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District of Columbia v. Nahass

March 30, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Reggie B. Walton United States District Judge


The District of Columbia (the "District"), a municipal corporation and the plaintiff in this civil case, seeks an award of attorneys' fees that were incurred by the District of Columbia Public Schools in an administrative proceeding conducted pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (the "Act"), 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B)(i) (2006).*fn1 Complaint (the "Compl.") ¶¶ 31-42. Currently before the Court is the defendants' motion to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), for failing to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, along with their own request for an award of costs and attorneys' fees. After carefully considering the District's complaint, the defendants' motion to dismiss, and all memoranda of law relating to that motion,*fn2 the Court concludes for the reasons that follow that it must grant the defendants' motion to dismiss but deny their motion for attorneys' fees.

I. Background*fn3

During the 2007-08 school year, the District identified P.M., a minor child, "as a student with a disability [who was] eligible for certain special education services" under the Act. Compl. ¶ 7. The District thereafter determined that as part of P.M.'s individualized educational program,*fn4 P.M. would "receive[] specialized instruction at [the] Rock Creek Academy during the 2007-08 school year," id. ¶ 8, at the District's expense, id. ¶ 6. As required by the Act, the District "convened a [m]ultidisciplinary [t]eam" (the "Team") on June 17, 2008, "to evaluate P.M.'s educational progress at [the] Rock Creek Academy." Id. ¶ 9. The Team recommended, inter alia, that "P.M. receive a comprehensive psychological evaluation and a speech and language evaluation." Id. ¶ 11. Three months later, defendants Zachary Nahass and Tyrka & Associates, LLC filed a due process complaint with the Student Hearing Office of the Office of the State Superintendent of Education on behalf of P.M. and her mother, Lorraine Matthews, alleging that the District "fail[ed] . . . to [timely] conduct and review evaluations in all areas of suspected disability."*fn5 Pl.'s Opp'n, Ex. D (Due Process Complaint) at 1; see also Compl. ¶ 12 (asserting before the hearing officer that the District "had failed to conduct the psychological and speech and language evaluations" that were recommended by the Team).

On September 25, 2008, approximately three weeks after the filing of the due process complaint, the District authorized the "independent evaluations of P.M. at [the District's] expense." Id. ¶ 13. Despite the District's willingness to subsidize the costs for the evaluations that were the subject of the due process complaint, Tyrka "continued the litigation to request an order finding that the student was denied [a free appropriate public education] as a result of the [District's] failure to complete [the] necessary evaluations in a timely manner."*fn6 Id. ¶¶ 18-19; Pl.'s Opp'n, Ex. C (Transcript of Oct. 20, 2008 Hearing), at 7 ("[P.M.] asserts that the failure to do the evaluations between June 17th and September 12th when the complaint was filed was an unreasonable delay . . . and that the failure to do those evaluations amounts to a denial of [a free appropriate public education] to the student."). An administrative hearing was convened thereafter on October 20, 2008. Compl. at ¶¶ 15-16.

On October 26, 2008, the Hearing Officer dismissed the due process complaint, id. ¶ 20, concluding that Tyrka's request (on behalf of P.M.) for the evaluations "was mooted by [the District's] prompt authorization of independent comprehensive psychological and speech and language evaluations." Pl.'s Opp'n, Ex. B (Hearing Officer's Decision, October 26, 2008), at 4. Furthermore, in an attempt to address Tyrka's argument that the District's failure to timely perform the evaluations resulted in the denial of a free and public education, the Hearing Officer concluded that there was no evidence that the District's delay in conducting the evaluations was unreasonable. Id. at 3. In support of that finding, the Hearing Officer found that there was no evidence that the District failed to carry out its statutory obligation to conduct an evaluation of P.M. every three years. Id. Additionally, the Hearing Officer concluded that while the Team did not give any reason for ordering the additional evaluations, the record before the officer reflected the fact "that neither [P.M.'s] disability classification nor the appropriateness of her educational program was in dispute," because she was "already receive[ing] the maximum level of services available for a child with her level of disability, . . . [and P.M.] is making satisfactory progress on her . . . goals" that were set forth in her individualized education program. Id. Thus, the Hearing Officer concluded that "the two evaluations recommended by the [Team] would have no meaningful impact on [P.M.'s] educational program," id. at 3-4, and, therefore, P.M. "suffered no educational harm as a consequence of the evaluations not having been conducted," id. at 4.

