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Wilson v. Government of the District of Columbia

July 30, 2010

SALOME WILSON, O/B/O Y.W., A MINOR, PLAINTIFF,
v.
GOVERNMENT OF THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, DEFENDANT.



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

MEMORANDUM OPINION

The plaintiff, Salome Wilson, filed this lawsuit on behalf of her now seventeen year-old son, Y.W., a minor child who requires special education services. This action is one to recover attorneys' fees for legal services provided by the plaintiff's lawyer during administrative proceedings initiated under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400-1491 (2006). See Complaint ("Compl.") ¶¶ 7; 18A--C. Currently before the Court is Defendant District of Columbia's motion to dismiss the plaintiff's claim. This motion is based on two theories: (1) the Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over this action pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1), see Defendant's Memorandum of Points and Authority in Support of Defendant's Motion to Dismiss ("Def.'s Mem.") at 4--5; and (2) the defendant alleges that the plaintiff has failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), because the plaintiff was not a prevailing party in the underlying administrative proceeding, a requirement for recovery of attorneys' fees, id. at 7--8, and the claim was filed untimely under the applicable statute of limitations, id. at 10--14. In the alternative, the defendant moves for a more definite statement pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(e). Id. at 9--10.*fn1 For the reasons that follow, this Court finds that: (1) it has subject matter jurisdiction to hear the plaintiff's claim; (2) the plaintiff's complaint is sufficient and does not need amending to provide the defendant with a more definite statement; (3) the plaintiff was a prevailing party in the underlying administrative hearings; and (4) that the plaintiff's complaint was filed in a timely manner because the statute of limitations period for this action is three years in length.

I. BACKGROUND

The purpose of the IDEA is 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, employment, and independent living." 20 U.S.C. § 1400(d)(1)(A). In an effort to "ensure that the rights of children with disabilities and parents of such children are protected," id. at (d)(1)(B), the IDEA sets forth a number of procedural safeguards in Section 1415 of Title 20 of the United States Code. If a parent disagrees with a school's determination of what constitutes appropriate educational placement of a disabled child, he or she has the right to an "impartial due process hearing." 20 U.S.C. § 1415(f). At the hearing, parents have "the right to be accompanied and advised by counsel and by individuals with special knowledge or training with respect to the problems of children with disabilities." Id. at (h)(1). If disabled children and their parents are "aggrieved by" a hearing officer's findings or decision, they have the "right to bring a civil action" in federal or state court. Id. at (i)(2)(A). The IDEA also grants the district court the ability to "in its discretion, . . . award reasonable attorneys' fees as part of the costs-(I) to a prevailing party who is the parent of a child with a disability." Id. at (i)(3)(B)(i). A prevailing party may recover attorneys' fees incurred during administrative proceedings. See Moore v. District of Columbia, 907 F.2d 165, 167 (D.C. Cir. 1990).

On August 28, 2006, the plaintiff filed an administrative complaint on behalf of her child, Y.W., with the District of Columbia Public School System (the "School System") alleging that the School System was denying Y.W. a free appropriate public education by keeping him at the school he was then attending. See Compl. ¶¶ 8--11. The plaintiff additionally requested that Y.W. be transferred to a school that "could provide educational benefit to Y.W." Id. ¶ 10. At the hearing, which was held on November 28, 2006, the Hearing Officer made two findings: (1) that Y.W. was being denied a free appropriate public education at the school he was then attending; and (2) that Y.W. would receive better educational benefit by transferring to the school requested by the plaintiff. See id. The Hearing Officer then ordered Y.W.'s transfer to the plaintiff's requested school. Id. ¶ 11. Following this administrative proceeding, the plaintiff alleges that her lawyer properly submitted an invoice to the School System on or about December 6, 2006, for reimbursement of her attorneys' fees. Compare Pl's Opp'n. at 2 (noting the date of the invoice's submission), with Def.'s Mem. at 13 (stating that the School System's "Fee Guidelines" dictate that attorneys' fees invoices should be submitted to the School System within 45 days of the Hearing Officer's decision and that "while [the School System] will endeavor to act on invoices submitted within 60 days, fee requests may be deemed denied if [the School System] takes no action within 90 days of invoice submissions"). The plaintiff also alleges that although she prevailed at the administrative proceeding and is therefore entitled to reasonable attorneys' fees, to date the School System has not responded to the request for payment of those fees. Pl.'s Opp'n. at 2.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

