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Linda Fisher v. Friendship Public Charter School

July 31, 2012

LINDA FISHER, PLAINTIFF,
v.
FRIENDSHIP PUBLIC CHARTER SCHOOL, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Royce C. Lamberth, Chief Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Before the Court is plaintiff's Motion [25] for Fees and Costs. Upon consideration of this Motion, defendant's Opposition [26], plaintiff's Reply [28], defendant's Surreply [29], the applicable law, and the entire record in this case, plaintiff's Motion will be granted in part and denied in part.

I.Factual Background

On May 27, 2010, Linda Fisher ("plaintiff") filed a complaint against Friendship Public Charter School ("defendant") under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400 et seq. ("IDEA"). Plaintiff sought four substantive forms of relief: (1) a declaration that defendant violated IDEA by denying plaintiff's child, R.G., a free appropriate public education ("FAPE"), (2) an order that defendant reimburse plaintiff for the private tuition of R.G. at Rock Creek Academy retroactive to October 12, 2009 (the date of his enrollment), (3) an order compelling defendant to convene a multidisciplinary team to discuss and determine a compensatory education for R.G., and in the alternative (4) an order compelling defendant to fund an independent evaluation to determine the appropriate compensatory education for R.G.

Both parties filed Motions for Summary Judgment. This Court granted defendant's Motion [9] as to the declaratory and compensatory relief as moot. The Court granted plaintiff's Motion [10] as to tuition reimbursement. Therefore, three of plaintiff's four claims were dismissed as moot, while she prevailed on only one. See Jan. 26, 2012 Mem. Op. [17] at 14. With the merits of the case resolved, the only remaining issue is plaintiff's Motion [25] for fees and costs.

II.Statutory Framework

IDEA allows the Court, in its discretion, to award reasonable attorney's fees to the "prevailing party who is the parent of a child with a disability." 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B)(1). The statute requires a two-step judicial inquiry: (1) whether the parent is a "prevailing party" and (2) whether attorney's fees are warranted and reasonable. Id.; see also B.R. ex rel. Rempson v. District of Columbia, 802 F. Supp. 2d 153, 162--63 (D.D.C. 2011). A party "prevails" when it satisfies this Circuit's three-element test: "(1) there must be a 'court-ordered change in the legal relationship' of the parties; (2) the judgment must be in favor of the party seeking the fees; and (3) the judicial pronouncement must be accompanied by judicial relief." District of Columbia v. Straus, 590 F.3d 898, 901 (D.C. Cir. 2010) (quoting Thomas v. Nat'l Sci. Found., 330 F.3d 486, 492--93 (D.C. Cir. 2003)). Although the Supreme Court has held its formulation of "prevailing party" to be "generous," de minimus relief on a legal claim does not entitle that party to attorney's fees. Tex. State Teachers Ass'n v. Garland Indep. Sch. Dist., 489 U.S. 782, 792 (1989).

When the legal relationship between the parties is changed by a judicial decree, "the degree of plaintiff's overall success goes to the reasonableness of the award." Id. at 793. Whether attorney's fees are "reasonable" is a matter of judicial discretion, the objective measurement of which has divided courts within the D.C. Circuit. McClam v. District of Columbia, 808 F. Supp. 2d 184, 189--90 (D.D.C. 2011). Some courts award fees at according to the Laffey Matrix*fn1 while others have awarded smaller amounts because of the relative simplicity of the cases. Id. (holding that "IDEA cases are generally not complex" and that "Laffey high-end rates cannot be awarded here."). When a plaintiff succeeds on only some of his claims, the Court looks to whether the plaintiff "fail[ed] to prevail on claims that were unrelated to the claims on which he succeeded;" and whether the plaintiff "achieve[d] a level of success that makes the hours reasonably expended a satisfactory basis for making a fee award." Hensley v. Eckerhard, 461 U.S. 424, 434 (1983).

III.Analysis

Plaintiff moves for the Court to award her $39,685.50 in attorney's fees after her successful Motion for Summary Judgment regarding tuition reimbursement resulting from defendant's IDEA violation. Pl.'s Mot. for Fees & Costs at 1. Defendant opposes the Motion on three grounds: (1) plaintiff is not a prevailing party because she obtained only de minimis relief, (2) attorney's fees should be reduced because plaintiff's lawsuit was only partially successful, and (3) attorney's fees should be reduced because plaintiff's request is unreasonable. See generally Def.'s Opp'n to Pl.'s Mot. for Fees & Costs ("Opp'n"). The Court will analyze each of these objections in turn.

a.Was Plaintiff a "Prevailing Party?"

Defendant first opposes plaintiff's Motion by claiming that plaintiff should not be considered a "prevailing party." Opp'n at 5--8. It first asserts that there was no change in the legal relationship between Friendship and plaintiff because the school to whom it was ordered to pay retroactive tuition is now closed. Id. at 7--8. However, plaintiff's Reply provides documentation of the school's continued existence as a corporation. See Reply at 1, Exs. 1--2. Furthermore, the Verified Statement of Richard Henning states that if a third party does not pay for R.G.'s tuition, plaintiff is responsible for the balance. Reply at 1--2, Ex. 1. Therefore, the Court's January 26, 2012 order that defendant pay plaintiff's tuition changed the legal relationship between the parties.

Defendant argues that if the Court finds a legal change in the relationship between the parties, the relief was only technical or de minimis. Opp'n at 8. However, its argument is premised on the fact that plaintiff was not obligated to pay R.G.'s tuition. As stated above, plaintiff provided documentation to the contrary. Furthermore, though defendant states that "Friendship's counsel contacted OSSE and has confirmed that OSSE paid R.G.'s tuition, for the time period required by the HOD[,]" it fails to provide any evidence or documentation to back up its claim. Def.'s Surreply at 2. This Court has previously held that "prevailing party" status "depends more on whether he has obtained his primary objective in seeking an administrative hearing." Robinson v. District of Columbia, 2007 WL 2257326, at *4 (D.D.C. Aug. 2, 2007). Plaintiff's primary objective was "a successful educational outcome for R.G." Reply at 2. ...


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