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Laster v. Dist. of Columbia

July 25, 2006

BETTY LASTER ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ricardo M. Urbina United States District Judge

Document No. 13

MEMORANDUM OPINION

GRANTING THE PLAINTIFFS' MOTION FOR ATTORNEYS' FEES AND COSTS IN PART

I. INTRODUCTION

The plaintiffs filed this case in September 22, 2005, seeking a stay put injunction*fn1 pursuant to the Individual with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400 et seq. After the court granted the plaintiffs' motion for a stay put injunction, the plaintiffs moved to collect $24,030.00*fn2 in attorneys' fees and $345.56 in costs. Because the plaintiffs are prevailing parties and because most (but not all) of the fees requested are reasonable, the court grants the motion in part and denies the motion in part.

II. BACKGROUND

The plaintiffs, C.A., A.J.P., and T.L., are three special education students in the District of Columbia and their parents or guardians. After filing administrative due process complaints, as required by the IDEA, the plaintiffs filed a suit in this court, alleging that the defendants violated their stay put rights. Mem. Op. (Sept. 28, 2006) ("Mem. Op.") at 4. In conjunction with filing their complaint, the plaintiffs requested emergency stay put injunctions to prevent the defendants from modifying the students' current IEP placements.*fn3 Id. After ordering expedited briefing, the court granted the plaintiffs' emergency motion in an order dated September 26, 2005. Order (Sept. 26, 2005). The court's order granting the emergency motion provided the relief requested by plaintiff C.A. The court also ordered the parties to meet on September 29, 2005 to discuss the IEP placements for plaintiffs A.J.P. and T.L., but the parties were unable to reach an agreement as to the proper IEP placements. Mem. Op. (May 31, 2006) at 4. After considering the parties' positions, the court granted A.J.P. and T.L. the relief they sought in their motion for an emergency stay put injunction on September 30, 2005. Order (Sept. 30, 2006).

After the court issued stay put injunctions, the defendants filed a motion for relief from judgment, which the court denied on July 17, 2006. The court now turns to the plaintiffs' motion for attorneys' fees and costs.

III. ANALYSIS

A. Legal Standard for Attorneys' Fees and Costs under IDEA

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 54(d) requires a party seeking attorneys' fees and "related non-taxable expenses" to file a motion with the court. FED. R. CIV. P. 54(d)(2)(A). The motion "must specify the judgment and the statute, rule, or other grounds entitling the moving party to the award." Id. It must also state the amount or provide a fair amount of the award sought. Id.; see also Herbin v. Dist. of Columbia, 2006 WL 890673, at *2 (D.D.C. Apr. 4, 2006).

The IDEA allows the parents of a disabled child to recover "reasonable attorneys' fees" so long as they are the "prevailing party." 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B). A court's determination of the appropriate attorneys' fees, in other words, is based on a two-step inquiry. First, the court must determine whether the party seeking attorneys' fees is the prevailing party. Id. A prevailing party "is one who has been awarded some relief by a court." Buckhannon Bd. & Care Home, Inc. v. W. Va. Dep't of Health and Human Res., 532 U.S. 598, 603 (2001); Alegria v. Dist. of Columbia, 391 F.3d 262, 264-65 (D.C. Cir. 2004) (applying Buckhannon in the IDEA context).

Second, the court must determine whether the attorneys' fees sought are reasonable. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B). "The most useful starting point for determining the amount of a reasonable 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 Blackman v. Dist. of Columbia, 397 F. Supp. 2d 12, 14 (D.D.C. 2005) (applying Hensley in the IDEA context). The plaintiff bears the burden of demonstrating that the number of hours spent on a particular task is reasonable. Holbrook v. Dist. of Columbia, 305 F. Supp. 2d 41, 45 (D.D.C. 2004). The plaintiff may satisfy this burden 'by submitting an invoice that is sufficiently detailed to 'permit the District Court to make an independent determination whether or not the hours claimed are justified.'" Id. (citing Nat'l Ass'n of Concerned Veterans v. Sec'y of Def., 675 F.2d 1319, 1327 (D.C. Cir. 1982)). "Once the plaintiff has provided such information, a presumption arises that the number of hours billed is reasonable and the burden shifts to the defendants to rebut the plaintiff's showing of reasonable hours." Herbin, 2006 WL 890673, at *5. With respect to the reasonable hourly rate, attorneys' fees in IDEA actions in the District of Columbia are reasonable if they conform to the Laffey Matrix*fn4 created by the United States Attorneys' Office. Lopez v. Dist. of Columbia, 383 F. Supp. 2d 18, 24 (D.D.C. 2005) (citing Kaseman v. Dist. of Columbia, 329 F. Supp. 2d 20, 25 (D.D.C. 2004)); see also 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(C) (stating that attorneys' fees awards "shall be based on rates prevailing in the community in which the action or proceeding arose for the kind and quality of services furnished").

The court notes that the D.C. Appropriations Act of 2005 caps the District of Columbia's payment of IDEA attorneys' fees at $4,000 per action. Pub. L. No. 108-335, 118 Stat. 1322 (2004); see also Herbin, 2006 WL 890673, at *2. Although the District of Columbia is limited in the award it may pay, the court is not bound by a fee cap and may award attorneys' fees and costs greater than the fee cap. Calloway v. Dist. of Columbia, 216 F.3d 1, 3 (D.C. Cir. 2000). The court, however, "cannot order the ...


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