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Lopez v. District of Columbia

August 9, 2005

ALEJANDRA LOPEZ, PARENT AND FRIEND OF C.C., A MINOR, PLAINTIFF,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: John M. Facciola United States Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Plaintiff brought this action to challenge a decision by the District of Columbia Public Schools ("DCPS") to place a learning disabled child at Prospect Learning Center ("Prospect"), a public school program, and a hearing officer's approval of that placement. The court granted in part and denied in part plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment, and subsequently plaintiff moved for attorneys' fees and costs. For the reasons stated herein, plaintiff's Motion for Attorneys' Fees is granted in part and denied in part.

I. BACKGROUND

At the time of the complaint, C.C., the minor plaintiff, was an eleven-year-old disabled student in the District of Columbia Public School System. On May 22, 2003, a bilingual multi-disciplinary team ("MDT") met to review C.C.'s educational needs. The team determined that C.C. was eligible to receive a free, appropriate, public education and designed an Individualized Education Program ("IEP") for her. During the meeting, DCPS decided that Prospect was an appropriate placement for C.C. Her mother, dissatisfied with this determination, requested a due process hearing. The hearing officer affirmed DCPS's placement, and C.C.'s mother, still dissatisfied, filed the instant action.

When the school year began, C.C.'s mother had not received any information regarding Prospect, and C.C. began attending Accotink, the private school her sister was attending at the time. Shortly thereafter, DCPS mistakenly sent a letter to Accotink naming C.C. as a newly funded student and began providing C.C. with transportation to Accotink a few months into the school year. When DCPS discovered these clerical errors, it informed plaintiff that C.C.'s proper placement was Prospect and that it would only provide transportation and funding to that school in the future.

Subsequently, plaintiff filed a Motion for a Preliminary Injunction to compel DCPS to transport and fund C.C.'s education. This motion was granted, and the court ordered the District of Columbia to transport and fund C.C.'s education at Accotink for the remainder of the 2003-04 school year. The court granted this motion, in large part, because of the threat of irreparable harm to C.C. socially, emotionally, and academically if forced to relocate so late in the school year. However, the court noted that, in granting the motion, it was merely maintaining the status quo, and it deferred any decision on the merits.

Thereafter, the court considered the plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment. At that point, two issues were before the court: (1) whether, given the contents of C.C.'s IEP, Prospect was an appropriate placement for her, and (2) whether, because the District funded and transported C.C. to Accotink for a large part of the 2003-04 school year, even before the court's order granting the preliminary injunction, the District would be estopped from arguing that it should not be required to pay for the educational services C.C. received at Accotink.

On the first issue, the court determined that Prospect was an appropriate placement for C.C. because it could implement the services on C.C.'s IEP by providing her with full-time special education services as well as specialized instruction, psychological services, and speech-language services. In the normal course, DCPS would not have had to reimburse plaintiff for the costs of attending Accotink because the court determined that the placement was proper. However, due to the succession of mistakes committed by DCPS, equitable principles suggested that some reimbursement was necessary. In analyzing what equitable remedy was appropriate, the court drew a distinction between the 2003-04 school year and the 2004-05 school year. The court ultimately determined that, because DCPS's repeated errors reasonably led plaintiff to believe that Accotink was the school that C.C. was supposed to attend for the 2003-04 year, the only equitable solution was to order DCPS to fund C.C.'s attendance at Accotink Academy for that year. However, the court declined to extend the relief to cover the 2004-05 year because, by that point, plaintiff was well aware of: (1) the determination by DCPS that Prospect was the appropriate placement for C.C.; (2) the controversy surrounding C.C.'s attendance at Accotink; and (3) the court order allowing C.C. to attend Accotink only until the end of the 2003-04 school year. In light of these factors, the court determined that plaintiff enrolled C.C. at Accotink for the 2004-05 year at her own financial risk.

Currently before the court is plaintiff's Motion for Attorneys' Fees in regard to the partial granting of her Motion for Summary Judgment. This question revolves around two issues: (1) whether plaintiff is the prevailing party for purposes of attorneys' fees, and (2) if so, what amount of attorneys' fees should be awarded.

II. DISCUSSION

A. Whether Plaintiff Is a Prevailing Party Entitled to Attorneys' Fees

1. Legal Standard

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA" or "Act") provides that "in any action or proceeding brought under this section, the court, in its discretion, may award reasonable attorneys' fees as part of the costs to a prevailing party who is the parent of a child with a disability." 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B)(i)(I).

The Supreme Court has held that, in order to qualify as a "prevailing party," two conditions must be met. First, there must be an "alteration in the legal relationship of the parties." Buckhannon Bd. and Care Home, Inc. v. West Virginia Dep't of Health and Human Res., 532 U.S. 598, 605 (2001). See also Alegria v. District of Columbia, 391 F.3d 262, 264-65 (D.C. Cir. 2004). Second, this change in relationship must occur as a result of formal judicial action. Buckhannon, 532 U.S. at 605-06; Alegria, 391 F.3d at 264-65. In other words, even though plaintiff need not prevail on all of her claims, see Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983), "there must be an 'alteration in the legal relationship of the parties' that has been given some judicial imprimatur. . . " in order for a court to award attorneys' fees. Armstrong v. Vance, 328 F. Supp. 2d 50, 57 (D.D.C. 2004) ...


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