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Evelyn Sykes v. District of Columbia

June 18, 2012

EVELYN SYKES, 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 Evelyn Sykes ("Plaintiff') has requested $4,444.75 in legal fees and costs. Defendant District of Columbia ("Defendant" or "the District") contends that Plaintiff's claim is barred by a three year statute of limitations pursuant to D.C. Code §12-301(8) and further contests Plaintiff's prevailing party status. Defendant 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 December 10, 2007 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." (December 10, 2007 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 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. (December 10, 2007 HOD at 3.) The Hearing Officer did however order 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 . . . ." (December 10, 2007 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. Statute of Limitations

The IDEA does not contain a specific reference regarding when the prevailing party may seek to recover their legal fees. See 20 U.S.C. §1415(i)(3). "When Congress has not established a statute of limitations for a federal cause of action, it is well-settled that federal courts may 'borrow' one from an analogous state cause of action, provided that the state limitations period is not inconsistent with underlying federal policies." Spiegler v. District of Columbia, 866 F.2d 461, 463-64 (D.C. Cir. 1989) (citations omitted).

D. C. Code §12-301 [Limitation of time for bringing actions] states in relevant part that: "[e]xcept as otherwise specifically provided by law, actions for the following purposes may not be brought after the expiration of the period specified below from the time the right to maintain the action accrues: * * * (8) for which a limitation is not otherwise specially prescribed -- 3 years . . . ." D.C. Code Section 12-301 (8).

B. 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, ...


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