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District of Columbia v. Straus

April 14, 2009

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, PLAINTIFF,
v.
JOHN A. STRAUS, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Richard W. Roberts United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

The District of Columbia ("DC") has sued attorney John Straus and his law firm, James E. Brown & Associates, in federal court seeking $1,752.25 in attorney's fees under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. § 1415, claiming that the District of Columbia Public Schools ("DCPS") was the prevailing party in an administrative proceeding that Straus had needlessly brought and continued. DC moves for summary judgment. Because DCPS was not a prevailing party, it is Straus and his firm, not DC, who are entitled to judgment as a matter of law.*fn1

BACKGROUND

Straus represented a child with special educational needs who was enrolled in a DC public high school. A DCPS multidisciplinary team convened on June 5, 2008 referred the child to DCPS for a psychiatric evaluation. On August 15, 2008, Straus filed an administrative due process complaint on behalf of the child and his legal guardian because DCPS had not conducted the evaluation.

The sole issue presented in the administrative complaint was DCPS' failure to conduct the evaluation. As relief, the complaint sought to have DCPS fund an independent evaluation.*fn2

Three business days after Straus filed the complaint, DCPS authorized Straus to obtain an independent evaluation at DCPS' expense. A hearing officer later dismissed the complaint with prejudice since DCPS' authorization mooted the sole issue. The hearing officer added his conclusions that Straus had filed the complaint without foundation and had groundlessly maintained the litigation after it became moot. DC moves for summary judgment.

DISCUSSION

Summary judgment may be granted only where "the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). The relevant inquiry "is the threshold inquiry of determining whether there is a need for a trial -- whether, in other words, there are any genuine factual issues that properly can be resolved only by a finder of fact because they may reasonably be resolved in favor of either party." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250 (1986).

The IDEA permits a court, in its discretion, to award attorney's fees to a prevailing party who is a State educational agency or local educational agency against the attorney of a parent who files a complaint or subsequent cause of action that is frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation, or against the attorney of a parent who continued to litigate after the litigation clearly became frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation.

20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B)(i)(II). DC argues that there are no material facts in dispute and that it is entitled to an award of attorney's fees against Straus and his firm as a matter of law. It claims that "DCPS was plainly the prevailing party" given that the hearing officer dismissed the complaint (Pl.'s Mem. in Supp. of Mot. for Summ. J. ("Pl.'s Mem.") at 10), and that the hearing officer's added conclusions that Straus needlessly filed and maintained the complaint are entitled to res judicata effect. (Id. at 9.)

DC's assertion that the hearing officer's gratuitous conclusions are binding upon this court is unavailing. Whether Straus needlessly filed or maintained the administrative litigation arguably was not an issue presented in the complaint or litigated by the parties. Although the administrative complaint's seventeenth of seventeen requests for relief that DC says Straus extruded from DCPS's alleged violation was that Straus's client be found to be a prevailing party (Pl.'s Mem. at 5), the only issue before the hearing officer, as he made clear (Pl.'s Mem., Ex. C, Hearing Officer's Decision at 3 ¶ 1) and as DC concedes (Pl.'s Mem. at 5-6, 16), was "whether . . . DCPS failed to conduct a psychiatric evaluation." (Defs.' Opp'n at 7.) In any event, as DC also concedes (Pl.'s Mem. at 10), it is the district court in an action such as this, and not the hearing officer in the administrative proceeding, which determines prevailing party status for purposes of awarding attorney's fees under the IDEA. See Artis ex rel. S.A. v. District of Columbia, 543 F. Supp. 2d 15, 22 (D.D.C. 2008) (holding that "[a]lthough a hearing officer may make a prevailing party determination, it is in the province of the district court to make the ultimate decision as to who prevailed in an IDEA action" for the purpose of awarding attorney's fees); T.S. ex rel. Skrine v. District of Columbia, Civil Action No. 05-861 (HHK), 2007 WL 915227, at *4 (D.D.C. Mar. 27, 2007) ("The fact that a hearing officer has made a finding on the issue [of attorney's fees], or has failed to make such a finding, is not controlling.").

More importantly, however, DC was not a prevailing party in the administrative proceeding. In Buckhannon Board & Care Home, Inc. v. West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, 532 U.S. 598 (2001), the Supreme Court concluded that a prevailing party is one who obtains a "judicially sanctioned change in the legal relationship of the parties."*fn3 Id. at 605. "Buckhannon rejected the catalyst theory under which . . . 'a plaintiff is a 'prevailing party' if it achieves the desired result because the lawsuit brought about a voluntary change in the defendant's conduct[.]'" Davy v. CIA, 456 F.3d 162, 164 (D.C. Cir. 2006) (quoting Buckhannon, 532 U.S. at 601-02). "Instead, the Court held [that] a plaintiff is a prevailing party only if he has 'received a judgment on the merits. . . . Thus, a defendant's 'voluntary change in conduct, although perhaps accomplishing what the plaintiffs sought to achieve by the lawsuit, lacks the necessary judicial imprimatur on the change.'" Id. (quoting Buckhannon, 532 U.S. at 605 (emphasis in original)).

Reported IDEA cases in this circuit decided after Buckhannon have assessed whether parent plaintiffs are prevailing parties entitled to attorneys fees. The court of appeals has concluded that "[u]nder Buckhannon it is clear that [an IDEA] plaintiff 'prevails' only upon obtaining a judicial remedy that vindicates its claim of right." District of Columbia v. Jeppsen, 514 F.3d 1287, 1290 (D.C. Cir. 2008). Likewise, at least one three-prong test has emerged in the district court: "[t]o obtain 'prevailing party' status, the plaintiff must show first that there was a court-ordered change in the legal relationship between the plaintiff and the defendant; second, that the judgment was rendered in the claimant's favor; and third, that the claimant was not a prevailing party merely by virtue of having acquired a judicial pronouncement rather than judicial relief." Robinson v. District of Columbia, Civil Action No. 06-1253 (RCL), 2007 WL 2257326, at *4 (D.D.C. Aug. 2, 2007).

However, the D.C. Circuit has not ruled on what the proper test is to determine whether DCPS as a defendant in an IDEA administrative proceeding is a prevailing party. While it is clear that the statute contemplates that either side is eligible to be a prevailing party, it is not clear that the ...


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