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Yodie Baker v. D.C. Public Schools et al

September 30, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ricardo M. Urbina United States District Judge

Re Document No.: 21




This matter comes before the court on the plaintiff's motion for attorney's fees and costs. The plaintiff is the mother of a minor child who is entitled to the protections of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400, et seq. She commenced this action seeking $11,448.25 in attorney's fees that she incurred while prosecuting an administrative claim pursuant to the IDEA.*fn1 The defendants, the District of Columbia Public Schools ("DCPS") and the District of Columbia, concede that the plaintiff prevailed in the underlying merits hearing, but they dispute the reasonableness of the requested fees.

Because the plaintiff is the prevailing party and because some of the requested fees are reasonable, the court grants in part the plaintiff's motion for attorney's fees and costs. Because certain fee requests by the plaintiff are inappropriate and deficient, however, the court denies in part the plaintiff's motion. Accordingly, the court grants the plaintiff an award of reduced fees.


The plaintiff's minor child is enrolled in the District of Columbia Public Schools ("DCPS") and is entitled to the protections afforded by the IDEA. Am. Compl. ¶ 2. In September 2008, the plaintiff filed an administrative due process complaint against the DCPS and the District of Columbia alleging that the defendants failed to provide a Free and Appropriate Public Education ("FAPE") to her child as required under the IDEA. Id. at ¶ 4. After a hearing on the merits in November 2008 ("November 2008 merits hearing"), the hearing officer issued a Hearing Officer Determination ("HOD") granting the plaintiff the relief that she had been seeking. Id. at ¶ 5. During the course of such administrative proceedings, the plaintiff had been represented by the Law Offices of Christopher N. Anwah. Id. at 2.

The plaintiff then submitted an IDEA fee petition for attorney's fees and costs to the defendants, for a total amount of $15,628.95. Pl.'s Mot. at 1-2. The defendants only reimbursed the plaintiff in the amount of $4,000.00, however, creating a difference of $11,448.25 between what the plaintiff believed she was owed and what the defendants had paid.*fn2 Id.; Defs.' Opp'n, Ex. A, at 1 n. 2.

In August 2009, the plaintiff filed an action in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, seeking recovery of the outstanding balance of $11,448.25 on her IDEA fee petition. Am. Compl. ¶ 4. The following month, the defendants removed the action to this court. See Notice of Removal. The plaintiff later filed an amended complaint in July 2010. See generally Am. Compl. After attempts at mediation proved unsuccessful, the plaintiff filed the instant motion for attorney's fees and costs. See generally Pl.'s Mot. In her motion, the plaintiff continues to seek the $11,448.25 that she contends is still due. Id. at 2. With this motion ripe for consideration, the court turns to the parties' arguments and to the applicable legal standards.


A. Legal Standard for Attorney's Fees Under the IDEA

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 54(d) requires that a party seeking "attorney's fees and related non-taxable expenses" must file a motion with the court. FED. R. CIV. P. 54(d)(2)(A).

The motion "must specify the judgment and the statute, rule, or other grounds entitling the movant to the award." FED. R. CIV. P. 54(d)(2)(B)(ii). It must also state the amount sought in attorney's fees, or provide a fair estimate of such amount. FED. R. CIV. P. 54(d)(2)(B)(iii); see also Herbin v. District of Columbia, 2006 WL 890673, at *2 (D.D.C. Apr. 4, 2006).

The IDEA allows the parents of a disabled child to recover "reasonable attorney['s] fees" so long as they are the "prevailing party." 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B). A court's determination of the appropriate attorney's fees, in other words, is based on a two-step inquiry. First, the court must determine whether the party seeking attorney's fees is the prevailing party. Id. A prevailing party "is one who has been awarded some relief by a court." Buckhannon Bd. & Care Home, Inc. v. W. Va. Dep't of Health & Human Res., 532 U.S. 598, 603 (2001); Alegria v. District of Columbia, 391 F.3d 262, 264-65 (D.C. Cir. 2004) (applying Buckhannon in the IDEA context).

Second, the court should determine whether the attorney's fees sought are reasonable. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B). "The most useful starting point for determining the amount of a reasonable fee is the number of hours reasonably expended on the litigation multiplied by a reasonable hourly rate." Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983); see also Blackman v. District of Columbia, 397 F. Supp. 2d 12, 14 (D.D.C. 2005) (applying Hensley in the IDEA context). An attorney's hourly rate for IDEA actions in the District of Columbia is typically considered reasonable if it conforms to the Laffey Matrix, a chart of hourly rates based upon attorneys' respective years of experience. Lopez v. District of Columbia, 383 F. Supp. 2d 18, 24 (D.D.C. 2005) (citing Kaseman v. District of Columbia, 329 F. Supp. 2d 20, 25 (D.D.C. 2004)); see also 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(C) (stating that attorney's fees awards "shall be based on rates prevailing in the community in which the action or proceeding arose for the kind and quality of services furnished").

