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Coleman v. District of Columbia

May 3, 2007

BERTHA COLEMAN, 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

Before the court is plaintiffs' motion for the attorneys' fees and costs they have incurred in prosecuting this lawsuit brought under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq., a suit itself brought to recover attorneys' fees and costs incurred by plaintiffs in pursuing administrative actions against the District of Columbia Public Schools ("DCPS").*fn1 In other words, the instant motion seeks "fees on fees." The motion was referred to United States Magistrate Judge Deborah A. Robinson for her report and recommendation pursuant to LCvR 72.3. The Magistrate Judge recommends that plaintiffs' motion be granted and that plaintiffs be awarded $37,984.32, the entire amount they seek. Report and Recommendation ("Rep.") at 3.

Defendants object to the report and recommendation and contend that the attorneys' fees to which plaintiffs are entitled amounts to much less than $37,984.34. Upon consideration of plaintiffs' motion, including the submissions that accompany the motion, defendants' opposition, the report and recommendation, defendants' objection thereto, and the response of plaintiffs to the objection, the court concludes that defendants' objection has merit and that plaintiffs are entitled to attorneys' fees and costs in the amount of $24,600.47.

I. BACKGROUND

On January 21, 2005, judgment was entered in plaintiffs' favor in the amount of $45,104.05. This amount, $2,712.50 less than the amount claimed, represents the difference between the amount plaintiffs claim was due them as prevailing parties in eighteen administrative proceedings, either by virtue of favorable administrative rulings or through voluntary settlement agreements, and the amount they were paid before this suit was filed or before the date of judgment. The court's judgment was accompanied by a memorandum that explains the rationale for the court's decision.

On April 22, 2005, plaintiffs filed the instant motion after the court denied defendants' motion to alter the judgment. Plaintiffs' motion is accompanied by a memorandum, a declaration of one of the three attorneys who represents them, and a listing of attorneys' fees and expenses ("Fee Listing"). While conceding that plaintiffs are entitled to reasonable attorneys' fees and costs, defendants, in a 14-page opposition, set forth several arguments in support of their position that plaintiffs are entitled to substantially less than the amount they seek.

II. ANALYSIS

A. The Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation

Finding that defendants' challenge to plaintiffs' fee motion is "predicated entirely upon arguments which the court has already rejected, or for which there is no authority," Rep. at 3, the report and recommendation makes short shrift of defendants' challenges. As an example of an argument "already rejected," the report references, by page number, a portion of defendants' memorandum in opposition and characterizes the arguments found there as amounting to no more than that "Plaintiffs' counsel's hourly rates are too high." Rep. at 4. Then, to substantiate the determination that defendants' argument is foreclosed, the report references, by page number, the court's memorandum and states, "[t]he court already held that '[P]laintiffs' counsel have demonstrated that they have both expertise and experience in the area of IDEA litigation[,]' and awarded attorneys' fees at counsel's billing rates." Ibid.

The report and recommendation does not withstand scrutiny. Defendants raise several specific objections that are not based on arguments "already rejected" and which can not be fairly characterized as stating only that "Plaintiffs' counsel's hourly rates are too high." For example, and most conspicuously, defendants object to the hourly rate for the activities of Lisa Noik and Patti Johnston, two non-lawyer employees of the firm that represents plaintiffs.*fn2 Because the Magistrate Judge's report and recommendation, with one exception,*fn3 does not address defendants' challenges to plaintiffs' fee motion, the court will resolve the motion without regard to the report and recommendation, a task to which it now turns.

B. Hourly Rate for Non-Attorneys

As mentioned above, defendants object to the hourly charges for Lisa Noik and Patti Johnston, respectively $125 and $150 per hour, in view of the lack of information provided about them in plaintiffs' Fee Listing. In plaintiffs' reply (and for the first time), Ms. Noik is identified as a legal assistant and Mrs. Johnston as the office manager for plaintiffs' attorneys' firm. Plaintiffs argue that it is appropriate to bill at the rate indicated because "both [women] have college degrees, and office experience sufficient to be entrusted with the frequently complicated administrative, organizational and clerical tasks which they performed in this case." Pls.' Reply at 5.

Defendants' challenge to the hourly rates billed for Noik and Johnston is sustained. Given the tasks performed by Noik and Johnston and their apparent lack of legal training, there is no basis for billing their services at a rate that is in excess of the Laffey Matrix rate applicable for paralegals and law clerks.*fn4 Plaintiffs are ...


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