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Alfonso v. Dist. of Columbia

December 13, 2006

ALEXANDRA ALFONSO 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. 12

MEMORANDUM OPINION

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

I. INTRODUCTION

The plaintiffs previously brought suit under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400 et seq., alleging that the defendants failed to provide the child plaintiff with an appropriate individualized education program*fn1 ("IEP") prior to the start of the 2004-2005 school year and seeking reimbursement of tuition expenses for that school year. On February 16, 2006, the court granted the plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment. This case now comes before the court on the plaintiffs' motion for $51,659.19 in attorneys' fees and costs. Because the plaintiffs are prevailing parties and because most of the requested fees are reasonable, the court grants the plaintiffs' motion in part and denies it in part, and awards the plaintiffs $41,017.44 in attorney's fees.

II. BACKGROUND

The child plaintiff suffers from significant visual impairment. Compl. ¶ 6. On September 15, 2003, the child's mother registered her at Shepherd Elementary ("Shepherd") and requested that the District of Columbia Public Schools ("DCPS") begin the process of determining the child's eligibility for special education under the IDEA. Compl. ¶ 12. DCPS drafted an IEP in which the child plaintiff would attend Shepherd and receive a variety of therapy and education tailored to her needs. Admin. R. at 103, 106. The plaintiffs challenged that IEP as inadequate. Pls.' Mot. for Summ. J. at 7, 11.

After exhausting their administrative remedies, the plaintiffs filed suit pursuant to the IDEA on October 21, 2004. On February 16, 2006, the court granted the plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment, concluding that the defendants had not completed the IEP in compliance with the IDEA and D.C. law. Mem. Op. (Feb. 16, 2006) at 7-11. On March 17, 2006, the plaintiffs brought this motion for attorneys' fees and costs.

III. ANALYSIS

A. Legal Standard for Awarding Attorneys' Fees under the IDEA

The IDEA allows the parents of a disabled child to recover "reasonable attorneys' fees" if 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 v. Dist. of Columbia, 2006 WL 890673, at *5 (D.D.C. Apr. 4, 2006). 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*fn2 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").

B. The Court Grants in Part and Denies in Part the Plaintiffs' Motion for Attorneys' Fees

As a preliminary matter, the court notes that the defendants do not dispute that the plaintiffs are the prevailing party in the underlying IDEA suit. Defs.' Opp'n to Pls.' Mot. for Attys' Fees & Costs ("Defs.' Opp'n") at 1. Indeed, because the plaintiffs succeeded on their motion for summary judgment, they are the prevailing ...


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