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District of Columbia v. West

March 30, 2010

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, PLAINTIFF,
v.
CHRISTOPHER L. WEST, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Henry H. Kennedy, Jr. United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

The District of Columbia ("the District") brings this action against Christopher L. West and James E. Brown and Associates, PLLC, (collectively, "West") and Maria E. Blaeuer (collectively, "defendants"), seeking $1417.50 in attorneys' fees under a fee shifting provision of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. 1415(i)(3)(B)(i)(II).

The District claims it is entitled to an award of attorneys fees because (1) it was the prevailing party in the administrative proceeding that defendants pursued on behalf of their client A.C., (2) the administrative complaint defendants brought on A.C.'s behalf was unreasonable and without foundation when filed, and (3) the litigation was pursued when the litigation clearly became unreasonable and without foundation.

The District and defendants have cross-moved for summary judgment.*fn1 Upon consideration of the motions, the oppositions thereto, and the record of this case, the Court concludes that defendants' motions for summary judgment [##17, 19] should be granted and the District's motion for summary judgment [#7] should be denied.

I. BACKGROUND

A. Statutory Background

Congress enacted the IDEA to "ensure that all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education." 20 U.S.C. § 1400(d)(1)(A). To receive funding under the IDEA, States and the District of Columbia must ensure that "[a]ll children with disabilities residing in the State . . . and who are in need of special education and related services, are identified, located, and evaluated." 34 C.F.R. § 300.111(a)(1)(i). "A free appropriate public education is available to all children with disabilities residing in the State between the ages of 3 and 21, inclusive, including children with disabilities who have been suspended or expelled from school." 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(1)(A). The IDEA's free and appropriate public education ("FAPE") provision entitles each disabled student to an IEP and educational services tailored to the unique needs of that student. See id. § 1414(d)(2)(A) ("At the beginning of each school year, each [State] shall have in effect, for each child with a disability in [its] jurisdiction, an individualized education program"); 34 C.F.R. § 300.323(a).

Parents who disagree with the school's provision of a FAPE to their child may request an administrative hearing before an impartial hearing officer. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(f)(1)(a). A decision made by a hearing officer "shall be made on substantive grounds based on a determination of whether the child received a free appropriate public education." Id. § 1415(f)(3)(E). The hearing officer's determination may be challenged in federal district court by an "aggrieved" party. Id. § 1415(i)(2). The IDEA gives the court discretion to award reasonable attorneys' fees to a "prevailing party." Id. § 1415(i)(3)(B).

B. Factual Background

Defendants Christopher West and Maria E. Blaeuer are attorneys licensed to practice in the District of Columbia, and were employed at relevant times by defendant James E. Brown & Associates, PLLC, a law firm.*fn2 West and Blaeuer represented A.C., who the District of Columbia Public Schools ("DCPS") had identified as a student with a disability. During the 2007-2008 school year, A.C. was a student at Eastern Senior High School in the District. On March 19, 2008, defendant Blaeuer wrote a letter to Eastern's Acting Principal and Acting Special Education Coordinator, requesting that a Multidisciplinary Team (MDT) meeting be held to develop an IEP for A.C. Pl.'s Mot. Summ. J. Exh. D (Letter from Blaeuer dated March 19, 2008).*fn3 On April 1, 2008, a meeting was convened and DCPS developed an IEP. Exh. E (IEP dated April 1, 2008). On June 6, 2008, at a meeting attended by A.C., her mother, a special education advocate, and a special education teacher, A.C., then 18 years old, stated that she no longer wished to attend Eastern.*fn4 A.C. was granted a certificate of completion and, as of that date, was no longer a DCPS student.

Blaeuer wrote DCPS on July 30, 2008, and August 6, 2008, stating that A.C. wished to revoke her certificate of completion and return to school. Each letter also requested that an MDT be convened to create a new IEP. Exh. A (Letter from Blaeuer dated July 30, 2008; Letter from Blaeuer dated August 6, 2008).

On August 18, 2008, Blaeuer filed a due process complaint with the Student Hearing Office of the Office of the States Superintendent of Education, on behalf of A.C. and her mother, alleging that DCPS denied A.C. a FAPE by (1) "inappropriately exiting her from Special Education;" (2) developing an inappropriate IEP; and (3) failing to convene an MDT at the student's request. Exh. A (Administrative Due Process Complaint Notice).

On September 8, 2008, DCPS responded to the complaint, denying all allegations that A.C. was denied a FAPE. DCPS' answer stated that (1) A.C. no longer wished to attend school, terminated her special education services, and had not sought reenrollment; (2) A.C.'s most recent IEP was dated April 1, 2008, which was more recent than the one dated April 22, 2007, referenced in the complaint; and (3) DCPS does not convene MDTs for students no longer enrolled, and Eastern's special education coordinator would be "more than willing to convene a MDT meeting once the student enrolls in school." Exh. B (DCPS' Response to Administrative Due Process Complaint Notice at 1-2).

On September 23, 2008, an administrative hearing was held, at which Defendant West represented A.C. and her mother. During opening statements, West withdrew his claim that DCPS created an inappropriate IEP, but pursued the other two claims, stating that "the remedy that we're seeking is that DCPS convene an MDT/IEP meeting within 10 school days to sit down with the team and develop a new IEP, discuss and determine what testing is ...


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