The plaintiff bears the burden of demonstrating that the number of hours that its counsel has spent on a particular task is reasonable. Holbrook v. District of Columbia, 305 F. Supp. 2d 41, 45 (D.D.C. 2004). The plaintiff may satisfy this burden "by submitting an invoice that is sufficiently detailed [in order] to 'permit the District Court to make an independent determination [of] whether or not the hours claimed are justified.'" Id. (citing Nat'l Ass'n of Concerned Veterans v. Sec'y of Def., 675 F.2d 1319, 1327 (D.C. Cir. 1982)). Once the plaintiff has provided the court with such information, a "presumption arises [in the plaintiff's favor] that the number of hours billed is reasonable[,] and the burden shifts to the defendants to rebut the plaintiff's showing of reasonable hours." Herbin, 2006 WL 890673, at *5.

B. The Court Grants in Part and Denies in Part the Plaintiff's Motion for Attorney's Fees

1. The Reasonableness of the Number of Hours Billed by the Plaintiff's Counsel*fn3

a. Itemizing Each Attorney's Respective Tasks

The plaintiff has submitted to the court an invoice for $11,448.25 that outlines her attorney's fees and costs. Pl.'s Mot., Ex. A, Invoice of Billable Hours. The defendants allege that the plaintiff's fee petition is unacceptably vague because it does not identify the individual attorney who performed each respective task. Defs.' Opp'n at 6-7. The defendants assert that by neglecting to delineate the work that each attorney performed, the plaintiff has failed to adhere to the DCPS Guidelines for the Payment of Attorney Fees in IDEA Matters ("DCPS Guidelines"), which provide specific instructions as to how to submit a fee petition. Id. at 7. As a result, the defendants argue, the court lacks "sufficient information to determine whether the claimed rates are appropriate for the work that was performed." Id. at 6.

The plaintiff counters that she complied with the DCPS Guidelines by including a "user summary" at the end of her invoice. Pl.'s Reply at 3. She notes that the summary lists the names of all staff members who worked on the case, the total number of hours that each expended on the case, each staff member's respective hourly rate and the total dollar amount that each billed. Id. The plaintiff further contends that the DCPS Guidelines do not require identification of each individual attorney who performed specific legal activities, and that the defendants have offered no legal authority to establish this purported requirement. Id. at 7.

A fee application must provide sufficient detail so as to allow the court to make an independent determination of whether the charges are reasonable. See Nat'l Ass'n of Concerned Veterans,675 F.2d at 1327. The plaintiff's invoice "need not present the exact number of minutes spent[,] nor the precise activity to which each hour was devoted[,] nor the specific attainments of each attorney." Holbrook, 305 F. Supp. 2d at 45 (quoting Nat'l Ass'n of Concerned Veterans, 675 F.2d at 1327); see also Smith v. District of Columbia, 466 F. Supp. 2d 151, 158 (D.D.C. 2006). Yet a fee petition that does not identify the specific attorneys who performed each respective activity is considered insufficiently detailed. Gray v. District of Columbia, 2011 WL 1561553, at *2 n.5 (D.D.C. Apr. 26, 2011). Without such information, the court is unable to evaluate whether an attorney's hourly billable rate and billed hours are reasonable. Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983); see also Blackman v. District of Columbia, 397 F. Supp. 2d 12, 14 (D.D.C. 2005) (applying Hensley in the IDEA context).

Here, the plaintiff's failure to match the tasks with the respective attorneys who undertook them creates ambiguity as to whether the task was performed by an attorney or a paralegal. Moreover, if the task was indeed carried out by an attorney, the plaintiff's failure to identify that person by name leaves uncertainty as to his or her level of experience. Because the fee petition fails to provide sufficient detail as to who undertook each individual activity, the court cannot ascertain whether the hourly billing rate for each respective task is reasonable, and thus cannot determine whether the plaintiff's overall request for attorney's fees is reasonable.

Even if the plaintiff's fee petition is somewhat deficient, however, complete denial of fees is inappropriate. See Jordan v. Dep't of Justice, 691 F.2d 514, 518 (D.C. Cir. 1982) (holding that complete denial of fees should be reserved for only extreme situations, such as when the petitioner offers no affidavits or timesheets, or when the application is filed in bad faith). The court may, instead, reduce the overall fee award to account for such deficiencies. See Hensley, 461 U.S. at 433 (noting that "[w]here the documentation of hours is inadequate, the district court may reduce the award accordingly"); Role Models Am., Inc. v. Brownlee, 353 F.3d 962, 973 (D.C. Cir. 2004) (reducing overall fee award by fifty percent where documentation of time records was deficient); In re Olson, 884 F.2d 1415, 1428 (D.C. Cir. 1989) (applying an overall reduction where time entries were inadequate). The court accordingly reduces the overall fee award by twenty-five percent to account for these and, as indicated below, other deficiencies in the plaintiff's fee petition.

b. Clerical and Other Non-Professional Services

The defendants argue that the plaintiff's counsel inappropriately billed for clerical tasks, a category of activities that is not compensable under the IDEA. Defs.' Opp'n at 19. They therefore contend that the total 6.34 hours billed for administrative work should be disallowed from the plaintiff's fee petition, reducing the overall attorney's fees total accordingly. Id. at 20. The plaintiff responds that these tasks were ...

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