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Davis v. District of Columbia

United States District Court, District of Columbia

October 16, 2014

TAMIKA DAVIS, parent/guardian of minor child, K.J., and K.J., individually,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, Defendant. and JAYNE PRESTON, individually, Plaintiffs,

MEMORANDUM OPINION

ALAN KAY UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

This case is pending before the undersigned for all purposes pursuant to the parties’ February 26, 2014 Notice, Consent, and Reference of a Civil Action to a Magistrate Judge [9]. Pending before the Court is Plaintiffs’ Motion for Summary Judgment (“Motion”) [10] and Memorandum of Points and Authorities in support thereof (“Memorandum”) [10-1], Defendant’s Opposition to Motion and Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment (Cross-Motion”) [12], Plaintiffs’ Reply to Defendant’s Opposition and Opposition to Cross-Motion (“Pls.’ Reply”) [13] and Defendant’s Reply to Plaintiffs’ Opposition (“Def.’s Reply”) [16].

Plaintiff Tamika Davis, on behalf of K.J., and K.J. individually (collectively “Plaintiff Davis”) requests from Defendant District of Columbia (“Defendant” or “the District”) a total of $10, 457.50 in attorneys’ fees incurred in pursuing an administrative proceeding brought pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”), 20 U.S.C. §1400, et seq. (Memorandum at 2-3.) Plaintiff Jayne Preston (“Plaintiff Preston”) requests a total of $14, 213.00 in attorneys’ fees and costs from Defendant. Defendant challenges the hourly rate applied to Plaintiffs’ claims for attorney’s fees and asserts that there is a cutoff date on Plaintiffs’ claims for attorney’s fees, which coincides with the dates that settlement offers were made.

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff Davis is the parent of K.J., a minor child who is a student with a disability. (Memorandum at 2.) Plaintiff Preston is an adult student who requires special education services pursuant to the IDEA. (Id.) The IDEA guarantees all children with disabilities a Free Appropriate Public Education (“FAPE”), 20 U.S.C. § 1400(d)(1)(A), and in general, FAPE “is available to all children with disabilities residing in the State between the ages of 3 and 21, . . . .” 20 U.S.C. §1412(a)(1)(A). Defendant District of Columbia is a municipal corporation that operates the District of Columbia Public Schools System (“DCPS”). (Complaint [1] ¶4.) The District receives federal funds pursuant to the IDEA to ensure access to a Free and Appropriate Public Education (“FAPE”) and it is obliged to comply with applicable federal regulations and statutes including the IDEA. See 20 U.S.C. § 1411. Pursuant to 20 U.S.C. §1415(i)(3)(B), a court may award reasonable attorney’s fees to a parent of a child with a disability who prevails in an IDEA proceeding.

Plaintiff Davis [referred to as “Petitioner” at the administrative level] filed an Administrative Due Process Complaint on March 18, 2013, requesting that the Hearing Officer find that DCPS “violated the student’s right to a [FAPE] by failing to evaluate the student within 120 days from a written request from the parent.” (Motion Exh.1 [Administrative Due Process Complaint Notice] at 2.) Plaintiff Davis sought: 1) funding of an independent comprehensive psychological evaluation; 2) a meeting to review evaluations, determine eligibility, develop an IEP (if eligible) and determine placement; and 3) the development of a compensatory education plan (if the student was deemed eligible for special education). (Exh. 1 at 2-3.)[1]

On May 16, 2013, the Hearing Officer entered an Order Granting Petitioner’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Motion Exh. 2 [May 16, 2013 Order]) noting that:

In the present matter, it is uncontested that the parent provided a written request for a special education evaluation for the student on October 18, 2012; that DCPS did not complete the special education evaluation by February 15, 2013; and that DCPS has not begun the evaluation process. DCPS did not offer any defense suggesting that the student has no academic or behavioral difficulties or that prior written notice was provided to the parent outlining the reasons DCPS refused to evaluate the child. The only defenses provided by DCPS were that the parent did not personally deliver the request, that the parent requested evaluations for several students on the same day therefore the request for this student could have been a typographical error and that the parent should have provided DCPS with multiple requests or reminders during the 120-day timeline.

The Hearing Officer ordered DCPS to conduct an initial evaluation of the student within 60 calendar days or, if not done within that time frame, to fund an independent comprehensive psychological evaluation to be completed within 105 days, and thereafter to convene a multi-disciplinary team (“MDT”) meeting to review the results and determine eligibility for special education. (Exh. 2 at 3-4.)