A. Motion to Dismiss for Lack of Subject Matter Jurisdiction

"On a Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) motion to dismiss, the plaintiff bears the burden of establishing by a preponderance of the evidence that the court has jurisdiction to entertain his [or her] claims." Green v. Stuyvesant, 505 F. Supp. 2d 176, 177 (D.D.C. 2007) (citations omitted). Because a motion for dismissal under "Rule 12(b)(1) presents a threshold challenge to the court's jurisdiction," Haase v. Sessions, 835 F.2d 902, 906 (D.C. Cir. 1987) (citations omitted), Rule 12(b)(1) requires dismissal of a complaint if the Court lacks subject matter over the dispute. Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(1). The Court must accept as true all of the factual allegations contained in the complaint when reviewing a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1). Leatherman v. Tarrant Cnty. Narcotics Intelligence & Coordination Unit, 507 U.S. 163, 164 (1993). However, since the plaintiff has the burden of establishing the Court's jurisdiction, the "plaintiff's factual allegations in the complaint . . . will bear closer scrutiny in resolving a 12(b)(1) motion than in resolving a 12(b)(6) motion for failure to state a claim." Grand Lodge of Fraternal Order of Police v. Ashcroft, 185 F. Supp. 2d 9, 13--14 (D.D.C. 2001) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). Moreover, the Court is not limited to the allegations set forth in the complaint, and "may consider materials outside [of] the pleadings." Jerome Stevens Pharms., Inc. v. FDA, 402 F.3d 1249, 1253 (D.C. Cir. 2005) (citation omitted).

B. Motion for a More Definite Statement

Rule 12(e) provides defendants with a remedy for inadequate complaints that fail to meet the minimum pleading standard set forth in Rule 8(a). Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a), 12(e); Saad v. Burns Int'l Sec. Services, Inc., 456 F. Supp. 33, 36 (D.D.C. 1978) (finding that a complaint consisting of mere generalized allegations and legal conclusions does not suffice to state a claim and ordering the plaintiff to file a more definite statement); see also Harbury v. Deutch, 244 F.3d 956, 957--958 (D.C. Cir. 2001) (citation omitted) (discussing the utility of a Rule 12(e) motion when a defendant views a complaint as deficient under Rule 8(a) standards). "Thus, 'when a defendant is unclear about the meaning of a particular allegation in the complaint, the proper course of action is not to move to dismiss but to move for a more definite statement.'" Hilska v. Jones, 217 F.R.D. 16, 21 (D.D.C. 2003) (citing Am. Nurses' Ass'n v. Illinois, 783 F.2d 716, 725 (7th Cir. 1986) (citations omitted)); see also Swierkiewicz v. Sorema N.A., 534 U.S. 506, 514 (2002) (recognizing that "[i]f a pleading fails to specify the allegation in a manner that provides sufficient notice, a defendant can move for a more definite statement under Rule 12(e)").

However, "[a] complaint satisfies th[e] criterion [of Rules 8(a) and 12(e)] if it is not 'so vague or ambiguous that a party cannot reasonably be expected to frame a responsive pleading'"; otherwise stated, "a plaintiff need not allege all the facts necessary to prove its claim so long as it provides enough factual information to make clear the substance of that claim." Caribbean Broad. Sys., Ltd. v. Cable & Wireless PLC, 148 F.3d 1080, 1086 (D.C. Cir. 1998) (citation omitted) (quoting Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(e)). Moreover, to prevent Rule 12(e) from becoming a substitute for discovery, courts should generally deny a motion for a more definite statement where the information sought may be obtained in discovery. See Fed. R. Civ. Pro. 12 advisory committee's note (in its 1946 amendment to section (e), the committee stated that a Rule 12(e) motion should be granted "only in cases where the movant cannot reasonably be required to frame an answer or other responsive pleading to the pleading in question. With respect to preparations for trial, the party is properly relegated to the various methods of examination and discovery provided in the rules for that purpose" (citations omitted)); see also Montgomery v. Kingsland, 166 F.2d 953, 956 (D.C. Cir. 1948) (stating that "[a]additional details that the defendant needs in order to prepare for trial[, beyond those required to prepare and answer,] should be obtained by discovery after issue is joined" (internal quotation marks and citation omitted)).

C. Motion to Dismiss for Failure to State a Claim upon Which Relief Can be Granted

A motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) tests whether a complaint has properly stated a claim for which relief may be granted. See Wells v. United States, 851 F.2d 1471, 1473 (D.C. Cir. 1988) (discussing the legal standard applicable to a Rule 12(b)(6) motion). For a complaint to survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a) requires only that it provide 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," Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007), 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), 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 (internal citation, quotation marks and alteration omitted). Thus, while "detailed factual allegations are not necessary to withstand a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, to provide the grounds of entitlement to relief, a plaintiff must furnish more than labels and conclusions or a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action." Hinson ex rel. N.H. v. Merritt Educ. Ctr., 521 F. Supp. 2d 22, 27 (D.D.C. 2007) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555) (internal quotation marks and alterations omitted). Or, as the Supreme Court more recently stated, "[t]o survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to 'state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Iqbal, __ U.S. at __, 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 the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). A complaint alleging facts that 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). Moreover, "[a] dismissal with prejudice is warranted only when a trial court determines that the allegation of other facts consistent with the challenged pleading could not possibly cure the deficiency." Firestone v. Firestone, 76 F.3d 1205, 1209 (D.C. Cir. 1996) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted) (emphasis in original). Finally, in evaluating a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, "[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." EEOC v. St. Francis Xavier Parochial Sch., 117 F.3d 621, 624 (D.C. Cir. 1997) (footnote omitted); see ...


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