SPILSBURY, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Emmet G. Sullivan United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION & ORDER

Plaintiffs are children eligible for special education and related services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400 et seq. (2003). Plaintiffs come before the Court having previously been awarded injunctive relief in the form of "stay-put" protection and reimbursement for expenses associated with maintaining their educational placements at the McLean School, a private school serving children with learning disabilities. See Spilsbury v. District of Columbia, No. 02-374, Order (March 8, 2002); Spilsbury v. District of Columbia, No. 02-374, Mem. Op. & Order (March 10, 2004).

Plaintiffs now seek reimbursement of their attorneys' fees incurred in pursuing that final relief. Defendants neither contest plaintiffs' status as "prevailing parties," nor the total amount claimed for attorneys' fees. Rather, defendants resist the full payment of attorneys' fees, arguing that the District's liability is limited by a statutory fee cap for claims brought under the IDEA. See Resp. to Mot. for Costs and Expenses. Plaintiffs contend that the fee cap does not apply, because "this is not an IDEA action, but a suit brought under [42 U.S.C.] Section 1983 to enforce IDEA rights." See Notice of Legal Authority at 4.

Although the Court acknowledges the line of cases awarding relief under Section 1983 for violations of IDEA rights, this case was presented, argued and properly decided under the IDEA. Accordingly, the Court will order the payment of attorneys' fees under the IDEA pursuant to Calloway v. District of Columbia, 216 F.3d 1, 9 (D.C. Cir. 2000), subject to any applicable statutory fee cap. However, the Court expressly leaves for another day the issue of whether an award of attorneys' fees under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 is subject to a statutory cap.

I. BACKGROUND

The IDEA includes a fee-shifting provision that allows judges, in their discretion, to award reasonable attorneys' fees to prevailing parties in IDEA actions. See 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B). Although the courts' authority to award attorney fees under this section is not limited, Congress in 1998 passed an appropriations rider which limited the attorneys' fees the District of Columbia could pay under the IDEA. See Calloway,*fn1 216 F.3d at 9. Specifically, the 2004 version of the fee cap prohibits the District of Columbia from paying attorneys' fees in excess of $4,000 in cases "brought against the District of Columbia Public Schools under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act...." See Consolidated Appropriations Act for 2004, Pub. L. No. 108-199, 118 Stat. 141 § 432 (2004).

The primary issue here is whether this statutory fee cap limits in any way the attorneys' fees plaintiffs are requesting in this case. Plaintiffs contend that it does not, as their suit "is not an IDEA action, but a suit brought under [20 U.S.C.] Section 1983 to enforce IDEA rights." Notice of Legal Authority at 4. Defendants, on the other hand, argue that plaintiffs' motion should be viewed solely through the IDEA prism, as "section 1983 serves no role independent of the underlying IDEA claim." See Resp. to Legal Authority at 4. Therefore, according to defendants, any attorneys' fees awarded by this Court should be subject to the statutory fee cap.

II. ANALYSIS

Courts in this jurisdiction have acknowledged at least two categories of suits available to families to enforce rights created by the IDEA. The first are suits brought directly under IDEA, pursuant to 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i). See Kaseman v. District of Columbia, 329 F. Supp. 2d 20, 30 (D.D.C. 2004). The second are suits brought not under IDEA, but pursuant to alternative civil rights remedies, including 42 U.S.C. § 1983, in order to vindicate rights accorded under IDEA. See Johnson v. District of Columbia, 190 F. Supp. 2d 34, 46-47 (D.D.C. 2002); Blackman v. District of Columbia, 145 F. Supp. 2d 47, 51-52 (D.D.C. 2001); Zearley v. Ackerman, 116 F. Supp. 2d 109, 114 (D.D.C. 2000); Petties v. District of Columbia, 55 F. Supp. 2d 17, 19 (D.D.C. 1999); Walker v. District of Columbia, 969 F. Supp. 794, 797 (D.D.C. 1997). Courts have further held that "while the statutory cap on attorneys' fees applies to actions brought directly under IDEA, the cap does not apply to fee awards in actions brought pursuant to section 1983 to enforce rights accorded under IDEA."*fn2 Kaseman, 329 F. Supp. 2d at 30; accord Blackman, 145 F. Supp. 2d at 50-51; Petties, 55 F. Supp. 2d at 18.*fn3

This line of cases rests, in part, on the significance of IDEA's "savings clause," which preserves plaintiffs' "rights, procedures, and remedies" available under the Constitution or other federal laws. See 20 U.S.C. § 1415(l).*fn4 "What Congress recognized in passing Section 1415(l)," according to the District Court in Petties, "was that there are some people who have interests under the [IDEA]... that don't qualify to go to court under Section 1415(i)." See Petties, No. 95-148, Tr. at 97-98 (D.D.C. May 12, 1999)(cited in Blackman, 145 F. Supp. 2d at 51- 52). The savings clause preserves the ability of these plaintiffs to vindicate their IDEA rights through a suit under Section 1983. See Blackman, 145 F. Supp. 2d at 52.

In this case, plaintiffs seek to avoid the application of the IDEA fee cap by framing their case as a Section 1983 action rather than an IDEA case.*fn5 They base this argument on a literal reading of the text of 20 U.S.C. § 1415 ("Right to bring civil action"), which provides that "any party aggrieved by the findings and decision made under subsection (f) or (k) of this section... and any party aggrieved by the findings and decision under this subsection, shall have the right to bring a civil action... in a district court of the United States...." 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2)(A). Because this case involved a suit for injunctive relief to enforce IDEA's "stay-put" provision, rather than a challenge to a hearing officer's determination, plaintiffs claim they are not "aggrieved" parties within the meaning of the section and therefore could not have brought a suit under the IDEA. See Notice of Legal Authority at 2-3.

This argument, however, is in tension with years of clear precedent upholding the courts' ability in cases such as this to fashion appropriate equitable remedies under the IDEA, including reimbursement. See Reid v. District of Columbia, __ F.3d ____, 2005 WL 678385 at *1 (D.C. Cir. March 25, 2005)(noting that "'appropriate' IDEA relief may include reimbursement for parents who place children in private school rather than accept a deficient public school IEP")(citing School Comm. of Burlington v. Dep't of Ed. of Mass., 471 U.S. 359, 369 (1985)); see also Mackey v. Bd. of Educ. for the Arlington Cent. Sch. Dist., 386 F.3d 158, 165 (2d Cir. 2004) (noting that "[c]courts are empowered under the IDEA 'to order school authorities to reimburse parents for their expenditures on private school education"). Therefore, the Court declines to adopt plaintiffs' narrow reading of "parties aggrieved" and holds that this case was properly brought, and decided, under the IDEA. See Nieves-Marquez v. Puerto Rico, 353 F.3d 108, 116-17 (1 Cir. 2003) (upholding a st broad reading of "parties aggrieved" in light of IDEA's overall structure and intent).*fn6

III. CONCLUSION

Because defendants do not oppose plaintiffs' petition for attorneys' fees and costs in the amount of $30,791.21, and because the Court is satisfied that plaintiffs' attorney time and expenses are reasonable, it is hereby

ORDERED that Plaintiffs' Motion for Attorneys' Fees and Costs is GRANTED; and it is

FURTHER ORDERED that defendants shall, by no later than May 1, 2005, pay plaintiffs $30,791.21 in attorneys' fees, subject to any applicable statutory fee caps. If not paid by May 1, 2005, it will bear interest at the rate established by 28 U.S.C. § 1961; and it is

FURTHER ORDERED that this case is removed from the active calendar of the court.


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