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District of Columbia v. Barrie

October 4, 2010

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, PLAINTIFF,
v.
FATMATA BARRIE AND LAW OFFICE OF CHRISTOPHER N. ANWAH, PLLC, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Colleen Kollar-kotelly United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Plaintiff District of Columbia (the "District") brings this action against Defendants Fatmata Barrie and the Law Office of Christopher N. Anwah, PLLC, (collectively, "Defendants"), seeking attorneys' fees under the fee-shifting provisions of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. §§ 1415(i)(3)(B)(i)(II)-(III). The District claims that it is entitled to an award of attorneys' fees incurred in association with administrative proceedings brought under the IDEA by Defendants on behalf of their client because Defendants initiated and continued the litigation below even though their claims were frivolous, unreasonable, and/or without foundation, or were brought for an improper purpose, such as increasing the cost of the litigation. The parties have cross-moved for summary judgment. Upon consideration of the cross-motions, the parties' respective briefing, the administrative record, applicable case law and statutory authority, as well as the record of this case as a whole, the Court DENIES Plaintiff District of Columbia's [12] Motion for Summary Judgment and GRANTS-IN-PART and DENIES-IN-PART Defendants' [13] Motion for Summary Judgment. Specifically, Defendants' Motion is GRANTED insofar as Defendants contend that the District of Columbia is not entitled to attorneys' fees as asserted in Counts I, II, and III of the Complaint, but is DENIED insofar as Defendants appear to seek to vacate the December 8, 2008 Hearing Officer Decision and an award of attorneys' fees and costs, for the reasons set forth below.

I. BACKGROUND

As explained above, the present action arises from the District's request for attorneys' fees under the IDEA's fee-shifting provisions. The District argues that it is entitled to an award of attorneys' fees incurred in association with (a) a due process complaint filed by Defendants on October 7, 2008 (hereinafter, "October Due Process Complaint") and (b) the subsequent due process hearings held on the merits of that complaint on November 19 and 26, 2008 (hereinafter, "November Due Process Hearing"). The Court notes that this was the second due process complaint filed by Defendants as part of a long-standing and continuing dispute between the parties regarding the District's compliance with the IDEA. Accordingly, while the instant litigation focuses only on Defendants' conduct in relation to this second complaint and related due process hearing, it is nonetheless necessary to set forth a more fulsome explanation of the parties' ongoing litigation below in order to properly understand the parties' arguments on appeal. In addition, although the substantive merits of Defendants' administrative complaints and the District's compliance with the IDEA are not at issue in this lawsuit, it is also useful to briefly set forth the relevant provisions of the IDEA in order to place in context the District's claims that Defendants' conduct in the administrative proceedings below was frivolous or unreasonable. The Court therefore begins its discussion by first reviewing the relevant statutory provisions of the IDEA before then turning to discuss the factual and procedural background of the administrative proceedings below as well as the current litigation. Notwithstanding the Court's discussion of these issues, the Court emphasizes that the only question now before the Court is whether the District is entitled to attorneys' fees and costs expended in litigating the October Due Process Complaint and in preparing for and attending the November Due Process Hearing.

A. The IDEA Statutory Framework

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 . . . ." 20 U.S.C. § 1400(d)(1)(A). "Implicit" in the IDEA's guarantee "is the requirement that the education to which access is provided be sufficient to confer some educational benefit upon the handicapped child." Bd. of Educ. of Hendrick Hudson Cent. Sch. Dist. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 200 (1982). As a condition of receiving funding under the IDEA, school districts are required to adopt procedures to ensure appropriate educational placement of disabled students. See 20 U.S.C. § 1413. A student's eligibility for a FAPE under the IDEA is determined by the results of testing and evaluating the student, and the findings of a "multidisciplinary team" ("MDT") or "individualized education program" ("IEP") team. Id. § 1414. Such a team consists of the parents and teachers of the disabled student, as well as other educational specialists, who meet and confer in a collaborative process to determine how best to accommodate the needs of the student and provide a FAPE. See id. § 1414(d)(1)(B).

School districts must also develop an IEP, a comprehensive individual education program, for meeting the special educational needs of each disabled student. See id. § 1414(d)(2)(A). The IEP must be formulated in accordance with the terms of the IDEA and "should be reasonably calculated to enable the child to achieve passing marks and advance from grade to grade." Rowley, 458 U.S. at 204. The IDEA requires IEPs to include statements of present functional performance, measurable annual goals, how the goals will be measured, and "the special education and related services and supplementary aids and services . . . to be provided to the child, or on behalf of the child, and a statement of the program modifications or supports for school personnel that will be provided for the child." 20 U.S.C. § 1414(d)(1)(A)(I). "If no suitable public school is available, the school system must pay the costs of sending the child to an appropriate private school." Reid v. District of Columbia, 401 F.3d 516, 519 (D.C. Cir. 2005) (citation and alterations omitted).

The IDEA guarantees parents of disabled children the opportunity to participate in the evaluation and placement process. See 20 U.S .C. §§ 1414(f), 1415(b)(1). Parents who object to their child's "identification, evaluation, or educational placement" are entitled to an impartial due process hearing, see id. §§ 1415(b)(6), (f)(1), at which they have a "right to be accompanied and advised by counsel" and a "right to present evidence and confront, cross-examine, and compel the attendance of witnesses," id. § 1415(h). A qualified impartial hearing officer conducts the due process hearing in accordance with the Act. 5 D.C. Mun. Regs. § 3030.1.

