UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA
May 17, 2012
YVONNE HUNTLEY, PLAINTIFF,
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, DEFENDANT.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Alan Kay United States Magistrate Judge
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") ; Defendant's opposition to the Motion ("Opposition") ; and Plaintiff's reply to the Opposition ("Reply") .*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
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  (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 facts that would enable a reasonable jury to find it its favor. Greene v Dalton, 164 F.3d 671, 675 (D.C. Cir. 1999).
A. Reasonableness of Hourly Rates
Plaintiff seeks fees for the services of two lawyers and three paralegals, to be paid at the following rates: $475.00/hour for Douglas Tyrka, an attorney with 8-10 years experience during the relevant time period; $268.00 per hour for Zachary Nahass, an attorney with approximately 1-2 years experience during the relevant time period, and $146.00/$150.00 per hour for Patrick Meehan, Yanet Scott and Camille McKenzie, who were paralegals with the firm Tyrka & Associates during that same period of time.*fn4 (Plaintiff's Itemization of Fees/Expenses, attached to Notice of Removal ; Fee Motion , Exh. 2 [Verified Statement of Douglas Tyrka ("Tyrka")] ¶¶ 8 -11, 15.) According to Tykra's Verified Statement ("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.)*fn5
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.*fn6 Nor has counsel
presented affidavits attesting to the actual billing rates of lawyers
who do similar IDEA work. Furthermore, the Plaintiff has not provided
specific information about the nature or complexity of the IDEA
administrative work performed in this case.
Plaintiff asserts that in order to demonstrate prevailing market rates, she may "point to such evidence as an updated [enhanced] version of the Laffey Matrix or the U.S. Attorney's Office ["USAO"] Matrix, or [her] own survey of prevailing market rates in the community." (Memorandum in support of Fee Motion ("Memorandum") at 8 (citing Covington, 57 F.3d at 1109 (additional citation omitted))). In the Covington case, which involved allegations of civil rights violations, the Court of Appeals for the D. C. Circuit did look to Laffey rates for prevailing market rates but the relevant market therein was "complex federal litigation," 57 F.3d at 1110. In contrast, this case involves IDEA litigation, which is not complex federal litigation because most if not all of the attorney's fees in question are the result of counsel's preparation for attendance at routine administrative hearings. Accordingly, the Laffey Matrix rates are inapplicable as prevailing market rates.
Plaintiff additionally relies upon Rooths v District of Columbia,
Civil Action No. 09-0492, Report and Recommendation of March 31, 2011,
and Friendship Edison Pub. Charter Sch. v. Suggs, Civil Action No.
06-1284, Motion for Attorneys' Fees of July 10, 2008 and Memorandum
Opinion of March 30, 2009 at 5-8. (Fee Motion, Exhs. 5-7).*fn7
According to Plaintiff, in these two IDEA cases litigated in
this United States District Court, the firm's clients received an
award of fees "based on rates exactly in line with those presented
here, . . . " (Memorandum at 8.)
As a preliminary matter, this Court notes that the mere showing that a high hourly rate was approved in another case does not in and of itself establish a new market rate or prove that the new rate is reasonable. Furthermore, Plaintiff's reliance on Rooths v District of Columbia, Civil Action No. 09-0492, Report and Recommendation of March 31, 2011 at 10-11 (Fee Motion, Exh. 5), is misplaced because the trial court ultimately rejected the application of enhanced Laffey rates, applied Laffey Matrix rates as a starting point, and then reduced those rates by 25%. Rooths v District of Columbia, 802 F.Supp.2d 56, 63 (D.D.C. 2011).
In Rooths, the Honorable Paul L. Friedman noted that "[i]n this circuit, the rates contained in the Laffey Matrix are typically treated as the highest rates that will be presumed to be reasonable when a court reviews a petition for statutory attorneys' fees." 802 F Supp. 2d 61.
