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Blackman v. District of Columbia

January 4, 2010

MIKEISHA BLACKMAN, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Paul L. Friedman United States District Judge

OPINION

This matter is before the Court on plaintiffs' petition for attorneys' fees and costs. Plaintiffs seek $1,954,302.28 in fees, costs and expenses for the period from July 26, 2006 through December 31, 2008. Defendants are not opposed to awarding plaintiffs' counsel some amount in attorneys' fees and do not contest the amount of costs and expenses sought, but they argue that the amount of fees requested should be reduced significantly. After careful consideration of the parties' papers, the oral arguments presented to the Court by counsel on September 16, 2009, the relevant statutes and case law, and the entire history of this case, the Court will grant plaintiffs' petition in part and deny it in part.*fn1

I. BACKGROUND

This case arose from the failure of the District of Columbia Public Schools ("DCPS") to meet its statutory obligations to special education students under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. In 1997, plaintiffs filed a complaint in Blackman v. District of Columbia, Civil Action No. 97-1629, alleging that the defendants had failed to respond timely to students' and parents' requests for administrative due process hearings pursuant to the IDEA. Three months later a second suit was filed against the same defendants. That case, Curtis v. District of Columbia, Civil Action No. 97-2402, concerned defendants' failure to implement Hearing Officer Determinations and settlement agreements timely as required by the IDEA.

The Court subsequently certified both the Curtis and Blackman cases as class actions under Rule 23(b)(2) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, consolidated the cases, and consolidated the two classes to create a single class with two subclasses. See Opinion and Order, Dkt. No. 70 (May 14, 1998); see also Opinion, Dkt. No. 81 (June 3, 1998). The Blackman subclass was defined as:

All persons now, and in the future, who present complaints to DCPS pursuant to Section 615(b)(6) of the IDEA and whose requests for impartial due process hearings under Section 615(f) of the IDEA and D.C. Mun. Regs. Tit. 5, § 3021.5 are overdue according to those provisions; and their next friends.

Opinion and Order, Dkt. No. 81 at 3 (June 3, 1998). The Curtis subclass (now referred to as the Jones subclass) was defined as:

All children, now and in the future, who are entitled to have DCPS provide them with a free appropriate public education [FAPE] and who have been denied same because DCPS either (a) has failed to fully and timely implement the determination of hearing officers, or (b) failed to fully and timely implement agreements concerning a child's identification, evaluation, educational placement, or provision of FAPE that DCPS has negotiated with the child's parent or educational advocate.

Id. at 4.*fn2

In 1998, the Court granted summary judgment for plaintiffs on the issue of defendants' liability, finding there to be no genuine issue of material fact as to defendants' failure to meet their obligations to the class members under the IDEA. See Opinion and Order, Dkt. No. 81 (June 3, 1998). The Court did not at that time prescribe an immediate remedy. In 1999, the Court appointed Elise Baach to serve as Special Master to ensure that individual class members' immediate and urgent claims were resolved promptly while the parties worked toward a class-wide remedy.

From 1998 through 2006 the parties engaged in settlement discussions in an attempt to craft an agreed upon class-wide remedy. After various fits and starts by the parties, in 2005, the Court appointed Judge David S. Tatel and Amy Totenberg to serve as co-mediators. With the invaluable assistance of Judge Tatel and Ms. Totenberg, the parties reached an agreement on remedies and submitted a proposed Consent Decree to the Court. After a fairness hearing, the Court approved the Consent Decree on August 24, 2006. Since the entry of the Consent Decree, plaintiffs' class counsel, the Monitor and the Evaluation Team appointed under the Consent Decree have monitored the defendants' compliance with the Consent Decree and with the IDEA. While defendants still have not met the requirements of the IDEA or the Consent Decree, all parties involved agree that defendants are making progress.

II. DISCUSSION

Plaintiffs seek attorneys' fees for the period beginning on the date on which they submitted the Consent Decree to the Court, July 26, 2006, through the end of the 2008 calendar year. The Consent Decree provides that plaintiffs are entitled to attorneys' fees as prevailing parties, including fees for time spent monitoring work performed after the entry of the Consent Decree. See Consent Decree ¶¶ 143, 145.*fn3 The Court therefore need not engage in the preliminary inquiry typical in attorneys' fees litigation regarding whether the fee applicant is the prevailing party. See Blackman v. District of Columbia, 59 F. Supp. 2d 37, 40-41 (D.D.C. 1999).

Upon concluding that plaintiffs are entitled to fees because they are prevailing parties, the Court must determine whether the fees sought are reasonable by calculating "the number of hours reasonably expended on the litigation multiplied by a reasonable hourly rate" - the so-called "lodestar" fee. Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983). With regard to reasonableness, plaintiffs must submit supporting documentation with the motion for attorneys' fees, providing sufficient detail so that the Court can determine "'with a high degree of certainty' that the hours billed were actually and reasonably expended, that the hourly rate charged was reasonable, and that the matter was appropriately staffed to do the work required efficiently and without duplicative billing." Watkins v. Vance, 328 F. Supp. 2d 23, 26 (D.D.C. 2004) (quoting In re Olson, 884 F.2d 1415, 1428-29 (D.C. Cir. 1989) (emphasis in original)); see also Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. at 433; Covington v. District of Columbia, 57 F.3d 1101, 1107 (D.C. Cir. 1995). Once plaintiffs have provided such information, there is a presumption that the number of hours billed and the hourly rates are reasonable; the burden then ...


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