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Lena Johnson, et al v. District of Columbia

March 20, 2012

LENA JOHNSON, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: John M. Facciola United States Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

This case was referred for all purposes. Currently pending and ready for resolution is Plaintiffs' Motion for Summary Judgment [#14]. For the reasons stated below, plaintiffs' motion will be granted in part and denied in part.

INTRODUCTION

Plaintiffs in this case are 1) Lena Johnson, the parent of E.J., and 2) Brenda Smith, the parent of B.S. [#14-1] at 2. Both children were previously diagnosed with disabilities and awarded special education services pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act, 20 U.S.C. § 1400, et seq.*fn1 ("IDEA"), which guarantees all children enrolled in the District of Columbia Public Schools ("DCPS") system a free and appropriate education ("FAPE"). Id. Administrative proceedings were brought on behalf of both children and both prevailed. Id. They then sought and were awarded attorney's fees by another judge of this Court, Gladys Kessler, in the case of Cox v. District of Columbia, No. 09-1720 (GK). Id.

Plaintiffs now seek reimbursement of attorney's fees incurred after the filing of the Cox case and, to that end, have moved for summary judgment. [#14-1] at 2. The amount in controversy, however, is not great. In the E.J. case, the defendant has paid all but $1,333.38 and in the B.S. case, only $827.34 is sought, for a total of $2,160.73. Memorandum of Points and Authorities in Opposition to Plaintiffs' Motion for Summary Judgment [#15] at 13.

Under Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, "[t]he court shall grant summary judgment 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." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). The defendant does not claim that there are any genuine issues of material fact but raises two issues of law: 1) that the rates sought for the services rendered are too high, and 2) that Elizabeth Jester, counsel for the plaintiffs, is attempting to recover, at hourly rates for legal services, reimbursement for clerical tasks that should be absorbed as overhead.

Specifically, the DCPS balks at paying plaintiffs' counsel's present hourly rate of $450 an hour for her time after January 1, 2010 through to the present. See [#14-1] at 8. Rather, it has indicated generally that it will pay lawyers at the rate of $300 per hour in IDEA cases. Defendant's Statement of Material Facts as to Which There is No Genuine Issue [#15-3] ¶ 1. The defendant also refuses to pay anything at all for the following tasks: 1) reviewing a file to prepare for an IEP meeting in one of the cases, 2) preparing a fee petition in both cases, and 3) reviewing the fee petition in both cases. See [#15-5] at 2; Defendant's Praecipe Clarifying its Contentions that Plaintiffs are Not Due Reimbursement for Certain Work Performed [#19] at 2. Additionally, the defendant refuses to pay Jester for writing a "case close letter" to her client in the B.S. case. See [#15-5] at 2.

DISCUSSION

I. Legal Standard

Pursuant to the IDEA, the Court "in its discretion, may award reasonable attorneys' fees as part of the costs . . . to a prevailing party who is the parent of a child with a disability." 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B). The statute further provides that "[f]ees . . . shall be based on rates prevailing in the community in which the action or proceedings arose for the kind and quality of services furnished." 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(C). The movant must therefore demonstrate 1) that he is the prevailing party, and 2) that the attorneys' fees sought are reasonable.

In order to qualify as a prevailing party, there must be an "alteration in the legal relationship of the parties" and this alteration must be the result of formal judicial action. Lopez v. District of Columbia, 383 F. Supp. 2d 18, 21 (D.D.C. 2005) (quoting Buckhannon Bd. and Care Home, Inc., v. West Virginia Dep't of Health and Human Res., 532 U.S. 598, 605-06 (2001)).

Determining the reasonable rate is not as straight forward. "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" in order to arrive at the total or "lodestar" amount. Hensely v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983). "[A] fee applicant's burden in establishing a reasonable hourly rate entails a showing of at least three elements: the attorneys' billing practices; the attorneys' skill, experience, and reputation; and the prevailing market rates in the relevant community." Covington v. District of Columbia, 57 F.3d 1101, 1107 (D.C. Cir. 1995).

II. Analysis

A. Plaintiffs were Prevailing Parties

Defendant does not contest plaintiffs' status as prevailing parties in this matter. See generally [#15]. Thus, the only issue before the Court is whether the fees plaintiffs seek on behalf of their counsel are reasonable.

B. Plaintiffs' Counsel's Fees are Reasonable

1. Jester's Billing Practices

In the matter currently before the Court, Jester charged hourly rates that are below Laffey rates.*fn2 [#14] at 8. Furthermore, in Jester's declaration, she states that it has been her practice to charge either current or below market rates for her services and that Judges Friedman, Lamberth, Bryant, Sullivan, and Kessler have found those rates to be reasonable in other IDEA cases. [#14-4] at 4-5.

