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Maude Young, et al v. District of Columbia

September 28, 2012

MAUDE YOUNG, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Amy Berman Jackson United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Plaintiffs Maude Young and Cynthia Debnam, acting on behalf of child "L.Y.," filed this action against defendant District of Columbia seeking to collect attorneys' fees that they incurred bringing a successful administrative action under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. § 1400, et seq. Plaintiffs also seek to obtain a declaration that the 2006 District of Columbia Public Schools ("DCPS") Guidelines for the Payment of Attorneys' Fees in IDEA Matters ("DCPS Fee Guidelines") are unlawful. Plaintiffs have moved for summary judgment. [Dkt. # 12]. The Court referred the motion to a Magistrate Judge for preparation of a report and recommendation pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(b)(1) and Local R. Civ. P. 72.3(a). [Dkt. # 15]. The Magistrate Judge subsequently issued a Report and Recommendation ("Report"), recommending that the Court grant in part and deny in part plaintiffs' motion. [Dkt. # 18]. The Report concluded that this Court has no basis upon which to declare the DCPS Fee Guidelines invalid. Id. It also concluded that plaintiffs were entitled to attorneys' fees for all of the hours claimed at an hourly rate equal to 25% of the applicable Laffey Matrix rate,*fn1 and that plaintiffs were entitled to $5.55 for costs. Id. Both parties filed objections to the Report. [Dkt. # 20, 21].

After careful review of the Report, both parties' objections, and the portions of the Administrative Record that have been filed with the Court, the Court will adopt the Report to the extent that it recommends denying plaintiffs' request for a declaration that the DCPS Fee Guidelines are unlawful, and awarding costs in the amount of $5.55. However, it will reject the Report's conclusion that plaintiffs' attorneys should be compensated at a rate discounted from the full rates that plaintiffs request. It will also reject the Magistrate Judge's conclusion that plaintiffs should be awarded fees for all of the hours billed by their attorneys. In sum, the Court will award attorneys' fees at the rates requested by plaintiffs for all of the time billed by attorneys Alana Hecht and Roxanne Neloms, except for 2.17 hours of Ms. Hecht's time. It will also reward $5.55 in costs.

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiffs, the parent of a student enrolled in a District of Columbia Public School and the student's educational advocate, filed a due process complaint with DCPS alleging that defendant denied the student access to a free appropriate public education as required under the IDEA. Ex. D to Pls.' Mot. for Summ. J. ("Pls.' Mot.") [Dkt. # 12]. Prehearing conferences were held in that case on September 14, 2010, and on October 6, 2010. Ex. G. to Pls.' Mot. at 2. On October 21, 2010, plaintiffs filed a motion for partial summary judgment, which was granted in part by the Hearing Officer. Id. On November 4, 2010, the Hearing Officer conducted an administrative hearing on the remaining issues. Id. at 1--2. In preparation for the hearing, plaintiffs disclosed and offered into evidence twenty-eight documents. Id. at 3--4. Defendants disclosed twenty-three documents and offered twenty-two documents into evidence. Id. at 4. At the hearing, which lasted approximately six hours, Report at 12, plaintiffs put on five witnesses, including one expert witness, and defendant put on one witness, Ex. G to Pls.' Mot. at 2--3. On November 30, 2010, the Hearing Officer issued a decision in plaintiffs' favor. Ex. G to Pls.' Mot. at 13--14.

Following the decision, plaintiffs' attorneys submitted an invoice to DCPS for reimbursement of attorneys' fees and other costs.*fn2 Ex. H to Pls.' Mot. The invoice claimed 68.75 hours of services rendered by attorney Alana Hecht,*fn3 and 1.5 hours of services rendered by attorney Roxanne D. Neloms. Ex. H to Pls.' Mot. Both attorneys are members of a firm that focuses primarily on special education litigation, and both have experience litigating special education cases in the District of Columbia. Hecht Decl., Ex. A to Pls.' Mot. ¶¶ 8--10; Neloms Decl., Ex. B to Pls.' Mot. at ¶¶ 5, 9. For the services of Ms. Hecht, who was admitted to the District of Columbia and Florida bars in 2005 and 2006, respectively, Hecht Decl. ¶ 7, plaintiffs sought reimbursement at a rate of $270 per hour.*fn4 Ex. H to Pls.' Mot.; Am. Compl. ¶ 32. For the services of Ms. Neloms, who was admitted to the D.C. bar in 2002, Ex. B to Pls.' Mot. ¶ 3, plaintiffs sought a rate of $330 per hour,*fn5 Pls.' SMF ¶ 25; Ex. H to Pls.' Mot. In total, the amount in fees sought for Ms. Hecht's services was $18,562.50 and the amount sought for Ms. Neloms's services was $495. Pls.' SMF ¶¶ 23, 27; accord Def.'s Response to Pls.' SMF ("Def.'s SMF") [Dkt. # 13-2] ¶¶ 23, 27; see also Ex. H to Pls.' Mot.

