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Thomas v. District of Columbia

United States District Court, District of Columbia

December 17, 2012

Ronnie THOMAS, Plaintiff,

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Douglas Tyrka, Tyrka & Associates, LLC, McLean, VA, for Plaintiff.

Tasha Monique Hardy, Victoria Lynne Healy, Office of Attorney General, Washington, DC, for Defendant.


BERYL A. HOWELL, District Judge.

This action was brought by the original plaintiff, Angela Brooks, against the defendant District of Columbia (" the District" ) pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (" IDEIA" ), 20 U.S.C §§ 1400 et seq., on behalf of her then-minor child, Ronnie Thomas, seeking to compel the District of Columbia to issue a revised Individualized Education Plan (" IEP" ) for her daughter consistent with an August 2009 vocational evaluation.[1] Although the merits of the plaintiff's claims have already been resolved, the plaintiff now seeks attorney's fees from the defendant under the IDEIA's fee-shifting provision, 20 U.S.C § 1415(i)(3)(B). The primary questions before the Court are the appropriate hourly rate to apply and the appropriate number of hours to permit for certain tasks.


The original plaintiff, Ms. Brooks, commenced this lawsuit on June 3, 2010, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief for the District's failure to review a vocational evaluation of her daughter (Ms. Thomas) in a timely manner, the District's subsequent failure to review and revise Ms. Thomas's IEP, and the District's failure to provide a free appropriate public education (" FAPE" ). See Compl. ¶¶ 1, 11-22, ECF No. 1. The case was referred to a Magistrate Judge for a Report and Recommendation, which issued on August 10, 2011, recommending that the plaintiff be granted summary judgment on her three claims.

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See Report & Recommendation dated Aug. 10, 2011, at 16, ECF No. 21. On August 31, 2011, the Court adopted the Report and Recommendation in full, granting summary judgment to the plaintiff in part, and denying summary judgment to the District. See Order dated Aug. 31, 2011, ECF No. 22. In connection with the defendant's motion for reconsideration of that decision, the Court recited the factual background underlying the plaintiff's substantive claims in a previous memorandum opinion, which the Court incorporates here by reference. See Brooks v. District of Columbia, 841 F.Supp.2d 253 (D.D.C.2012).

Relevant to the matter currently before the Court, the plaintiff filed a motion for attorney's fees and costs, which the Court also referred to a Magistrate Judge for report and recommendation. See Pl.'s Mot. for Fees & Costs (" Pl.'s Mot." ), ECF No. 35; see also Order dated Mar. 16, 2012, ECF No. 36. In her motion, the plaintiff sought $43,589 in attorney's fees and costs associated with the litigation of her IDEIA claims. See Pl.'s Mot. at 1. The plaintiff based her request on a line-item accounting of tasks performed by her counsel, Douglas Tyrka, throughout the litigation, and the rates were based upon an adjusted version of the so-called Laffey matrix— a matrix of hourly rates for attorneys of varying experience levels approved by this Circuit. [2] See Mem. in Supp. of Pl.'s Mot. for Fees & Costs (" Pl.'s Mem." ) at 4-7, ECF No. 35; Pl.'s Mot. Ex. 1, ECF No. 35-1. See generally Laffey v. Nw. Airlines, Inc., 572 F.Supp. 354 (D.D.C.1983), aff'd in part, rev'd in part on other grounds, 746 F.2d 4 (D.C.Cir.1984). The District opposed the magnitude of the relief sought by the plaintiff, arguing that the adjusted Laffey rates were too high for a " routine administrative litigation" and that many of the specific charges claimed were unreasonable, excessive, or overly vague. See Mem. of P. & A. in Opp'n to Pl.'s Mot. for Fees & Costs (" Def.'s Opp'n" ) at 3-16, ECF No. 38. As a result, the District argued that the plaintiff's fee award should be reduced to $8,437. See id. at 17.

The Report and Recommendation (" R & R" ), issued on August 31, 2012, recommended that the plaintiff be granted attorney's fees at 75% of the standard Laffey rates, rather than the 100% of the adjusted Laffey rates requested, and that charges for certain tasks be reduced, resulting in a

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total fee award of $19,546.88. See Report & Recommendation dated Aug. 31, 2012 (" R & R" ) at 8, 12-13, 17, ECF No. 41. The R & R recognized that the plaintiff had submitted evidence that her counsel's hourly rates were significantly higher ($609 per hour), id. at 3, 8, but nevertheless concluded that the 75% figure ($307.50-$326.25) was " fair and just," id. at 8.

