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Wood v. District of Columbia

United States District Court, D. Columbia.

October 27, 2014

TARCHA WOOD, as parent and guardian of the minor child, D.W., et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, Defendant

Page 14

For Tarcha Wood, as parent and guardian of the minor child, D.W., D. W., individually, Plaintiffs: Carolyn W. Houck, LAW OFFICES OF CAROLYN W. HOUCK, Washington, DC.

For District of Columbia, A Municipal corporation, Defendant: Tasha Monique Hardy, LEAD ATTORNEY, OFFICE OF ATTORNEY GENERAL/DC, Washington, DC.

Page 15

MEMORANDUM OPINION

DEBORAH A. ROBINSON, United States Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiffs bring this action to recover attorneys' fees incurred in administrative proceedings conducted pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (" IDEA" ), 20 U.S.C. § 1400, et seq. Complaint (" Complaint" ) (Document No. 1). Pending for determination by the undersigned are Plaintiffs' Motion for Summary Judgment (Document No. 10) and Defendant's Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment (Document No. 14). Upon consideration of the motions, the memoranda in support thereof and opposition thereto (Document Nos. 13, 15, 16, 18) , and the entire record herein, the undersigned will grant Plaintiffs' motion in part, and deny Defendant's motion.

BACKGROUND

Plaintiffs are Tarcha Wood, the parent of D.W., and D.W., a minor child residing in the District of Columbia who is eligible for special education services. Plaintiff Wood, on behalf of her minor child, through counsel, filed an administrative due process complaint notice on October 16, 2012, in which she alleged that District of Columbia Public Schools (" DCPS" ) denied D.W. a free appropriate public education (" FAPE" ) by its failure (1) to provide a special education placement from

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April 2010 to the date of the notice; (2) to ensure the parent's participation in the April 10, 2012 IEP meeting and failing to develop an appropriate IEP; (3) to develop an appropriate IEP on May 30, 2012; and (4) to evaluate D.W. in all areas of suspected disabilities and at the request of parent and school staff. See Administrative Due Process Complaint Notice (Document No. 10-8) at 11-12.

On November 20 and November 27, 2012, a pre-hearing conference was conducted. The hearing officer, at the pre-hearing conference, certified these claims. Hearing Officer's Determination (" HOD" ) (Document No. 10-2) at 4. However, following the conference, Plaintiff Wood withdrew her claims of compensatory education as a remedy for denial of a FAPE, and the inappropriate goals in the May 30, 2012 IEP; that DCPS failed to take necessary steps to allow parent's participation in the April 10, 2012 IEP meeting, and amended her claim with respect to DCPS' evaluation of D.W. seeking vision assessment. Id.

The hearing officer ultimately found in favor of Plaintiff with respect to the claims that DCPS denied D.W. a FAPE: by failing to comprehensively evaluate D.W. in May 2012; by failing to conduct physical therapy, audiological, vision, and assistive technology assessments; failing to determine how D.W. could receive education in light of physical disabilities and the bullying and harassment of which Plaintiff voiced her complaints; failing to determine the psychological effects of bullying and harassment on D.W.; and failing to provide appropriate homebound services for D.W. from November 2010 to March 2012. HOD (Document No. 10-2) at 20-21. However, the hearing officer found in favor of DCPS with respect to the claims that Plaintiff " failed to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that [D.W.] needs 30 minutes of speech and language services per week; that D.W. " would be vulnerable to inordinate regression due to a summer break or that it would take an inordinate amount of time for [D.W.] to recoup learning lost during the summer break[ ]" ; " claims prior to November, 2010, for failure to provide homebound services are barred by the statute of limitations[.]" HOD (Document No. 10-2) at 21.

Plaintiff commenced this action seeking attorneys' fees and costs in the amount of $59,885.25.

