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Bush ex rel A.H. v. District of Columbia

September 29, 2008

JOYCELYNN BUSH EX REL. A.H., A MINOR 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. 16

MEMORANDUM OPINION GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART THE PLAINTIFFS' MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

I. INTRODUCTION

The plaintiffs, minor children bringing suit through their parents as next friends,*fn1 request that the court determine whether they were prevailing parties at administrative due process hearings held pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"),20 U.S.C. §§ 1400 et seq. The defendant, the District of Columbia, through its silence concedes that 10 of the 16*fn2 plaintiffs did prevail at the administrative level. As to the 6 remaining plaintiffs, the court concludes that 4 were not prevailing parties. The reasons for these determinations are unique to each plaintiff and the court discusses them in more detail below.

II. FACTUAL & PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

The "IDEA guarantees parents of disabled children an opportunity to participate in the identification, evaluation, or educational placement of children." Calloway v. District of Columbia, 216 F.3d 1, 3 (D.C. Cir. 2000). Parents who disagree with the identification, evaluation or educational placement of their children may request an administrative "impartial due process hearing" before a hearing officer. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(f).

The plaintiffs are 16 minor children and their parents; the children are students attending District of Columbia Public Schools ("DCPS") who received or are receiving special education services. See generally Compl. All the plaintiffs participated in administrative due process hearings to challenge actions taken by DCPS. The plaintiffs allege that they were prevailing parties against DCPS at those hearings. Id. Accordingly, they filed a complaint on June 20, 2007, seeking $179,961.62 in attorneys' fees and costs under the IDEA. Id. ¶ 37. Several months later the plaintiffs filed a motion for summary judgment, requesting that the court determine whether they were prevailing parties at the due process hearings and, therefore, entitled to these fees. See generally Pls.' Mot. The parties have staked out their positions, and the court now turns to the plaintiffs' motion.

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. District 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. District 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. District 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. District 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*fn3 created by the United States Attorney's Office. Lopez v. District of Columbia, 383 F. Supp. 2d 18, 24 (D.D.C. 2005) (citing Kaseman v. District 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 Summary Judgment

The plaintiffs focus their arguments on whether each individual plaintiff was a prevailing party at the due process hearing but stop short of taking the second step in this two-step process, i.e., addressing whether the attorneys' fees sought are reasonable.*fn4 For 10 of the 16 plaintiffs, the defendants do not oppose the plaintiffs' assertion that they were prevailing parties. See ...


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