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McAllister v. District of Columbia

United States District Court, District of Columbia

March 6, 2014

JOSEPHINE MCALLISTER, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, Defendant

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Re Document No.: 21, 23.

For JOSEPHINE MCALLISTER, WILMA ELEY, NINA SUGGS, DON ZUCKERMAN, ARLETHIA SUMMERS, SHANISE TAYLOR, VALERIE ANDERSON, MARGORIE GROSS, DEBORAH SMITH, DEBORAH SPRIGGS, TAMICA FELTON, TARSHA WOOD, ANTOINETTE DUREN, MARIA MENDOZA, PAULA BEST, MICHAEL WALL, TYKENIA BAXTER, LASHON CLARK, Plaintiffs: Douglas Tyrka, TYRKA & ASSOCIATES, LLC, McLean, VA.

For DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, Defendant: Tasha Monique Hardy, LEAD ATTORNEY, OFFICE OF ATTORNEY GENERAL, Washington, DC.

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MEMORANDUM OPINION

RUDOLPH CONTRERAS, United States District Judge.

I. INTRODUCTION

The plaintiffs are the parents of children with special needs who litigated cases

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brought against the District of Columbia Public Schools (" DCPS" ) under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004 (" IDEA" ), 20 U.S.C. § 1415 et seq. This case, an aggregate of twenty-three separate matters, presents the plaintiffs' claims for attorneys' fees under the fee-shifting provision of the IDEA. Specifically, plaintiffs seek a total of $386,139.52 in attorneys' fees, plus costs for hours billed by Tyrka & Associates, LLC from 2008 to 2013.

II. LEGAL STANDARDS

A. Summary Judgment

A party moving for summary judgment on legal fees must demonstrate prevailing party status and the reasonableness of the fees requested in terms of hours spent and hourly rate. See infra Part B. Pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a), summary judgment shall be granted if the movant shows that " there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56). Summary judgment should be granted against a party " who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986).

The court is required to draw all justifiable inferences in the non-moving party's favor and to accept the non-moving party's evidence as true. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255. The non-moving party must establish more than " the mere existence of a scintilla of evidence" in support of its position. Id. at 252. The non-moving party cannot rely on allegations or conclusory statements; instead, the non-moving party is obliged to present specific facts that would enable a reasonable jury to find in its favor. Greene v. Dalton, 164 F.3d 671, 675, 334 U.S. App. D.C. 92 (D.C. Cir. 1999).

B. Individuals with Disabilities Act (" IDEA" )

Pursuant to the IDEA, a district court may award " reasonable attorneys' fees" to a prevailing party who is the parent of a child with a disability. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B). Accordingly, a court bases its award of fees on a two-step inquiry: first, the court must determine whether the party seeking attorney's fees is the prevailing party, and second, the court must determine whether the requested fees are reasonable. See Jackson v. Dist. of Columbia, 696 F.Supp.2d 97, 101 (D.D.C. 2010).

First, a plaintiff must demonstrate that she is a " prevailing party" to recover any attorney's fees under the IDEA. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B). A " prevailing party" is one " who has been awarded some relief by the court." Buckhannon Bd. & Care Home, Inc. v. W. Virginia Dep't of Health & Human Res., 532 U.S. 598, 603, 121 S.Ct. 1835, 149 L.Ed.2d 855 (2001). Specifically, " plaintiffs may be considered 'prevailing parties' for attorney's fees purposes if they succeed on any significant issue in litigation which achieves some of the benefit the parties sought in bringing suit." Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433, 103 S.Ct. 1933, 76 L.Ed.2d 40 (1983) (quoting Nadeau v. Helgemoe, 581 F.2d 275, 278 (1st Cir. 1978)); see also Artis ex rel. S.A. v. Dist. of Columbia, 543 F.Supp.2d 15, 22 (D.D.C. 2008) (noting that " [a]lthough a hearing office may make a prevailing party determination, it is the province of the district court to make the ultimate decision as to who prevailed in an IDEA action" ). In District of Columbia v. Straus, the Court

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of Appeals applied a three-part test to determine prevailing party status: " (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." 590 F.3d 898, 901, 389 U.S. App. D.C. 58 (D.C. Cir. 2010) (quoting Thomas v. Nat'l Sci. Found., 330 F.3d 486, 492-93, 356 U.S. App. D.C. 222 (D.C. Cir. 2003)).

After concluding that a plaintiff is a " prevailing party," the court must then determine whether the fees sought are reasonable. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B). As this will depend on a case's particular facts, " [t]he most useful starting point for determining the amount of a reasonable fee is the number of hours reasonably expended on the litigation multiplied by a reasonable hourly rate" -- the so-called " lodestar fee." Hensley, 461 U.S. at 433; see also Jackson, 696 F.Supp.2d at 101 (applying Hensley in the IDEA context).

The plaintiff bears the burden of establishing the reasonableness of any fee requests, specifically that both the hourly rate and the number of hours spent on any particular task are reasonable. In re North, 59 F.3d 184, 189, 313 U.S. App. D.C. 188 (D.C. Cir. 1995). A plaintiff may do so by submitting evidence on at least three fronts: " the attorneys' billing practices; the attorneys' skill, experience, and reputation; and the prevailing market rates of the relevant community." Covington v. Dist. of Columbia, 57 F.3d 1101, 1107, 313 U.S. App. D.C. 16 (D.C. Cir. 1995). Once the plaintiff has provided such information, a presumption arises that the number of hours billed is reasonable and the burden shifts to the defendant to rebut the plaintiff's showing. Id. at 1109-10. However, if both parties fail to present satisfactory evidence demonstrating that their hourly rates are reasonable, the court may determine the amount of that rate by reference to the Laffey Matrix.[1] See Rooths v. Dist. of Columbia, 802 F.Supp.2d 56, 62 (D.D.C. 2011).

III. ANALYSIS

A. The Number of Hours Billed by Plaintiffs' Counsel

1. Attorney's Fees for Students N.M. and S.S.

a. The Plaintiffs Are Prevailing Parties in Both N.M's Case and in S.S.'s Case.

The defendant argues that the plaintiffs are not entitled to an award of attorney's fees for students N.M. and S.S. because they failed to achieve prevailing party status. See Def.'s Opp'n Mot., 18, June 25, 2013, ECF No. 22. Further, the defendant argues that even if the Court finds that the plaintiffs prevailed in these cases, the Court should nonetheless reduce any fees awarded to account for their limited success. See Def.'s Reply, 8, July 30, 2013, ECF No. 26.

To reach prevailing party status in the N.M. and S.S. case, the plaintiff, in both cases, must have: (1) experienced a court-ordered change in its relationship with the District; (2) obtained a favorable judgment; and (3) received a judicial pronouncement accompanied by some judicial relief. See Straus, 590 F.3d at 901 (articulating the three-part test ...


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