CONTENTIONS OF THE PARTIES

Plaintiffs were represented by Carolyn Houck, Esq. and Michelle Kotler, Esq. during the administrative proceedings. See Plaintiffs' Memorandum at 7. Following the hearing officer determination, counsel for Plaintiffs submitted an invoice to Defendant, seeking $59,725.50 in attorneys' fees and $159.75 in costs for a total amount of $59,885.25. See Plaintiffs' Memorandum, Exhibit 10-3 at 2. Ms. Houck and Ms. Kotler billed at an hourly rate of $435 for services rendered from June 15, 2012 through April 27, 2013. Id.

Plaintiffs aver that they are the prevailing parties, and that they have " establish[ed] a prima facie case that their requested award [for attorneys' fees and costs] is reasonable." Plaintiffs' Memorandum at 7. Plaintiffs submit that they have met their burden of demonstrating the reasonableness of their requested attorneys' fees and costs. Plaintiffs contend that the hourly rates of their counsel are reasonable because they are based on the " customary rate" as set forth in the Laffey Matrix " utilized by" some of the judges of this court.[1] Id. at 5-6. Plaintiffs further

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contend that due to the " novel" " issue of bullying as a denial of FAPE[,]" as one issue that has not been presented in " due process hearings in D.C.," counsel was " required" to conduct " extensive research in order to make the legal argument" before the hearing officer. Id. at 6-7. Finally, Plaintiffs argue that counsel " billed only for the hours spent developing and pursuing the due process claim and assisting in implementing the HOD once it was issued." Id. at 8.

Defendant seemingly concedes that Plaintiffs were prevailing parties in the underlying administrative proceeding. In opposition to Plaintiffs' motion and in support of its cross-motion, Defendant relies on decisions of judges of this court awarding three-fourths of the Laffey rates or less in IDEA cases, and an administrative order of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia setting an hourly rate of $90 an hour for appointed attorneys " litigating IDEA cases on the administrative level," in support of its argument that the hourly rates sought by Plaintiffs are unreasonable. Defendant's Opposition to Plaintiffs' Motion for Summary Judgment and Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment (" Defendant's Memorandum" ) (Document Nos. 13, 14) at 2, 6-8. With respect to " Plaintiffs' contentions that his matter was 'novel[,]'" Defendant contends that " Plaintiffs have not substantiated that the IDEA dispute in this HOD is an any way more complicated than the claims generally made by parents in these cases, entitling their counsel to Laffey rates." Id. at 7. (footnote omitted). Defendant challenges the rates requested by Plaintiffs for Ms. Houck and Ms. Kotler at $435 per hour because they " have not demonstrated that they are entitled" to this rate for this matter. Id. at 8-9. Specifically, Defendant argues that Ms. Houck with 15 years of " Federal litigation experience" and Ms. Kotler with only one to three years of " Federal litigation experience," are " at most" a more " appropriate hourly rate" of three quarters of the Laffey rate at $337.75 per hour and $183.75 per hour, respectively, " for the Federal action." Id.

Plaintiffs submit that the underlying administrative proceedings were sufficiently complex to warrant full Laffey rates. Plaintiffs' Reply to Defendant's Response in Opposition to Plaintiffs' Motion for Summary Judgment and Plaintiffs' Response in Opposition to Defendant's Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment (" Plaintiffs' Reply" ) (Document Nos. 15, 16) at 3-4. Plaintiffs state that " counsel were required to have knowledge of the psychological and academic issues involved in each minor Plaintiff's disabilities, understand the procedural rules and substantive legal issues, and . . . have the ability to present all of this information in a cohesive and logical manner, including submitting a 31-page written closing brief." Id. at 3. With respect to the reasonableness of the requested rate, Plaintiffs argue that " counsels' charges are commensurate with those prevailing in the community" and that the " requested hourly rate of $435/hour reflects . . . counsel's [Ms. Houck's] vast experience gained over the course of representing hundreds of clients in more than 1500 special education cases since 1997." Id. at 4. Plaintiffs further argue that as to Ms. Kotler, " Defendant refuses to acknowledge

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[her] experience[]" namely that she " has practiced special education law exclusively since 2001 and obtained a masters degree in special education[,]" and that she is " well-versed in identifying symptoms of previously ignored disabilities in her clients, and has accurately referred students for evaluations that have uncovered seizure disorders, significant vision impairments, and even profound ...


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