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Thomas v. District of Columbia

November 6, 2006

LISA ANN THOMAS, AS MOTHER AND NEXT FRIEND OF A.T., A MINOR, PLAINTIFF,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Colleen Kollar-kotelly United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Currently before the Court is Plaintiff's Motion for Payment of Attorney's Fees and Costs for Court Proceedings, in which Plaintiff seeks attorney's fees under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq. (2000). Pl.'s Mot. for Pmt. of Att'ys Fees and Costs for Ct. Proceedings (hereinafter "Pl.'s Mot. for Att'ys Fees") at 1-2. Plaintiff seeks fees and costs arising out of two administrative hearings as well as the motion for summary judgment addressed in this Court's July 19, 2005 Memorandum Opinion. Pl.'s Reply to Def.'s Opp'n. to Pl.'s Mot. for Pmt. of Att'ys Fees and Costs for Court Proceedings (hereinafter "Pl.'s Reply") at 1.*fn1 In response to Plaintiff's Motion, Defendants assert: (1) that Plaintiff was not a prevailing party in all claims alleged in her complaint and therefore is entitled only to limited attorney's fees; (2) that Plaintiff has failed to show the reasonableness of the award requested; and (3) that regardless of the amount of any award the Court may order, the District of Columbia's liability for payment of attorney's fees is limited by a $4,000-per-proceeding statutory fee cap. Def.'s Resp. to Pl.'s Reply to Def.'s Opp'n. to Pl.'s Mot. for Pmt. of Att'ys Fees and Costs for Court Proceedings (hereinafter "Def.'s Resp.") at 4. Upon a review of the relevant filings, the attached exhibits, and the pertinent case law, the Court determines that Plaintiff was the "prevailing party" as to some, but not all, of the claims raised before this Court and is therefore entitled to limited attorney's fees. The Court shall refer Plaintiff's Motion for Payment of Attorney's Fees and Costs to Magistrate Judge Kay for a Report and Recommendation regarding the proper fee award, in light of Plaintiff's limited success and Defendant's arguments concerning the reasonableness of Plaintiff's fee request.

I. BACKGROUND

The Court shall assume familiarity with the Court's July 19, 2005 Memorandum Opinion denying-in-part Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment and granting-in-part and denying-in-part Defendant's Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment, Thomas v. District of Columbia, 407 F. Supp. 2d 102 (D.D.C. 2005), which includes an extensive discussion of the facts underlying this action. Plaintiff A.T. is a disabled seventeen (17) year-old who has been found eligible for special education by District of Columbia Public Schools ("DCPS"). Id. at 104.*fn2 A.T. was placed in DCPS in June 1996, but was not referred for evaluation and assessment of special education needs as required by the then-controlling statute. Id. In November 1998, Lisa Ann Thomas, A.T.'s mother, filed a written request that DCPS assess and evaluate her son for special education needs, and on February 3, 1999, Ms. Thomas filed a request for a Due Process hearing to challenge DCPS's failure to evaluate A.T. in a timely manner. Id. On April 26, 1999, DCPS drafted and subsequently developed an IEP for A.T.; Ms. Thomas requested DCPS re-evaluate that IEP on February 15, 2000. Id.

On February 15, 2000, DCPS conducted a Due Process hearing, approximately one (1) year after the initial request was made. Id. In the resulting decision, the Hearing Officer (1) ordered DCPS to complete neurological and psychological evaluations of A.T., (2) outlined the steps to be taken to address compensatory services, and (3) gave the family the right to a new hearing if concerns over compensatory services were not resolved. Id. Pursuant to a new hearing request on August 7, 2002, DCPS issued a placement notice in September 2002 and appropriately placed A.T. at High Road School. Id. In March 2003, Ms. Thomas amended her pending hearing request from August 2002 to seek only compensatory services for the denial of free appropriate public education ("FAPE"), and on May 28, 2003 the parties participated in a Due Process hearing on this request with Hearing Officer Terry Michael Banks presiding. Id. at 105. At this hearing, DCPS presented no witnesses, entered no exhibits other than Plaintiff's hearing request and its disclosure statement, and offered no closing. Id. DCPS did not present, and the Hearing Officer did not discuss, the potential impact of claim preclusion and res judicata on Plaintiff's claims. Id. Plaintiff, on the other hand, offered uncontested testimony and presented numerous exhibits in support of her argument that A.T. was denied FAPE from June 1996, the date the DCPS retained A.T. without referral, until September 9, 2002, the date DCPS placed A.T. at High Road School. Id. Plaintiff sought compensatory services for a six (6) year denial of FAPE, in the form of one-on-one tutoring at the rate of 200 hours per academic year/special education summer school. Id.

In the June 30, 2003 Hearing Officer Determination ("H.O.D.") resulting from the May 28, 2003 hearing, the Hearing Officer found that DCPS was only responsible for failing to comply with the November 30, 2001 H.O.D., and awarded compensatory education only for the period from that date until September 2002 when A.T. was properly placed. Id. The Hearing Officer based his decision almost entirely on res judicata and claim preclusion, which he raised sua sponte in his H.O.D. Id. Plaintiff filed a Motion for Reconsideration on July 20, 2003, which the Hearing Officer denied on August 1, 2003, two (2) days after the initial deadline for filing an appeal on the H.O.D. had passed. Id. A typographical error in the June 30, 2003 H.O.D. was corrected subsequently on August 4, 2003 and the new ruling reset the thirty (30) day time limit for appeals of the Hearing Officer's decision to this Court. Id. Plaintiff filed her Complaint in this action on August 26, 2003 -- safely within the period of appeals. Id.