The trial court declined "to approve as reasonable the inflated rates contained in a proposed alternative fee matrix." Id.; see Blackman v. District of Columbia, 677 F. Supp. 2d 169, 176 (D.D.C. 2010) (in determining prevailing market rates, the court declined to apply enhanced Laffey rates). The Rooths court further refused to apply enhanced Laffey rates, in part because it found that the "[enhanced Laffey] matrix was generated using national statistics rather than measurements particular to the District of Columbia area." 802 F. Supp.2d at 62 (emphasis in original); see also DL v. District of Columbia, 256 F.R.D. 239, 243 (D.D.C. 2009) (because the USAO [Laffey]Matrix accounts for price inflation within the local community, it more aptly focuses on the relevant community than the [enhanced] Laffey Matrix based on the legal services index). The Rooths court commented that "[w]hile it is doubtless true that some sectors of the legal services industry have experienced rapid fee inflation in recent years, [it was] unconvinced that fees associated with IDEA litigation in the District of Columbia have increased at the same rate." 802 F. Supp. 2d at 62.
Recognizing the difficulty courts encounter in determining what are reasonable legal fees, this Court agrees with the rationale set forth in Rooths, and finds that the Plaintiff's reliance on an enhanced Laffey Matrix is unsupported because such Matrix does not provide an accurate representation of District of Columbia legal fees applicable to IDEA cases. Nor has Plaintiff demonstrated that IDEA litigation involving administrative hearings is the type of "complex federal litigation" encompassed by the Laffey rates. See McClam v. District of Columbia, Civil Action No. 11-381 (RMC), September 6, 2011 Memorandum Opinion at 8 (declining to apply Laffey rates in part on grounds that "IDEA cases are generally not complex [and in that case,] Plaintiffs . . . pointed to no novel issue or other complexity that turned this, particular IDEA case into a complicated piece of litigation.")*fn8
Defendant's argument against imposition of Laffey rates primarily focuses on the Rooths and McClam decisions, supra. but the Defendant also asserts that "Plaintiffs have made no serious attempt to show that rates under the Laffey Matrix are appropriate in this case or, more specifically, that Laffey rates were necessary to attract competent counsel in the underlying, special education matters." (Opposition at 13.)*fn9 Defendant further argues that there is no "inherent right to Laffey rates." (Opposition at 13 (citation omitted)); see Lively v Flexible Packaging Assoc., 930 A.2d 984, 990 (D.C. 2007) (accepting the Laffey Matrix as one legitimate means of calculating attorney's fees and using it as a starting point instead of an automatic application). Federal courts do not automatically have to award Laffey rates but instead they can look at the complexity of the case and use their discretion to determine whether such rates are warranted. See Muldrow v. Re-Direct, Inc., 397 F. Supp. 2d 1, 4-5 (D.D.C. 2005) ( awarding fees at a rate 25% less than Laffey in a "relatively straightforward negligence suit").
This Court follows the reasoning of the Rooths case and other cases declining to apply enhanced Laffey rates. Considering that this is a straightforward case seeking IDEA legal fees, this Court concludes that the Plaintiff has failed to demonstrate that the hourly rates set by her counsel, which are based on enhanced Laffey rates, are reasonable.*fn10 Such enhanced rates do not reflect what the local legal market will bear in terms of legal fees for IDEA litigation. Using the [USAO] Laffey Matrix as a starting point for determination of a reasonable hourly rate, this Court determines that the hourly rate for Douglas Tyrka [attorney with 8-10 years experience] would be $315.00; the hourly rate for Zachary Nahass [attorney with 1-2 years experience] would be $215.00, instead of $268.00, while the rate for a paralegal [Patrick Meehan, Yanet Scott and Camille McKenzie] would be $125.00/$130.00 instead of $146.00/$150.00.
