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Jackson v. District of Columbia

March 26, 2009

JOHNICE JACKSON ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, DEFENDANTS.



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

Document Nos.: 48, 49

MEMORANDUM OPINION

ADOPTING IN PART AND MODIFYING IN PART MAGISTRATE JUDGE FACCIOLA'S REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION;GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART THE PLAINTIFFS'MOTION FOR ATTORNEYS'FEES

I. INTRODUCTION

This matter is before the court upon the defendant's objections to the Report and Recommendation ("Report") issued by Magistrate Judge John M. Facciola on February 26, 2009. The plaintiffs brought suit under the Individuals with Disabilities Education and Improvement Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400 et seq.,following two settlement agreements and thirty-six IDEA due process hearings. Magistrate Judge Facciola recommended that the court grant in part and deny in part the plaintiffs' petition, and the defendant subsequently filed objections to the Report in accordance with Local Civil Rule 72.3. The defendant objects to the Report on four grounds, only one of which the court fully sustains, as discussed in more detail below. The court adopts the Report in all other respects.

II. FACTUAL & PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

The plaintiffs are thirty-two minor children, their guardians and court-appointed educational advocates. Report at 1. The plaintiffs prevailed in thirty-six due process hearings and reached two settlement agreements with the defendant. Id. Following these due process hearings, the plaintiffs filed a petition for attorneys' fees in the amount of $64,886.00, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 54(d), Local Civil Rule 54.2, and 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B). Pls.' Pet. for Att'ys' Fees ("Pls.' Pet.") at 1-2. The court then referred the plaintiffs' petition to Magistrate Judge Facciola to make a recommendation on whether they were entitled to attorneys' fees and, if so, the proper measure for such fees. Report at 1. On February 26, 2009, Magistrate Judge Facciola issued the Report, recommending that the court grant in part and deny in part the plaintiffs' petition for fees. Id. The defendant subsequently filed objections to the Report on four grounds: (1) attorney Abdus-Shahid is not entitled to any fees; (2) the individual identified as "JMS" is not entitled to any fees; (3) the Laffey Matrix is not applicable to this case; and (4) the educational advocate for plaintiff N.R. may not recover fees. Def.'s Objections to Report and Recommendation ("Def.'s Objs.") at 1. The plaintiffs filed a response to the defendant's objections. Pls.' Opp'n to Def.'s Objs. ("Pls.' Opp'n"). The court now turns to those submissions.*fn1

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 & 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. 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. 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*fn2 created by the United States Attorneys' 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").

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. District of Columbia, 216 F.3d 1, 3 (D.C. Cir. 2000). The court, however, "cannot order the defendants ...


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