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Joycelyn Rooths v. District of Columbia

August 9, 2011

JOYCELYN ROOTHS, PLAINTIFF,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, DEFENDANT.



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

OPINION

This matter is before the Court on the plaintiff's motion for attorneys' fees. On March 31, 2011, Magistrate Judge Robinson issued a Report and Recommendation in which she recommended that the Court award the plaintiff almost the full amount of fees requested. The defendant has filed objections to that Report and Recommendation. Upon consideration of the parties' arguments, the relevant legal authorities, and the entire record in this case, the Court will grant in part and deny in part plaintiff's motion, awarding fees in the amount of $$23,350.42.*fn1

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff Joycelyn Rooths is the mother of "M.R.," a child eligible to receive special education services from the District of Columbia Public Schools ("DCPS"). See AR at 12. On October 3, 2008, Ms. Rooths filed an administrative complaint in which she alleged that DCPS had violated the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA") by (1) placing M.R. at Sousa Middle School for the 2008-09 school year without including Ms. Rooths "in decision-making regarding placement," and (2) preventing M.R. from attending Sousa beginning on September 2, 2008. Id. at 13. As relief for these alleged violations, Ms. Rooths requested that (1) DCPS be found to have denied M.R. a free and appropriate public education ("FAPE") beginning on September 2, 2008, and continuing until the date that M.R. was permitted to attend an appropriate school; (2) M.R. be enrolled "at a full-time special education school" of Ms. Rooths' choosing, at DCPS' expense; and (3) DCPS be instructed to hold a meeting to determine whether M.R. should receive additional educational services as compensation for the period during which M.R. was denied a FAPE. Id.

On October 22, 2008, several days before the scheduled administrative hearing on Ms. Rooths' October 3, 2008 complaint, DCPS notified Ms. Rooths that M.R. was being placed in the private school that Ms. Rooths had requested. AR at 6. Five days later, on October 27, 2008, an administrative Hearing Officer presided over a hearing concerning the claims made in Ms. Rooths' October 3, 2008 complaint. The Hearing Officer issued a written ruling on those claims (a Hearing Officer Decision or "HOD") on November 13, 2008. Because M.R. had already been given the educational placement that had been requested in the administrative complaint, the Hearing Officer found that the only question remaining for her decision concerned whether M.R. was "entitled to compensatory education as a result of DCPS's alleged failure to (1) provide an appropriate placement for [M.R.], including transportation to and from that placement, and (2) allow [Ms. Rooths] to participate in the decision-making regarding placement." Id. at 6.

The Hearing Officer denied Ms. Rooths' requests for compensatory education. She found that Ms. Rooths' claims concerning DCPS' failure to include her in its decision-making process had already been addressed and rejected in a recent decision by another Hearing Officer ("the Prior Decision"). AR at 6; see id. at 30-34 (prior HOD). That Prior Decision concerned events occurring in the spring and summer of 2008 and was issued in the wake of an administrative hearing held on September 16, 2008. See id. at 30.

Declining to revisit issues resolved by the Prior Decision, the Hearing Officer charged with ruling on Ms. Rooths' October 3, 2008 administrative complaint concluded that Ms. Rooths' claims for compensatory education could only be predicated on the denial of FAPE alleged to have occurred when M.R. was unable to attend her educational placement at Sousa between September 2, 2008 and October 22, 2008. AR at 7. According to the Hearing Officer, however, M.R.'s absence from Sousa resulted only in part from the actions of DCPS; Ms. Rooths herself also bore responsibility for that state of affairs. See id. Consequently, the Hearing Officer found that "it would be inappropriate to hold DCPS solely liable for failing to provide an appropriate placement for [M.R.] subsequent to September 2, 2008." Id. Furthermore, in light of that finding, "an award of compensatory education would be inappropriate." Id.

