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Lax v. District of Columbia

July 12, 2006

BENJAMIN LAX, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Henry H. Kennedy, Jr. United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Benjamin Lax, a minor, by his parents and next friends, Michelle Lax and Kirklin Frazier, and twenty-eight other minors and their parents and next friends, bring this suit against the District of Columbia and the District of Columbia Public Schools ("DCPS") for reimbursement of attorneys' fees and costs incurred in pursuing administrative complaints against DCPS under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq. Before the court is plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment [#16]. Upon consideration of plaintiffs' motion, the opposition thereto, and the record of the case, the court concludes that the motion must be granted in part.

I. BACKGROUND INFORMATION

Plaintiffs, twenty-nine students with disabilities and their parents and next friends, were all prevailing parties in due process hearings or settlement agreements under the IDEA.*fn1 In their complaint, plaintiffs claimed that $286,409.07 was still owed in attorneys' fees and costs, which, due to partial payment by DCPS, had dropped to $164,649.11 at the time plaintiffs moved for summary judgment, Pls.' Mot. for Summ. J. ("Pls.' Mot.") at 2, and now stands at $153,201.49. Pls.' Reply, Ex. 1, at 2. DCPS contests various aspects of plaintiffs' fee request.

II. ANALYSIS

A. Legal Standard

IDEA 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 a prevailing party who is the parent of a child with a disability." 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B)(i). Additionally, "[f]ees awarded under this paragraph shall be based on rates prevailing in the community in which the action or proceeding arose for the kind and quality of services furnished." Id. § 1415(i)(3)(C).

In order for plaintiffs to recover attorneys' fees, they "must first demonstrate that . . . each of them is a prevailing party in the litigation." Watkins v. Vance, 328 F. Supp. 2d 23, 25 (D.D.C. 2004). After plaintiffs cross this threshold, the court must determine whether the fees sought are reasonable; "[t]he most useful starting point for determining the amount of an appropriate fee is the number of hours reasonably expended on the litigation multiplied by a reasonable hourly rate." Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983); see also Blum v. Stenson, 465 U.S. 886, 888 (1984). To prove the reasonableness of counsels' rates, plaintiffs must submit information about "the attorneys' billing practices and hourly rate, the attorneys' skill and experience (including the number of years that counsel has practiced law), the nature of counsel's practice as it relates to this kind of litigation and the prevailing market rates in the relevant community." Watkins, 328 F. Supp. 2d at 26.

Plaintiffs also have the burden of demonstrating that the number of hours expended on particular tasks is appropriate. See Nat'l Ass'n of Concerned Veterans v. Sec'y of Def., 675 F.2d 1319, 1337 (D.C. Cir. 1982) (Tamm, J., concurring); Holbrook v. Dist. of Columbia, 305 F. Supp. 2d 41, 45 (D.D.C. 2004). This burden is satisfied by "submitting invoices that are sufficiently detailed to 'permit the District Court to make an independent determination whether or not the hours claimed are justified.'" Kaseman v. Dist. of Columbia, 329 F. Supp. 2d 20, 26 (D.D.C. 2004) (quoting Concerned Veterans, 675 F.3d at 1327). The invoices "need not present the exact number of minutes spent nor the precise activity to which each hour was devoted nor the specific attainments of each attorney." Concerned Veterans, 675 F.2d at 1327 (internal quotations omitted). Rather, the "touchstone inquiry" is whether the charges presented are "reasonable." Holbrook, 305 F. Supp. 2d at 45.

Once the plaintiffs have provided such information, a presumption arises that the number of hours billed and the hourly rate are reasonable. Watkins, 328 F. Supp. 2d at 26. The burden then shifts to the defendants to rebut the plaintiffs' claim of reasonable hours and rates, which requires that they "provide specific contrary evidence" indicating that a lower rate or a lower tally of hours billed would be appropriate. Covington v. Dist. of Columbia, 57 F.3d 1101, 1109--10 (D.C. Cir. 1995).

B. Plaintiffs' Fee Request

Plaintiffs state that they have submitted "timely and sufficiently-alleged claims" for fees and costs, including a chart of amounts due and the decisions of the proceedings from which the fees and costs arose. Pls.' Mot. at 2. Plaintiffs also file a declaration from one of their attorneys attesting to the reasonableness of the fees and costs being sought, indicating that the qualifications of plaintiffs' counsel have been established in numerous actions litigated before this court, id., Ex. 2 ("Eig Decl.") ¶ 6 (citing Moore v. Dist. of Columbia, 674 F. Supp. 901, 905--06 (D.D.C. 1987)), and that counsel have also been recognized as "a leading [IDEA] firm in the district." Id. (citing Kattan v. Dist. of Columbia, 995 F.2d 274, 278 (D.C. Cir. 1993) (alterations in original)). Plaintiffs' counsel also submitted detailed billing records for each of the individual plaintiffs represented in this action, with line entries for every charge indicating the attorney or legal assistant responsible, the date, and the amount of time expended. These entries also provide a description, in varying levels of detail, of the billed activity. Compl., Exs. 3B--40B.*fn2

Both the court and DCPS are familiar with plaintiffs' counsel and their billing rates, and the court finds that they have sufficiently established their experience and qualifications in the area of IDEA litigation. Furthermore, applying the standard set forth in Hensley and Blum, the court notes that, as a general matter, plaintiffs' attorneys have successfully met their initial burden by submitting sufficiently detailed invoices. However, there are a number of individual billing entries that plaintiffs' counsel have failed to adequately support, to which DCPS raises meritorious objections. The court ...


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