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Tarsha Wood v. District of Columbia

May 22, 2012

TARSHA WOOD, 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 Tarsha Wood ("Plaintiff') has requested $2,084.10 in legal fees. Defendant District of Columbia ("Defendant" or "the District") contests Plaintiff's prevailing party status and asserts that Plaintiff is not entitled to recovery of any legal fees or costs. (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 was the subject of 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 February 19, 2008 due process hearing wherein the Hearing Officer identified the following issue to be considered: [w]hether DCPS denied the student FAPE and failed to convene a compensatory education meeting following the Petitioner's request." (March 5, 2008 Hearing Officer Determination ("HOD") at 2, attached to Notice of Removal [1].) The Hearing Officer concluded that:

1) Pursuant to the Blackman-Jones Consent Decree, members of the class may file a due process complaint when they are dissatisfied with the resolution of a request for compensatory education at an IEP meeting or by Central Administration Personnel. 2) Petitioner met the burden to establish that DCPS failed to satisfy the Petitioner's request for an IEP meeting but Petitioner failed to meet the burden of proof to establish that the alleged procedural violations impeded the child's right to a FAPE; significantly impeded the parent's opportunity to rights afforded by the IDEA 2004, or caused a deprivation of educational benefit. (March 5, 2008 HOD at 2-3.) The Hearing Officer inter alia ordered DCPS to "provide written notice to [counsel for Plaintiff], proposing at least three separate dates and times to convene an IEP/compensatory education meeting within ten days . . . ." (March 5, 2008 HOD at 3.) The Hearing Officer further ordered that "if DCPS fails to convene an IEP/compensatory education meeting pursuant to this HOD, then DCPS shall fund the Petitioner's compensatory education plan." (Id.)

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

A. Prevailing Party

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). A party is generally considered to be the prevailing party if he succeeds "on any significant issue in litigation which achieves some of the benefit sought in bring suit." Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983).

The Supreme Court has indicated that the term "prevailing party" does not include a plaintiff who "fail[s] to secure a judgment on the merits or a court-ordered consent decree." Buckhannon Bd & Care Home, Inc. v. West Virginia Dep't Health & Human Resources, 532 U.S. 598, 606 (2001). The Supreme Court therefore rejected the "catalyst theory" whereby a plaintiff would be a prevailing party if the lawsuit brought about the desired result through a voluntary change in the defendant 's conduct. 532 U.S. at 605. The Supreme Court instead determined that a prevailing party must obtain a "material alternation of the legal relationship of the parties." Id. at 604 (quoting Texas State Teachers Ass'n v. Garland Indep. Sch. Dist., 489 U.S. 782, 792-93 (1989)). See also District of Columbia v. Straus, Civil Action No. 09-7051, 2010 WL 45932, at *2 (D.C. Cir. Jan. 8, 2010) ("the term 'prevailing party' [is] a legal term of art" that requires more than achieving the desired outcome; the party seeking fees must also have "been awarded some relief by the court.") (quoting Buckhannon, 532 U.S. at 603.)

The standards in Buckhannon apply to administrative hearings under the IDEIA even though the relief granted is administrative as opposed to judicial. Abarca v. District of Columbia, Civil Action No. 06-1254, 2007 WL 1794101 *2 n.1 (D.D.C. June 19, 2007).

B. Fee Requests

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 ...


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