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Cruz v. District of Columbia

United States District Court, D. Columbia.

March 2, 2015

AMY DELA CRUZ, as parent/guardian of I.D., Plaintiff,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, Defendant

For AMY DELA CRUZ, AS PARENT/GUARDIAN OF I.D., Plaintiff: Carolyn W. Houck, LAW OFFICE OF CAROLYN HOUCK, St. Michaels, MD.

For DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, Defendant: Laura George, LEAD ATTORNEY, OFFICE OF ATTORNEY GENERAL/DC, Washington, DC.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

ALAN KAY, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

This case is pending before the undersigned for all purposes pursuant to the parties' Notice, Consent, and Reference of a Civil Action to a Magistrate Judge, attached to an April 7, 2014 Notice [10]. Pending before the Court is Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (" Motion" ) [15] and Memorandum of Points and Authorities in support thereof (" Memorandum" ) [15-1], Defendant's Opposition to Motion and Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment (Cross-Motion" ) [16], Plaintiff's Reply to Defendant's Opposition and Opposition to Cross-Motion (" Pl's. Reply" ) [18] and Defendant's Reply to Plaintiff's Opposition (" Def.'s Reply" ) [20].

Plaintiff Amy DeLa Cruz, as parent of I.D., requests from Defendant District of Columbia (" Defendant" or " the District" ) a total of $62,997.15 in attorneys' fees and costs 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 3-4, 8.) Defendant challenges Plaintiff's prevailing party status and the hourly rate applied to Plaintiff's claims for attorney's fees. Defendant further asserts that there is a cutoff date on Plaintiff's claims for attorney's fees, which coincides with the date that a settlement offer was made.

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff DeLa Cruz is the parent of I.D. (hereinafter referred to as " I.D." or " the student" ), a minor child who is a student with a disability. (Memorandum at 2.) 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.

In the instant case, the student, I.D., was placed at a DCPS special education school (" School A" ) when he was in first grade and he remained there until he completed eighth grade at the end of School Year (" SY" ) 2012-2013. (Motion, Exh. 2 [Hearing Officer's Determination] (" HOD" ) at 2.) The student's IEP that was developed on February 11, 2013, while he attended School A, required a full-time out of general education placement. ( Id.) The IEP team discussed placement for I.D. for SY 2013-2014, and determined that the student's neighborhood school (" School B" ) would not be appropriate. (HOD at 2.) In July 2013, however, the District determined that the student would be assigned to School B for SY 2013-2014. (HOD at 2.)[1] Petitioner obtained funding from the District for a comprehensive psychological evaluation of I.D., which was performed in August 2013, and the evaluator concluded that I.D. should be placed in a therapeutic school because of his disability classification(s). ( Id )

Plaintiff DeLa Cruz filed an Administrative Due Process Complaint on August 30, 2013, requesting that the Hearing Officer find that DCPS denied the student's right to a [FAPE] by " fail[ing] to perform necessary evaluations in order to develop an appropriate IEP and provide an appropriate placement,. . ." and " fail[ing] to develop an appropriate IEP on February 11, 2013" and " fail[ing] to provide an appropriate special education placement for SY 2013/14." (Motion Exh.1 [Administrative Due Process Complaint Notice] at 3.)[2] Plaintiff DeLa Cruz sought: 1) funding of an independent speech/language evaluation and independent functional behavioral assessment; 2) placement at and funding for the student at a non-public school such as Accotink Academy or another school identified by the parent. (Exh. 1 at 3.) At the time the Due Process Complaint was filed, I.D. was not attending any school. (Motion, Exh. 1 at 1.)

At the beginning of SY 2013-2014, the parent was unaware that the District had assigned the student to School B and instead sent I.D. to a private full-time special education school (" School C" ) with the intent to secure funding from the District. (HOD at 2.) The student's behavior made him ineligible to continue at School C and although the parent contacted three other private therapeutic day schools about admission, the student was rejected by all three. ( Id.)

The Hearing Officer noted that " [a]fter the due process complaint was filed [on August 30, 2013] and subsequent to the first pre-hearing conference being held [,]" [on September 24, 2013] the student was enrolled at School B, but he was suspended shortly thereafter. (HOD at 3.) The Due Process hearing was held on October 31, 2013. " By the date of the due process hearing [,] the parties had not yet convened an IEP meeting to review the student's recent [psychological] evaluation and review the student's IEP and school placement." (HOD at 3.)

On November 17, 2013, the Hearing Officer issued his HOD finding that Petitioner sustained her burden of proof on the issue of whether DCPS denied the student a FAPE by failing to provide an appropriate placement/location of services for SY 2013-14 (HOD at 8). The Hearing Officer further found that Plaintiff " presented insufficient proof that the student's February 11, 2013 IEP was not based on current evaluations, had an inappropriate disability classification or had inappropriate goals." (HOD at 7.)

The Hearing Officer ordered DCPS to " convene an IEP meeting to review the student's recent independent comprehensive psychological evaluation, review and determine the student's disability classification, review and revise the student's IEP and determine an appropriate educational placement and location of services other than School B." (HOD at 8.) The Hearing Officer further directed the IPE team to " consider and determine whether the student should simply be provided a day school placement or be referred for and provided a residential placement due to his severe in school and out of school behaviors." ( Id.)

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, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (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, 383 U.S.App.D.C. 74 (D.C. Cir. 2008) (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986)).

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 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 ...


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