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Tina Parks, et al v. District of Columbia

September 28, 2012

TINA PARKS, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Richard W. Roberts United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

The plaintiffs, parents of seven students who prevailed in separate administrative proceedings brought under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act and the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Improvement Act (collectively, "IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq., bring this action against the District of Columbia (the "District") for attorneys' fees and costs incurred in those proceedings and for prejudgment interest. Plaintiffs move for summary judgment, seeking compensation for counsel at an hourly rate of $400 and for paralegal work at an hourly rate of $125. The District contends that fees should be limited to the lower rates provided in the District of Columbia Public Schools ("DCPS") fee guidelines. The District also maintains that certain charged hours are not compensable and that the plaintiffs are not entitled to prejudgment interest. Because the hourly rates requested by the plaintiffs are not warranted given the modest intricacy of the underlying administrative actions, the requested fees will be reduced to compensate counsel at an hourly rate of $350 and to compensate for paralegal work at an hourly rate of $98. Because the charges challenged by the District bear a reasonable relationship to the IDEA proceedings, they are compensable expenses. Equitable factors, however, do not warrant an award of prejudgment interest on the District's outstanding payment of fees. Thus, the plaintiffs' motion will be granted in part and denied in part.

BACKGROUND

The administrative proceedings for which the plaintiffs seek attorneys' fees and costs occurred in 2008 and 2009. (Pls.' Statement of Material Facts as to which There is No Dispute ("Pls.' Statement") ¶ 3, 9, 19, 25, 35, 41, 47.) The District does not dispute that the plaintiffs prevailed in the proceedings and therefore are entitled to recover fees. (Def.'s Resp. to Pls.'s Statement of Material Facts ("Def.'s Resp.") ¶¶ 4, 10, 20, 26, 36, 42, 48.) Elizabeth Jester, an attorney with over thirty years experience, served as counsel to each of the plaintiffs in the IDEA proceedings. (Pls.' Mot. Summ. J. ("Pls.' Mot."), Declaration of Elizabeth Jester, Esq. ("Jester Decl.") ¶ 2.) Jester's paralegal, Mery Williams, worked part-time on the plaintiffs' administrative cases. (Id. ¶ 15.) Williams has over eighteen years of experience working as a paralegal and has formal paralegal training. (Id.)

Plaintiffs seek an award of attorneys' fees at an hourly rate of $400 for Jester and $125 for Williams. (Pls.' Mem. of P. & A. in Support of Pls.' Mot. Summ. J. ("Pls.' Mem.") at 7, 9.) The plaintiffs argue that such rates are reasonable in light of the prevailing market rates, counsel's experience, and the complexity of the administrative proceedings. They emphasize that the requested rates are below the rates indicated in the Laffey matrix, a schedule maintained by the United States Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia for compensation of federal litigators. (Id. at 7-9.) The Laffey rate for 2008-2009 and 2009-2010 is $465 per hour for attorneys with Jester's level of experience and $130 for paralegal work. (Pls.' Mot., Ex. 33, Laffey matrix.) They argue that the District is liable for prejudgment interest because it has paid only a portion of the fees owed to each plaintiff.

The District argues that the Laffey matrix is an inappropriate measure of the reasonableness of counsel's fees because it was designed to govern fee awards in complex federal litigation. (Def.'s Mem. of P. & A. in Opp'n to Pl.'s Mot. Summ.

J. ("Def.'s Opp'n") at 4-6.) The District characterizes the plaintiffs' administrative proceedings as straightforward and argues that the DCPS fee guidelines, which prescribe an hourly rate of $300 for attorneys and $90 for paralegals, should govern the award in this case. (Id. at 10-13.) The District further argues that specific charges as to plaintiffs Parks, Timms, and West are too remote in time from the administrative proceeds and thus not compensable. (Id. at 15-16.) Relevant information regarding the underlying IDEA proceedings and fee payment to date for each plaintiff is as follows.

I. TINA PARKS AND J.P.

Plaintiffs Tina Parks and student J.P. filed a due process complaint against the District on December 19, 2008 alleging that DCPS had denied the student a free appropriate public education ("FAPE") suitable to the student's special education needs. (Pls.' Mot., Ex. 1, Hearing Officer's Decision and Order ("HOD") at 1.) The plaintiffs reached a settlement of their IDEA claim against the District on the record in an administrative hearing held on January 21, 2009. (Id.) In February of 2009, the plaintiffs submitted a petition for attorney's fees and costs in the amount of $12,781.95 to DCPS. (Pls.' Statement ¶ 5.) In June of 2009, the District processed the invoice and paid $4000.00*fn1 to the plaintiffs. (Id. ¶¶ 6-7.) The District disputes the reasonableness of the attorney's fees and costs claiming "excessive hourly rates" and "erroneous and non-reimbursable time entries." (Def.'s Resp. ¶¶ 5, 8.)

II. THOMAS COX, SR., DELORES LEWIS AND D.C.

Plaintiffs Thomas Cox, Sr., Delores Lewis, and student D.C. filed a due process complaint alleging denial of a FAPE on November 7, 2008. (Pls.' Mot., Ex. 5, HOD at 1.) The parties reached an agreement to settle the complaint on the record in a hearing on December 11, 2008. (Id.) The HOD reflects that the plaintiffs had introduced seventeen exhibits into the record and that DCPS had introduced sixteen exhibits. (Id. at 2.) In January of 2009, Jester submitted to DCPS a petition for attorney's fees and costs in the amount of $10,100.29. (Pls.' Statement ¶ 11.) On March 16, 2009, DCPS paid the plaintiffs $4,000.00. (Id. ¶ 13.) On June 17, 2009, the plaintiffs submitted a supplemental petition to DCPS for $5,414.89 in attorney's fees and costs, but no payment has been made concerning the supplemental petition. (Id. ¶¶ 14, 16.) The District does not dispute the lack of payment on the supplemental invoice, but it asserts that the plaintiffs are "not entitled to payment of a fee award greater than $4,000.00." (Def.'s Resp. ¶ 16.) The District further disputes that $15,515.18 is a reasonable amount for attorney's fees and costs. (Id. ¶ 17.)

III. TRINETTA MCCLAM AND N.M.

Plaintiffs Trinetta McClam and student N.M. filed a due process complaint on December 24, 2008 and prevailed in establishing that DCPS had denied the student a FAPE in an administrative hearing held on January 26, 2009. (Pls.' Mot., Ex. 11, HOD at 1, 8.) The hearing record included thirty-three exhibits from the plaintiffs, thirty-four exhibits from DCPS, and the testimony of four witnesses. (Id. at 8.) On February 23, 2009, the plaintiffs submitted to DCPS a petition for attorney's fees and costs in the amount of $16,844.88. (Pls.' Statement ΒΆ 21.) DCPS paid ...


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