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Louise Irving 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.: 23



This matter comes before the court on the plaintiff's motion for attorney's fees and costs in the above-captioned matter. The plaintiff, the parent 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., commenced this action seeking $6,003.55 in attorney's fees that she incurred while prosecuting an administrative claim.*fn1 The defendants concede that the plaintiff prevailed in the administrative proceeding, 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. The court denies in part the motion for attorney's fees, however, because the plaintiff has requested certain inappropriate fees and also because her IDEA fee petition contains certain deficiencies. 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 falls under the protection of the IDEA. Am. Compl. ¶ 4. The plaintiff filed an administrative due process complaint against the DCPS and the District of Columbia on December 3, 2008, alleging that the defendants failed to provide a Free and Appropriate Public Education ("FAPE") to her child as required under the IDEA. Id. During the administrative proceeding, the plaintiff was represented by the Law Offices of Christopher N. Anwah. Id. After a hearing on the merits ("administrative hearing"), the hearing officer issued a Hearing Officer Determination ("HOD") granting the plaintiff the relief that she sought. Id. at ¶ 5. The plaintiff then submitted an IDEA fee petition for attorney's fees and costs to the defendants, seeking a total amount of $9,418.30. Pl.'s Mot. at 1. The defendants only reimbursed the plaintiff in the amount of $2,426.55, though, creating a difference of $6,003.55 between what the plaintiff believes she is owed and what the defendants have paid.*fn2 Id. at 1; Defs.' Opp'n, Ex. A. The plaintiff has submitted this same fee petition to the court. The petition reflects the total amount of $9,418.30 that she believed she was owed, which includes the $6,003.55 that she contends is still due.

In August 2009, the plaintiff filed an action in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, seeking to recover the outstanding balance of $6,003.55 on her IDEA fee petition. Am. Compl. ¶ 4. The defendants removed the action to this court in September 2009. See Notice of Removal. The plaintiff then 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. 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" if they are the "prevailing party." 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B). Thus, when the court determines an appropriate amount of attorney's fees, it must engage in 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

The plaintiff claims that she is entitled to attorney's fees in the amount of $6,003.55, and she submits an invoice in order to meet her burden of demonstrating that this amount is reasonable. Pl's Mot., Ex. A. The defendants essentially raise five challenges to rebut the plaintiff's calculation of such fees. First, they argue that the plaintiff's fee petition is unacceptably vague in that it fails to identify the activities of each attorney by name. Defs.' Opp'n at 6. Second, they contend that the plaintiff does not demonstrate the reasonableness of certain monetary charges that appear to be administrative, remote or vague. Id. at 15-18. Third, they challenge the reasonableness of plaintiff's counsel's hourly rates, arguing that the plaintiff failed to meet her burden of establishing her counsel's qualifications and experience. Id. at 7-8. Fourth, the defendants assert that the plaintiff is not entitled to the hourly rates under the Laffey Matrix, but rather, that rates dictated by DCPS Guidelines are appropriate. Id. at 9-10. Finally, the defendants contend that the plaintiff's fee award is subject to a $4,000 fee cap under the District of Columbia Appropriations Act. Id. at 2-4. The court addresses each of the defendants' challenges in turn.

As a preliminary matter, the court notes that the defendants do not dispute that the plaintiff is the prevailing party in the underlying IDEA suit. See generally Defs.' Opp'n at 1. Indeed, because the plaintiff succeeded on her claim in the administrative proceeding, she is the prevailing party and is therefore entitled to recover reasonable attorney's fees. See Buckhannon, 532 U.S. at 603.

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

a. Itemizing Each Attorney's Respective Tasks

The plaintiff has submitted to the court an invoice for $6,003.55 that outlines her attorney's fees and costs. Pl's Mot., Ex. A. The defendants allege that the plaintiff's fee petition is unacceptably vague because in its itemization of her attorneys' tasks, it fails to identify by name the individual attorney who performed each respective task. Defs.' Opp'n at 6. By doing so, the defendants argue, 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.

The plaintiff counters that she did comply with the DCPS Guidelines by including a "user summary" at the end of her invoice. Pl.'s Reply at 3. 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 ...

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