Under the IDEA, a party is entitled to attorneys' fees and costs if he or she is a "prevailing party." 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B). A party "aggrieved by" a hearing officer's findings and decision may bring a civil action in either state or federal court. Id. § 1415(i)(2); 5 D.C. Mun. Regs. § 3031.5. The district court has remedial authority under the IDEA to grant "such relief as the court determines is appropriate" under the IDEA as guided by the goals of the Act. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2)(C)(iii). This includes discretion to award reasonable attorneys' fees to the party that prevails at the hearing. Id. § 1415(i)(3).

B. Factual and Procedural Background

Defendant Barrie is an attorney licensed to practice in the District and was employed at all relevant times by the co-Defendant in this case, the Law Office of Christopher N. Anwah, PLLC, located in the District of Columbia. Pl.'s Stmt. ¶¶ 1, 2.*fn1 Defendants represented T.P., an eight-year-old student whom the District has identified as a student with a disability and in need of special education. Pl.'s Stmt. ¶ 1; Defs.' Stmt. 1. At the time of the administrative proceedings below, T.P. attended Aiton Elementary School ("Aiton"), a public school run by the District of Columbia Public Schools ("DCPS"). Defs.' Stmt. ¶ 1.

1. The August Due Process Complaint

On August 13, 2008, Defendants filed an initial due process complaint on T.P.'s behalf (hereinafter, "August Due Process Complaint"), alleging that DCPS: (1) failed to update T.P.'s triennial evaluations; (2) failed to provide an appropriate placement for the previous two years; (3) failed to develop an appropriate IEP for the past two school years; and (4) failed to provide appropriate educational, related, and special education services for the 2006-2007 and 2007-2008 school years at Aiton. Pl.'s Stmt. ¶ 4; see also Pl.'s MSJ, Ex. 1 (Aug. 13, 2008 Due Process Compl.). Defendants requested that the Hearing Officer order DCPS to: (1) fund a placement of the parent's choice, with transportation, at one of several private schools; (2) fund an independent Vineland Assessment to rule out mental retardation ("MR"); (3) convene an MDT/IEP meeting to develop an appropriate IEP for T.P.; and (4) provide T.P. with educational and related services. Pl.'s MSJ, Ex. 1 (Aug. 13, 2008 Due Process Compl.), at 3.

2. The September HOD

A hearing was held on the merits of the August Due Process Complaint, and a Hearing Officer's Decision ("HOD") was subsequently issued on September 18, 2008 (hereinafter, "September HOD"). Defs.' Stmt. ¶ 7; see also Admin. Record ("A.R.") at 129-34 (Sept. 18, 2008 HOD). As set forth therein, the September HOD found that "DCPS has failed to timely evaluate the student . . . and develop an appropriate IEP," and that "[t]he delay in appropriately evaluating the student and the continuing failure to devise an appropriate educational program has forced the student to languish in an inappropriate placement." A.R. at 132. The September HOD therefore ordered that DCPS was required to "fund an independent Vineland Assessment" and to "convene an IEP/placement meeting within 5 days of receiving the [Vineland Assessment]." Id. The September HOD further specified that the purpose of the IEP/placement meeting was to "review the evaluation, determine if additional evaluations are needed, update the IEP and discuss and determine the need for additional services, and an appropriate placement." Id. In addition, DCPS was required to "issue a notice of placement within 5 days of the placement determination meeting." Id. Finally, the September HOD noted that DCPS would "receive a one day extension for every day of delay caused by the Petitioner, the student, or their representatives." Id. Neither party appealed the September HOD.

3. The Vineland Assessment

Pursuant to the September HOD, T.P.'s parents arranged for an independent Vineland Assessment to be conducted at the District's cost. See Defs.' Stmt. ¶ 9. The Vineland Assessment determined that T.P. should be classified as MR in addition to her previously-identified speech and language classifications. Id. ¶ 10. The Vineland Assessment was forwarded to DCPS on September 25, 2008, and was received by the District on the same day, along with a cover letter from Defendants requesting that, "[p]er the HOD, . . . DCPS convene an MDT/IEP meeting within the allotted timeframe." Id. ¶ 9; Pl.'s Stmt. ¶ 7; A.R. at 114. The IEP/placement meeting, however, did not occur within five days of DCPS' receipt of the assessment - i.e., by September 30, 2008. A.R. at 5.

4. The October Due Process Complaint

As of October 7, 2008, having not yet heard from the District as to the scheduling of the IEP/placement meeting, Defendants filed a second Due Process Complaint on T.P.'s behalf (hereinafter, the "October Due Process Complaint"). Pl's Stmt. ΒΆ 8; see also A.R. at 15-20 (Oct. 7, 2008 Due Process Compl.). The October Due Process Complaint raised allegations similar to those in the initial August Due Process Complaint, claiming that DCPS: (1) failed to convene the IEP/placement meeting within five days of receiving the Vineland Assessment, as required by the September HOD; (2) failed to provide T.P., who at the time remained at Aiton, with an appropriate placement, as required by the September HOD; (3) failed to develop an appropriate IEP for T.P. that implemented the findings of the Vineland Assessment; and (4) failed to provide appropriate educational, related, and special education services for the 2006-2007 and 2007-2008 school years. A.R. at 17. The October Due Process Complaint sought an order ...


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