Ms. Rooths moved for reconsideration of the Hearing Officer's decision. See AR at 173. In a written decision issued on December 17, 2008, the Hearing Officer granted the motion in part, finding that DCPS was responsible for denying a FAPE to M.R. between September 2, 2008 and October 22, 2008. See id. at 174. The Hearing Officer denied Ms. Rooths' related request for compensatory education, however, because Ms. Rooths "ha[d] failed to prove what services, if any, would constitute appropriate compensatory education for" M.R. Id. at 175.

On March 13, 2009, Ms. Rooths challenged the Hearing Officer's decision in a five-page complaint filed against the District of Columbia in this Court. She alleged that M.R. was entitled to compensatory education services because (1) DCPS had excluded Ms. Rooths from the decision-making process concerning M.R.'s school placement, and (2) M.R. had not been permitted to attend Sousa, the school in which she had been placed, between September 2, 2008, and October 22, 2008. Compl. ¶¶ 8-17; id. at 5. She requested that DCPS be required to "convene a[ multi-disciplinary team] meeting to discuss and determine compensatory education and to devise a compensatory education plan to compensate M.R. for DCPS' failures." Id. at 5. Although the parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment, the Court never issued a ruling on the merits of the plaintiff's complaint. Instead, at the parties' request, Magistrate Judge Robinson, to whom the case had been referred for a report and recommendation, dismissed the complaint with prejudice after DCPS agreed to convene a meeting to discuss whether compensatory education for M.R. would be appropriate in light of M.R.'s absence from Sousa in September and October of 2008. See Dismissal Order at 1 (D.D.C. Mar. 4, 2010). After that meeting was held, M.R. ultimately received compensatory education. Surreply at 1-2.

Because Ms. Rooths ultimately received at least some of the relief she sought in these proceedings, she now moves as a prevailing party for the award of attorneys' fees.

II. LEGAL STANDARDS

Contrary to the mistaken assertions of both parties, see Obj. at 3; Obj. Resp. at 4, this Court "considers de novo those portions of [a magistrate judge's report and] recommendation to which objections have been made, and 'may accept, reject, or modify the recommended decision[.]'" D.D. ex rel. Davis v. District of Columbia, 470 F. Supp. 2d 1, 1 (D.D.C. 2007) (quoting FED. R. CIV. P. 72(b)). Because in this case the District of Columbia has objected to nearly every aspect of Magistrate Judge Robinson's Report and Recommendation, the Court's analysis is with respect to many issues equivalent to a decision in the first instance on the merits of plaintiff's motion for fees. The Court notes, however, that it accepts those portions of the Report and Recommendation to which the parties have not objected. In particular, as the plaintiff has not objected to any portion of the Report and Recommendation, the Court accepts the magistrate judge's recommendation that no fees be awarded for the work of either Sharon Millis or Yanet Scott. See R&R at 11.

The Court has previously set forth the appropriate analytical framework for determining the award of attorneys' fees and costs in special education cases like this one. See Blackman v. District of Columbia, 59 F. Supp.2d 37, 42-44 (D.D.C. 1999). To recover reasonable attorneys' fees, a plaintiff must first demonstrate that she is a prevailing party in the litigation. See id. at 40-41. The Court then 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).

On the issue of reasonableness, plaintiff 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 in view of the attorney's reputation and level of skill and experience with respect to this type of case, and that the matter was appropriately staffed to do the work required efficiently and without duplicative billing. In re Olson, 884 F.2d 1415, 1428-29 (D.C. Cir. 1989) (emphasis in original); see Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. at 333; Covington v. District of Columbia, 57 F.3d 1101, 1107 (D.C. Cir. 1995), cert. denied, 516 U.S. 1115 (1996); Blackman v. District of Columbia, 397 F. Supp. 2d 12, 14-15 (D.D.C. 2005) . At a minimum, a fee applicant must provide some information about the attorneys' billing practices and hourly rate, the attorneys' skill and experience (including the number of years that counsel has practiced law), the nature of counsel's practice as it relates to this kind of litigation, and the prevailing market rates in the relevant community. See Covington v. District of Columbia, 57 F.3d at 1107. The D.C. Circuit also requires that "fee ...


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