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Lorraine Gorman v. District of Columbia

November 4, 2011

LORRAINE GORMAN, PLAINTIFF,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Alan Kay United States Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

This matter is pending before this Court on Plaintiffs' Motion for [summary judgment on the issue of] Fees and Costs ("Fee Motion") and Memorandum in support thereof ("Memorandum") [12]; Defendant's opposition to the Motion ("Opposition") [13]; and Plaintiff's reply to the Opposition ("Reply") [14].*fn1 Plaintiff Lorraine Gorman ("Plaintiff') has requested $1,046.50 in legal fees and costs, a portion of which is contested by Defendant District of Columbia ("Defendant" or "the District") on grounds that the hourly rate charged by Plaintiff's counsel is excessive and some of counsel's billing entries are "remote" in time. (Opposition, Exh. 1 [Defendant's chart of proposed allowable fees and reasons for fee reductions].)

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff is the parent of a minor child who prevailed in an administrative action brought pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Improvement Act ( collectively "IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq. Pursuant to 20 U.S.C. §1415(i)(3)(B), a court may award attorney's fees to a parent who prevails in an IDEA proceeding. Prior to filing this civil action, the Plaintiff participated in a March 10, 2008 due process hearing wherein the Hearing Officer considered whether or not the District of Columbia Public Schools ("DCPS") denied the student a free appropriate public education ("FAPE"). The Hearing Officer ultimately concluded in his Hearing Officer Decision ("HOD") that "DCPS' failure to convene a MDT [multidisciplinary team] meeting in response to the parent's counsel's timely request for a MDT meeting [was] a denial of FAPE." ( April 11, 2008 HOD [1] at 3.) The District does not dispute Plaintiff's prevailing party status in this case.

Plaintiff originally filed her complaint for legal fees and costs with the Small Claims and Conciliation Branch of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. Defendant removed this and other simultaneously filed cases to this Court and the parties subsequently consented to the referral of all such cases to the undersigned Magistrate Judge for all purposes. The parties were directed to brief the issues in these cases in the form of motions for legal fees and responses thereto.

II. LEGAL STANDARD

The IDEA gives courts authority to award reasonable attorney's fees to the parents of a child with a disability who is the prevailing party. 20 U.S.C. §1415(i)(3)(B). An action or proceeding under IDEA includes both civil litigation in federal court and administrative litigation before hearing officers. Smith v. Roher, 954 F. Supp. 359, 362 (D.D.C. 1997); Moore v. District of Columbia, 907 F.2d 165, 176 (D.C. Cir. 1990), cert. denied, 498 U.S. 998 (1990). The plaintiff has the burden of establishing the reasonableness of any fee requests. See In re North, 59 F.3d 184, 189 (D.C. Cir. 1995); Covington v. District of Columbia, 57 F.3d 1101, 1107 (D.C. Cir. 1995) ("[A] fee applicant bears the burden of establishing entitlement to an award, documenting the appropriate hours, and justifying the reasonableness of the rates.") "An award of attorneys' fees is calculated by multiplying a reasonable hourly rate by the number of hours reasonably expended on the case." Smith, 954 F. Supp. at 364 (citing Hensley v. Eckerhard, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983)); Blum v. Stenson, 465 U.S. 886, 888 (1984). The result of this calculation is the "lodestar" amount. Smith, 954 F. Supp. at 364.

20 U.S.C. §1415(i)(3)(C) states that "[f]ees awarded under this paragraph shall be based on rates prevailing in the community in which the action or proceeding arose for the kind and quality of services furnished." 20 U.S.C. §1415(i)(3)(C). To demonstrate a reasonable hourly rate, the fee applicant must show: an attorney's usual billing practices; counsel's skill, experience and reputation; as well as the prevailing market rates in the community. Covington, 57 F.3d at 1107. The determination of a market rate is "inherently difficult" and is decided by the court in its discretion. Blum, 465 U.S. at 896 n.11. "To inform and assist the court in the exercise of its discretion, the burden is on the fee applicant to produce satisfactory evidence . . . that the requested [hourly] rates are in line with those prevailing in the community for similar services by lawyers of reasonably comparable skill, experience and reputation." Id. An attorney's usual billing rate may be considered the "reasonable rate" if it accords with the rates prevailing in the community for similar services by lawyers possessing similar skill, experience and reputation. Kattan by Thomas v. District of Columbia, 995 F.2d 274, 278 (D.C.Cir. 1993).

A party moving for summary judgment on legal fees accordingly must demonstrate prevailing party status and the reasonableness of the fees requested in terms of hours spent and hourly rate. Under Fed. R. Civ. P. 56 (a), summary judgment shall be granted if the movant shows that there is "no genuine issue as to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Accord Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247 (1986). Summary judgment should be granted against a party "who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986).

The court is required to draw all justifiable inferences in the nonmoving party's favor and to accept the nonmoving party's evidence as true. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255. The nonmoving party must establish more than "the mere existence of a scintilla of evidence" in support of its position. Id. at 252. Nor may the non-moving party rely on allegations or conclusory statements; instead, the non-moving party is obliged to present specific facts that would enable a reasonable jury to find it its favor. Greene v Dalton, 164 F.3d 671, 675 (D.C. Cir. 1999).

III. ANALYSIS

A. Reasonableness of Hourly Rates

Plaintiff seeks fees for the services of four lawyers and/or paralegals, to be paid at the following rates: $268.00 per hour for Zachary Nahass, an attorney with approximately 1-2 years experience during the relevant time period, and $146.00 per hour for Yanet Scott, Patrick Meehan, and Camille Mckenzie, who were paralegals with the firm Tyrka & Associates during that same period of time. See Plaintiff's Itemization of Fees/Expenses [1]; Fee Motion, Exh. 2 (Verified Statement of Douglas Tyrka ("Tyrka")) ¶¶11, 15, 18. According to the Verified Statement by Tyrka ("Verified Statement"), "[t]he hourly rates in the itemization are the rates Tyrka & Associates has customarily charged." (Exh. 2 ¶4.)

Tyrka further asserts that "clients have retained Tyrka & Associates with the understanding and agreement that the client would retain full responsibility for all fees regardless of what was reimbursed by third parties, at rates consistent with 'the Laffey [M]atrix' as adjusted per the finding in Salazar v. District of Columbia, 123 F. Supp. 2d 8, 14-15 (D.D.C. 2000), and other cases." (Exh. 2 ¶4.)*fn2 Plaintiff relies upon the rates set forth in the 'enhanced' Laffey Matrix in her request for attorney's fees but Tyrka's Verified Statement does not indicate how frequently Plaintiff's counsel is paid at these 'enhanced' Laffey rates.*fn3 Nor has counsel presented affidavits attesting to the actual billing rates of ...

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