At the outset, the R & R cited guidance promulgated by the defendant— in particular the District of Columbia Public Schools (" DCPS" )— as support for the recommendation. See id. at 7-8. The DCPS guidance uses 75% of the standard Laffey rates as a measure of reasonable hourly rates in IDEIA matters. See R & R Ex. 1, at 2, ECF No. 41-1. Although acknowledging that plaintiff's counsel could " complain that he is being forced to work at a 25% discount from his hourly rates" and that " the lawyer's hourly rate is a vital consideration," the R & R pointed to several policy-based considerations in support of the conclusion that the 75% figure was the appropriate one. R & R at 8. First, the R & R noted that the public interest in " encouraging lawyers to take on IDEA cases for families who cannot afford them ... must be balanced against the reality that, ironically, those lawyers and children ... are competing for the same dollars from a finite appropriation." Id. at 9. Hence, the R & R concluded that considerations of " the public fisc" supported the discounted 75% figure. Id. Next, the R & R identified the advantages of certainty that would result if courts used a uniform rate for IDEIA cases, stating that " [w]hile the lawyers may be receiving less ... they know exactly what they will receive .... [and] [t]hey also know that they will receive it as soon as their vouchers are submitted and approved." Id. Third, the R & R opined that " a system based on 75% of the Laffey rate should result in fewer challenges in this Court to the amounts paid by DCPS" because the " prompt payment" by DCPS would mean that " the Court will see few if any IDEA fees cases." Id. at 9-10. Finally, the R & R determined that the 75% figure would be sufficient " to provide the bar sufficient encouragement to take IDEA cases" because it would still yield " several thousand dollars per day" for the plaintiffs' bar, assuming a forty-hour work week at those rates. Id. at 10.

In addition to this discussion of the appropriate hourly rate, the R & R also concluded that certain charges submitted by the plaintiff were excessive and needed to be reduced. Specifically, the R & R found that the plaintiff's counsel should have been able to research, outline, draft, and file the plaintiff's 16-page memorandum of law in support of her motion for summary judgment in 8 hours rather than the 13.75 hours that was recorded. See id. at 11-12. Further, the R & R concluded that " it should not have taken an attorney with [plaintiff's counsel's] legal experience (over 13 years in 2012) 6.5 hours to complete" a petition for attorney's fees and costs. Id. at 13. Rather, the R & R proposed a reduction in the hours for that task to three hours. Id. Finally, the R & R rejected the District's arguments that (1) certain entries were vague, (2) certain entries ( e.g., researching and drafting the petition for fees) were clerical in nature, and (3) certain entries were too remote in time to be compensable. Id. at 11-14.[3]

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The R & R further recommended that the rate applied to the work of the plaintiff's counsel should be the rate that applied at the time the work was completed, rather than applying the current rate to all of the work claimed. Id. at 6-7.

Currently pending before the Court is the plaintiff's timely filed objection to the R & R. In her objection, the plaintiff argues that the R & R's conclusions regarding the reasonable hourly rate and the reasonable number of hours were in error. See Pl.'s Objections to Report & Recommendation Regarding Att'ys' Fees (" Pl.'s Objection" ), ECF No. 44. For the reasons discussed below, the Court sustains the plaintiff's objections and enters judgment that differs accordingly from that recommended in the R & R.


Normally, when, as here, the Court has referred a non-dispositive pretrial motion to a Magistrate Judge for decision, a district judge " may modify or set aside any portion of a magistrate judge's order ... found to be clearly erroneous or contrary to law." LCvR 72.2(c). This Local Civil Rule is consistent with Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 72(a), which provides for the referral of a pretrial matter " not dispositive of a party's claim or defense" to a Magistrate Judge to " hear and decide," any part of which a district judge must " modify or set aside" if it is " clearly erroneous or is contrary to law." FED.R.CIV.P. 72(a).

The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure further state that a court " may refer a motion for attorney's fees to a magistrate judge under Rule 72(b) as if it were a dispositive pretrial matter." FED.R.CIV.P. 54(d)(2)(D); see also David v. District of Columbia, 252 F.R.D. 56, 58 (D.D.C.2008) (noting " the limited jurisdiction granted by Congress to a magistrate judge in Federal Rules 54(d)(2)(D) and 72(b) to issue a recommendation on a motion for attorneys' fees" ). Rule 72(b), much like Local Civil Rule 72.3, provides that " [t]he district judge must determine de novo any part of the magistrate judge's disposition that has been properly objected to," and " [t]he district judge may accept, reject, or modify the recommended disposition." FED.R.CIV.P. 72(b)(3); see also LCvR 72.3(c) (" A district judge shall make a de novo determination of those portions of a magistrate judge's findings and recommendations to which objection is made...." ).


The IDEIA permits the parents of a disabled child to recover " reasonable attorneys' fees" insofar as they are " a prevailing party." 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B). " A court's determination of the appropriate attorney's fees, in other words, is based on a two-step inquiry." Jackson v. District of Columbia, 696 F.Supp.2d 97, 101 (D.D.C.2010). " First, the Court must determine whether the party seeking attorney's fees is the prevailing party." Id. " Second, the court must determine whether the attorney's fees sought are reasonable." Id. There is no dispute in this action that the plaintiff is a " prevailing party," and therefore the only question is whether the fees sought by the plaintiff are reasonable.

" The usual method of calculating reasonable attorney's fees is to multiply the hours reasonably expended in the litigation by a reasonable hourly fee, producing the ‘ lodestar’ amount." Bd. of Trs. of Hotel & Rest. Emps. Local 25 v. JPR, Inc., 136 F.3d 794, 801 ...

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