Plaintiff's Complaint included ten (10) Counts, some of which Plaintiff abandoned at the summary judgment stage. Id. Eight of these ten Counts alleged various infirmities in the administrative process, while two of the Counts, Counts VI and VII, asserted that the Hearing Officer had incorrectly applied the law in connection with the June 30, 2003 H.O.D. and subsequent rulings. Id. at 105-06. Plaintiff's Complaint sought eight separate forms of relief, including reversal of the various H.O.D.s and remand of the matter to a different Hearing Officer, and an order instructing DCPS to fund 1200 hours of one-on-one private tutoring for A.T., as well as six other forms of declaratory and injunctive relief directed toward remedying the infirmities Plaintiff perceived in the administrative process. Compl. at 18.

Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment raised five arguments: (1) that the Hearing Officer was biased in favor of DCPS; (2) that the Hearing Officer engaged in ex parte communication with DCPS; (3) that DCPS's arrangement with the Hearing Officer ensured that the Hearing Officer was a DCPS "employee"; (4) that the June 30, 2003 H.O.D. and subsequent rulings were not supported by fact and were erroneous as a matter of law; and (5) that the Hearing Officer wrongfully delayed ruling on Plaintiff's Motion to Reconsider until the right to appeal had apparently expired. Thomas, 407 F. Supp. 2d at 109. Defendant disputed each of these arguments and moved for summary judgment on the grounds that the evidence in the record supported the Hearing Officer's decision. Id.

In its July 19, 2005 Memorandum Opinion on the cross-motions for summary judgment, this Court summarized Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment by stating:

Plaintiff's appeal raises two major questions. The first question is whether the integrity of the proceedings was compromised because the Hearing Officer was biased. The second question is whether the H.O.D. was legally and factually supported. While Plaintiff does not present sufficient evidence to establish Hearing Officer bias, the Court finds that the Hearing Officer impermissibly limited the time period for which compensatory education could be awarded.

Id. Specifically, the Court denied Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment with respect to her claims that the Hearing Officer was biased, engaged in ex parte communication with DCPS, was a DCPS employee, and wrongfully delayed ruling on Plaintiff's Motion for Reconsideration. Id. at 109-10. As to Plaintiff's claim that the June 30, 2003 H.O.D. lacked legal and factual support, the Court concluded "that the Hearing Officer erroneously limited the time period for which compensatory education is available" because "each of the prior H.O.D.'s included language specifically aimed at preventing the kind of claim preclusion or res judicata ruling entered by Hearing Officer Banks in his June 30, 2003 H.O.D." and because "each of these earlier rulings constituted a constructive finding of a denial of FAPE and a violation of the IDEA." Id. at 115. However, as this Court could not "determine the appropriate amount of compensatory services based on the information in the Record" id., this Court remanded the case back to the administrative level with instructions that "[o]n remand, the administrative proceedings should focus on the amount of assistance required to put A.T. in the position he should have been in had he not been denied FAPE from June 1996 to September 2002." Id. at 116.

Plaintiff asserts, and Defendant does not contest, that on remand the DCPS Hearing Officer ordered the parties "to reconvene an MDT/IEP meeting . . . to discuss and agree on [A.T.'s] entitlement to compensatory education." Pl.'s Mot. for Att'ys Fees ¶ 3. Plaintiff further asserts that "[o]n February 3, 2006, the MDT/IEP team met and awarded [A.T.] 1200 hours of one-on-one private individual tutoring in satisfaction of [A.T.'s] entitlement to compensatory education." Id. ¶ 4. Plaintiff's counsel submitted his statement for attorney's fees directly to DCPS' Office of General Counsel on February 5, 2006 and received no response. Id. ¶¶ 5-6. Plaintiff therefore filed her Motion for Payment of Attorney's Fees and Costs with this Court on March 2, 2006. Pl.'s Mot. for Att'ys Fees. On August 15, 2006, Defendant filed an Opposition to Plaintiff's Motion for Attorney's Fees asserting that Plaintiff's Motion failed to attach any documentation to support her award request. See generally Def.'s Opp'n. to Pl.'s Mot. for Att'ys Fees. On the same day, Plaintiff filed a more detailed Reply, with the supporting billing records appended. On August 25, 2006, Defendant filed a Response to Plaintiff's Reply, in which Defendant challenged specific aspects of Plaintiff's fee request. See generally Def.'s Resp. Plaintiff responded with a Sur-Rebuttal on September 1, 2006, and Defendant submitted an additional Praecipe on October 2, 2006.

II. LEGAL STANDARDS

Under the IDEA, "the court, in its discretion, may award reasonable attorneys' fees as part of the costs to the parents of a child with a disability who is the prevailing party." 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B). Although the IDEA does not define "prevailing party," the Supreme Court has held that a plaintiff is a prevailing party for the purposes of being awarded attorneys' fees when the party has secured, inter alia, a judgment on the merits or a court-ordered consent decree. Buckhannon Bd. & Care Home, Inc. v. W. Virginia Dep't of Health & Human Res., 532 U.S. 598, 600, 603-04, 121 S.Ct. 1835, 149 L.Ed. 2d 855 (2001). In both of these situations, there has been a "'material alteration of the legal relationship of the parties necessary to ...


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