These rates should be further reduced however because the Laffey Matrix rates are the presumed maximum rates appropriate for "complex federal litigation," Covington v. District of Columbia, 57 F.3d at 1103, and IDEA litigation generally does not fall within that category. The case at issue is no exception to that general rule insofar as it involves a routine administrative proceeding summarized in the Hearing Officer's Interim Order dated January 10, 2008 (HOD ) and the time spent [billed] in preparation for the hearing was nominal. (Itemization of Fees/Expenses.) In such a case, an hourly rate below the Laffey Matrix rates is appropriate. See Wilson v. District of Columbia, Civil Action No. 09-2258, 2011 WL 1428090, at *3 (D.D.C. Apr. 14, 2011) (Laffey Matrix is "not generally applicable to IDEA cases because they are not usually complex"); A.C. ex rel. Clark v. District of Columbia, 674 F.Supp.2d 149, 155 (D.D.C. 2009) (finding the USAO Laffey inapplicable in an IDEA case where "almost all of the attorney's fees in question are the result of counsel's preparation for attendance at routine administrative hearing"); Agapito v. District of Columbia, 525 F.Supp.2d 150, 155 (D.D.C. 2007) (adjusting attorney fee award and declining to rely on the Laffey Matrix for these "relatively simple and straighforward IDEIA cases"). The Court will therefore award fees at an hourly rate equal to three-quarters of the USAO Laffey Matrix rate, which is $236.00 for Tyrka; $161.00 for Nahass and $94.00/98.00 for Meehan, Scott and McKenzie*fn11
B. Challenges to Time Charges
Defendant claims that some of the hours billed by Plaintiff's counsel should not be compensated because they are too remote in time as to "preclude a meaningful relationship with the hearing." (Opposition at 16, citing Czarniewy v. District of Columbia, 2005 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 5161, at *11 (D.D.C. March 25, 2005)). See also Role Models America, Inc. v. Brownlee, 353 F.3d 962, 973 (D.C. Cir. 2004) (where administrative fee charges have no temporal proximity to the proceeding on which the right to fees is based but instead appear to be administrative matters between counsel and his client, these charges are not appropriate for reimbursement). Defendant asserts that "[t]he statute does not contemplate an undefined form of ongoing representation of students [but instead] [i]t quantifies the activities for which school districts are obliged to reimburse legal representation to the administrative process described in 20 U.S.C. §1415. . . ." (Opposition at 16.)
A review of the time sheets submitted by Plaintiff shows that the time charges noted by counsel have sufficient temporal proximity to the date of the HOD. Some of the time entries predate and include the due process hearing, reflecting preparation for and attendance at the hearing; several time entries note the hearing and counsel's actions taken in response to the Hearing Officer's Determination; and finally, some time entries following the HOD reflect follow-up by counsel, including time spent ensuring HOD compliance. This Court will not further reduce time charges based on Defendant's claim that some charges are remote.
Plaintiff seeks costs in the amount of $86.00 for expenses arising from faxing ($1.00 per page). Costs for copying, faxing and postage are customarily included in fee awards in IDEA litigation. Kaseman v. District of Columbia, 329 F. Supp. 2d 20, 28 n.7 (D.D.C. 2004). These total costs are not contested by the Defendant and will be awarded to the Plaintiff.
D. Fees and Costs Awarded
The amount of fees and costs requested by Plaintiff is $1,207.25, which can be broken down into $1,121.25 for legal fees, and $86.00 for costs. Defendant has not contested the costs. The legal fees claimed were based on .75 hour billed at $475.00/hour; $1.75 hours billed at 268.00/hour, 1.0 hour billed at $146.00/hour and 1.0 hour billed at $150.00/hour. This Court has determined that hourly rates based on 75% of the Laffey Matrix rate are applicable, which means that .75 hour is billed at $236.00/hour; 1.75 hours are billed at $161.00; 1.0 hour is billed at $94.00/hour, and 1.0 hour is billed at $98.00/hour. Total fees thus equal $650.75, and total costs equal $86.00, which together total $736.75.