Plaintiff Preston’s Administrative Due Process Complaint Notice (Motion Exh. 4) was filed on March 20, 2013 and the issues to be considered included whether DCPS failed to adequately evaluate the Student; whether DCPS failed to develop IEPs during School Years (“SYs”) 2010/11, 2011/12, and 2012/13; and whether DCPS failed to provide appropriate placement during those School Years. (Exh. 4 at 4.) The Hearing Officer convened a hearing on May 13, 2013, and issued his Hearing Officer Determination (“HOD”) on June 3, 2013. (Motion Exh. 5 [June 3, 2013 HOD].) The Hearing Officer considered the Petitioner’s allegations regarding denial of FAPE and the Petitioner’s requests that DCPS fund an independent comprehensive psychological evaluation (including cognitive, academic, and clinical assessments as well as a social history) and convene a meeting to review the evaluations, develop an appropriate IEP and determine placement. (Exh. 5 at 1.)

Plaintiff Preston’s Due Process Hearing was convened on May 13, 2013. (Exh. 5 at 2.) The Hearing Officer concluded that the Student was not evaluated during SY 2012/13 or SY 2011/12 and there was no evidence of an evaluation in SY 2010/11 either. (Exh. 5 at 6-7.)[2] The Hearing Officer further found that DCPS failed to provide the Student with an IEP during a three-month period from March 2012 through the end of the SY 2011/12 and for a four month period from the start of SY 2012/13 through December 2012; however, the Petitioner presented no evidence “regarding the form and amount of compensatory education required to place Student in the position he would have occupied but for DCPS’s denial of a FAPE.” (Exh. 5 at 8.) With regard to the issue of placement, the Hearing Officer concluded that while Petitioner failed to provide any evidence about the appropriateness of the Student’s educational placement in SY 2010/11 (from March 2011 through the end of the school year), DCPS failed to provide the Student with an appropriate placement /location of services during SY 2011/12 and SY 2012/13. (Exh. 5 at 9.)

The Hearing Officer ordered that DCPS provide the Petitioner with funding for an independent psychological evaluation including clinical, academic, cognitive and educational components as well as a social history. (Exh. 5 at 9.) DCPS was also ordered to convene an IEP meeting for the Student to review the evaluations and revise the Student’s IEP and determine an appropriate educational placement/location of services. (Motion Exh. 5 at 9-10.)

II. LEGAL STANDARD

A. Summary Judgment on an IDEA Claim

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.[3]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 the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” Accord Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247 (1986) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56). “A fact is material if it ‘might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law’ and a dispute about a material fact is genuine ‘if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for a nonmoving party.’” Steele v. Schafer, 535 F.3d 689, 692 (D.C. Cir. 2008) (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 298).

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 (1986). The court is required to draw all justifiable inferences in the nonmoving party’s favor and to accept the nonmoving party’s evidence as true. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255. The nonmoving 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 it its favor. Greene v Dalton, 164 F.3d 671, 675 (D.C. Cir. 1999).

1. Prevailing Party Status

The IDEA gives courts authority to award reasonable attorney’s fees to the parents of a child with a disability who is the prevailing party. 20 U.S.C. §1415(i)(3)(B).[4] The court must initially determine whether the party seeking attorney’s fees is the prevailing party. Jackson v. District of Columbia, 696 F.Supp.2d 97, 101 (D.D.C. 2010). See District of Columbia v. West, 699 F.Supp.2d 273, 278 (D.D.C. 2010) (in considering a claim for IDEA attorney’s fees, it is the court “not the hearing officer in the administrative proceeding, which determines prevailing party status.”) (quoting D.C. v. Straus, 607 F.Supp.2d 180, 183 (D.D.C. 2009)).

A party is generally considered to be the prevailing party if he succeeds “on any significant issue in litigation which achieves some of the benefit sought in bringing suit.” Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983) (quoting Nadeau v. Helgemoe, 581 F.2d 275, 278-279 (1st Cir. 1978)). The Supreme Court has indicated that the term “prevailing party” only includes plaintiffs who “secure a judgment on the merits or a court-ordered consent decree.” Buckhannon Bd. & Care Home, Inc. v. West Virginia Dep’t Health & Human Resources, 532 U.S. 598, 600 (2001). The Supreme Court therefore rejected the “catalyst theory” whereby a plaintiff would be a prevailing party if the lawsuit brought about the desired result through a voluntary change in the defendant’s conduct. Id. at 605. The Supreme Court instead determined that a prevailing party must obtain a “material alteration of the legal relationship of the parties.” Id. at 604 (quoting Texas State Teachers Ass’n v. Garland Indep. Sch. Dist., 489 U.S. 782, ...


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