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Yvonne Huntley v. District of Columbia

May 17, 2012

YVONNE HUNTLEY, 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") [10]; Defendant's opposition to the Motion ("Opposition") [11]; and Plaintiff's reply to the Opposition ("Reply") [12].*fn1 Plaintiff Yvonne Huntley ("Plaintiff') has requested $1,207.25 in legal fees and costs, a portion of which is contested by Defendant District of Columbia ("Defendant" or "the District") on grounds that the documentation supporting such claim is inadequate; 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].)*fn2

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff is the guardian 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 January 9, 2008 due process hearing wherein the Hearing Officer determined that:

. . . [DCPS's] rejection of [counsel's] election on behalf of [Plaintiff] was arbitrary and capricious. [Counsel's] correspondence with [DCPS] put DCPS on notice that he represented Petitioner. As noted above, the Decree clearly contemplates that DCPS would work cooperatively with Petitioners' attorneys in facilitating compensatory education awards. [DCPS's] decision to ignore [counsel's] unambiguous election of an MDT meeting instead of a product from the Catalog violated the specific terms and intent of the Decree. (January 10, 2008 Hearing Officer's Interim Order ("HOD") at 5-6, attached to Notice of Removal [1] (emphasis in original).) The Hearing Officer inter alia ordered DCPS to "convene an MDT meeting . . . ." (HOD at 6.)

The District does not contest Plaintiff's prevailing party status in this case but the District does note an objection to Plaintiff's "inadequate documentation" in the chart attached to its Opposition as Exhibit 1. The District proffers no explanation for this objection other than its claim that the HOD in this case "appears identical" to an HOD in another case.*fn3 Comparing the two HODs, this Court notes that District's claim of "inadequate documentation" is unsupported. The two cases being compared involve different petitioners with different hearing dates who had similar issues considered by the same Hearing Officer. Defendant makes no rational argument that would preclude Plaintiff in this case from recovering legal fees because of any similarity in the Hearing Officer's decisions.

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 for the services of a lawyer 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 ...


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