The District then filed the instant action on April 23, 2009. The District asserts that it was a "prevailing party" at the administrative proceeding, and thus it should be awarded attorneys' fees under the Act because the defendants, the District alleges, filed the complaint and pursued the litigation for impermissible purposes. See Compl. ¶ 33 (alleging that Tyrka's "filing of the due process complaint . . . was frivolous, unreasonable, and/or without foundation"); id. ¶ 37 (alleging that Tyrka's "continued pursuit of litigation in the administrative proceeding was frivolous, unreasonable, and/or without foundation"); id. ¶ 41 (alleging that Tyrka's "due process complaint was presented for an improper purpose, such as to harass, to cause unnecessary delay, or to needlessly increase the cost of litigation"). More specifically, the District claims that Tyrka's due process complaint "was frivolous, unreasonable, [or] without foundation," because they "filed the due process complaint a mere three months after the [Team] had recommended the evaluations, while P.M.'s school was in recess, and without any evidence of attempting to correspond with [the District] or showing that the evaluations would meaningfully impact P.M.'s educational program." Compl. ¶ 33. The District further asserts that Tyrka continued to litigate after "the litigation clearly became frivolous, unreasonable, [or] without foundation," id. ¶ 38, because the District had already authorized the independent evaluations," id. ¶ 37. Finally, the District argues that Tyrka filed the complaint "with an improper purpose, such as to harass, to cause unnecessary delay, or to needlessly increase the cost of litigation," because the Hearing Officer had concluded that there was no "evidence that [Tyrka] had made P.M. available or attempted to contact [the District] regarding scheduling the evaluations," and that Tyrka failed to prove that P.M suffered any "education[al] harm . . . in the mere three months . . . while school was on summer recess." Id. ¶ 41.

Tyrka moves to dismiss the plaintiff's Complaint. They argue that the District was not a "prevailing party" in the administrative action because the Hearing Officer dismissed the due process complaint as moot after the District had authorized independent evaluations for P.M., Defs.' Mot. at 6, and that "it would be a perverse result to grant [the District] prevailing party status . . . because it voluntarily took action to correct a problem only after [a] parent filed a [due process] complaint," id. at 7. Tyrka further asserts that none of the facts alleged by the District in its Complaint establish that the due process complaint was frivolous when filed, filed for an improper purpose, or that the action became frivolous after the September 25, 2008 letter, id. at 9-18. Finally, Tyrka seeks attorneys' fees incurred in defending against this lawsuit, arguing that the District's "claims are unreasonable on their face, [and] because the District and its attorneys are demonstrating a consistent pattern of bad faith, vexatious, litigation for oppressive reasons."*fn7

Id. at 18.

The District, not surprisingly, disputes each of Tyrka's positions, arguing that "the nature of the dismissal in [the District's] favor . . . demonstrates that [the District] was the prevailing party." Pl.'s Opp'n at 10. Furthermore, the District asserts that the due process complaint was frivolous and filed for an improper purpose because, inter alia, Tyrka "filed [the] complaint where there was no evidence of" P.M. having been denied a free appropriate public education. Id. at 14. As for Tyrka's request for an award of attorneys' fees, the District argues that Tyrka's claims of bad faith on the part of the District is based on nothing more than "inconsequential word-play," id. at 19, and "torturing the words of the complaint in . . . peripheral respects [that] provides no defensible basis for dismissal," id. at 20.

II. Standard of Review

A motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) tests whether a complaint has properly stated a claim upon which relief may be granted. Woodruff v. DiMario, 197 F.R.D. 191, 193 (D.D.C. 2000). For a complaint to survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a) requires that it contain "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2). Although Rule 8(a) does not require "detailed factual allegations," a plaintiff is required to provide "more than an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation," Ashcroft v. Iqbal, ___ U.S. ___, ___, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009) (citing Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555-57 (2007)), in order to "give the defendant fair notice . . . of what the claim is and the grounds upon which it rests," Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (citation omitted). In other words, "a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to 'state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1949 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). A claim is facially plausible "when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw [a] reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). A complaint alleging facts which are "'merely consistent with a defendant's liability . . . stops short of the line between possibility and plausibility of 'entitlement to relief.'" Id. (quoting Twombly 550 U.S. at 557) (internal quotation marks omitted).

In evaluating a Rule 12(b)(6) motion under this framework, "[t]he complaint must be liberally construed in favor of the plaintiff, who must be granted the benefit of all inferences that can be derived from the facts alleged," Schuler v. United States, 617 F.2d 605, 608 (D.C. Cir. 1979) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted), and the Court "may consider only the facts alleged in the complaint, any documents either attached to or incorporated in the complaint[,] and matters of which [the Court] may take judicial notice," E.E.O.C. v. St. Francis Xavier Parochial Sch., 117 F.3d 621, 624 (D.C. Cir. 1997) (footnote omitted). Although the Court must accept the plaintiffs' factual allegations as true, any conclusory allegations are not entitled to an assumption of truth, and even those allegations pled with factual support need only be accepted to the extent that "they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief." Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1950. If "the [C]court finds that the plaintiffs have failed to allege all the material elements of their cause of action," then the Court may dismiss the complaint without prejudice, Taylor v. FDIC, 132 F.3d 753, 761 ...

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