2. Jester's Skill, Experience, and Reputation

Jester's skill and experience in the area of special education is well documented. She received her law degree in 1980 from Catholic University School of Law. [#14-4] at 1. She has specialized in children's rights issues since entering private practice in 1997 and has spoken at numerous conferences and seminars on a variety of issues relating to children. Id. at 3. She has also taught CLE courses relating to special education issues. Id. Additionally, she has represented numerous clients in the field of special education both at the administrative as well as local and federal court levels. Id.

Finally, Jester serves on a panel of attorneys approved by the D.C. Superior Court Family Division to accept special education attorney appointments. [#14-4] at 2. She also teaches new special education attorneys at a training program sponsored by the D.C. Public Defender Services. See generally [#14-4].

3. Prevailing Market Rates

Although, as defendant notes, use of the Laffey matrix to determine reasonable hourly rates in IDEA cases is not automatic, numerous Judges in this Court have relied on it as an appropriate starting point for determining rates of reimbursement for attorneys who challenge the decisions of the DCPS. Thus, at least where the issues are complex, the full Laffey rate has been awarded by some members of this Court.*fn3 See A.S. v. District of Columbia, ___ F. Supp. 2d ___, 2012 WL 291349, at *7 (D.D.C. 2012) (awarding Laffey rates upon finding that the hearing lasted four days, there were 105 proposed exhibits, there were ten witnesses, and the hearing officer's determination was 28 pages long); Bucher v. District of Columbia, 777 F. Supp. 2d 69, 74 (D.D.C. 2011) (awarding Laffey rates upon finding that the hearing lasted four days, there were 42 proposed exhibits, and there were twenty one proposed witnesses); Jackson v. District of Columbia, 696 F. Supp. 2d 97, 102 (D.D.C. 2010) (noting that an IDEA administrative proceeding that requires expert testimony is sufficiently complex to warrant application of Laffey matrix).

Where the issues are not complex, in that there are "no pre-hearing interrogatories or discovery, no production of documents or depositions, no briefings of intricate statutory or constitutional issues, no pre-trial briefings, no lengthy hearings, no protracted arguments, and few, if any, motions filed,"*fn4 some judges have concluded that use of the Laffey matrix is not appropriate, and instead, have awarded some fraction of the Laffey rate. See Wright v. District of Columbia, No. 11-CIV-0384, 2012 WL 79015, at *4 (D.D.C. Jan. 11, 2012) (awarding three-quarters of the Laffey rate because there was no evidence that the administrative hearing presented a novel legal issue or was in any way more complex than most hearings); Cousins v. District of Columbia, No. 11-CIV-384, 2012 WL 79015, at *5 (D.D.C. Jan. 11, 2012) (awarding three-quarters of Laffey rate because case involved a routine administrative proceeding and the time spent preparing for hearing was nominal); Rooths v. District of Columbia, 802 F. Supp. 2d 56, 63 (D.D.C. 2011) ("Like most IDEA cases, the claim on which the plaintiff prevailed in this action involved very simple facts, little evidence, and no novel or complicated questions of law . . . . The Court therefore will award fees at an hourly rate equal to three-quarters of the USAO Laffey rate . . . .").

In Cox v. District of Columbia, the case from which this one stems, Judge Kessler unequivocally held that the proceedings for E.J. and B.S. were both sufficiently lengthy and complex to warrant use of plaintiffs' proposed rates:

Moreover, Defendant's claim that B.S. and E.J.'s hearings were "uncomplicated" is absurd, given any reading of the comprehensive decisions by the two Hearing Officers in these cases demonstrates . . . . In B.S.'s case, it took nearly two years--which included a suspension from school and a two-week stay in a psychiatric hospital--and a hearing with sixty-five documentary exhibits, four witnesses, and written closing statements to obtain an order forcing DCPS to provide desperately needed treatment and educational assistance . . . . As for E.J., it took more than seven months and a hearing with fifty documentary exhibits, four witnesses, and written closing statement to obtain a ruling that would, hopefully, provide the help that E.J.'s [Multidisciplinary Team] made clear was needed.

Cox v. District of Columbia, No. 09-CIV-1720 (GK), Memorandum Opinion [#18] at 20-21.

This Court has no reason to conclude otherwise in this case. Indeed, it would be irrational for me to reach a contrary conclusion in the absence of an argument by the defendant that Judge Kessler erred in her conclusion that, in light of the complexity of the case and the nature of the services provided, plaintiff's counsel rate of $400 per hour was reasonable. In addition, there is no reason to conclude, on this particular record, that Jester's representation of her hourly rate is untrue and does not accurately reflect what her clients would pay her if they were able to do so. Furthermore, it is important to recognize that more is needed in these cases than a simple Goldilocks approach--this rate is too high, this one is too low, this ...


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