Defendant District of Columbia ("D.C.") reimbursed plaintiffs for the claimed attorneys' fees, but at the lower rates reflected in the DCPS Fee Guidelines. It reimbursed Ms. Hecht at a rate of $135 per hour and Ms. Neloms at $225 per hour,*fn6 for a total of $9,281.25 and $337.50, respectively. Pls.' SMF ¶¶ 23, 27; accord Def.'s SMF ¶¶ 23, 27; see also Ex. H to Pls.' Mot. In total, D.C. approved and paid a total of $9,618.75 in attorneys' fees -- $9,438.75 less than the total amount sought by plaintiffs. Pls.' SMF ¶¶ 23, 27; accord Def.'s SMF ¶¶ 23, 27; see also Ex. H to Pls.' Mot.

On June 14, 2011, plaintiffs filed an amended complaint in this Court seeking payment of the remaining attorneys' fees and costs incurred, and a declaration that application of the DCPS Fee Guidelines is unlawful. [Dkt. # 4]. On October 3, 2011, plaintiffs moved for summary judgment.*fn7 [Dkt. # 12]. On January 19, 2012, this Court referred the motion to a Magistrate Judge for preparation of a report and recommendation pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(b)(1) and Local R. Civ. P. 72.3(a). [Dkt. # 15].

On July 3, 2012, the Magistrate Judge issued a report recommending that the Court grant in part and deny in part plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment. [Dkt. # 18]. Citing Rooths v. District of Columbia, 802 F. Supp. 2d 56, 63 (D.D.C. 2011), the Magistrate Judge found that the Laffey Matrix should be used to determine the rates for the attorneys' services, but that those rates should be reduced by 25% "to account for the relative brevity and lack of complexity of the underlying proceedings." Report at 12. The Report concluded that the total number of hours claimed by plaintiffs was reasonable, including 3.17 hours claimed for a September 14, 2010 settlement conference that were contested by defendant. Id. at 13. As to plaintiffs' request that the DCPS Fee Guidelines be declared invalid, the Magistrate Judge determined that the Court has no basis upon which to make such a declaration because plaintiffs' action was commenced under the IDEA and that statute "does not provide a vehicle for determination of the validity or invalidity of the DCPS Fee Guidelines[.]" Id. at 11.

The parties on both sides have filed objections to the Report. Pls.' Objections to the Magistrate Judge's July 3, 2012 Report and Recommendations ("Pls.' Objections") [Dkt. # 21]; Def.'s Objections to the Magistrate's Report and Recommendation ("Def.'s Objections") [Dkt. # 22]. Defendant objects to the inclusion of fees for 3.7 hours of Ms. Hecht's time, which it attributes to her participation in the September 2010 settlement conference. Plaintiffs object to any reduction of the hourly rates for the attorneys in this case from the Laffey standards. They also reiterate their concerns about the DCPS rates in general, but they do not specifically object to the Magistrate Judge's finding that the IDEA does not provide this Court with an avenue to review the validity of that pay scale.

II. LEGAL STANDARD

When a party objects to a magistrate judge's recommended disposition, the Court reviews de novo the portion of the recommendation that has been objected to. Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(b)(3); see, e.g., Smith v. District of Columbia, 846 F. Supp. 2d 197, 198--200 (D.D.C. 2012); D.D. eX rel. Davis v. District of Columbia, 470 F. Supp. 2d 1, 1--3 (D.D.C. 2007). The Court may "accept, reject, or modify" the magistrate judge's recommendation. Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(b)(3).

Under the IDEA, this Court has the discretion to "award reasonable attorneys' fees as part of the costs . . . to a prevailing party who is the parent of a child with a disability" in an administrative proceeding. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B)(i)(I). In other words, if the plaintiff seeking attorneys' fees is a prevailing party, the Court must determine whether the attorneys' fees are reasonable. Jackson v. District of Columbia, 696 F. Supp. 2d 97, 101 (D.D.C. 2010). Courts typically determine the reasonableness of attorneys' fees based on the "number of hours reasonably expended on the litigation multiplied by a reasonable hourly rate." Id., quoting Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983).

The plaintiff bears the burden of establishing both the reasonableness of the hourly rate and the reasonableness of the number of hours spent on a particular task. In re North, 59 F.3d 184, 189 (D.C. Cir. 1995). To show the reasonableness of the hourly rates, the plaintiff "must submit evidence on at least three fronts: 'the attorneys' billing practices; the attorneys' skill, experience, and reputation; and the prevailing market rates in the relevant community.'" Jackson, 696 F. Supp. 2d at 101, quoting Covington, 57 F.3d at 1107. To show the reasonableness of hours spent on a task, the plaintiff may submit an "invoice that is sufficiently detailed to 'permit the District Court to make an independent determination whether or not the hours ...


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