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Sweatt v. District of Columbia

United States District Court, D. Columbia.

March 11, 2015

CAROLETTE SWEATT, Plaintiff,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, Defendant

For CAROLETTE SWEATT, Plaintiff: Elizabeth T. Jester, LEAD ATTORNEY, JESTER & WILLIAMS, Great Falls, VA.

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

MEMORANDUM OPINION

AMY BERMAN JACKSON, United States District Judge.

Plaintiff Carolette Sweatt brings this action pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (" IDEA" ), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq., seeking attorneys' fees and costs totaling $54,564.46, for work completed in support of a successful IDEA administrative action against the District of Columbia Public Schools (" DCPS" ) on behalf of her minor child. Compl. [Dkt. # 1]. Both parties have moved for summary judgment. Pl.'s Mot. for Summ. J. [Dkt. # 8] (" Pl.'s Mot." ); Def.'s Cross Mot. for Summ. J. & Opp. to Pl.'s Mot. [Dkt. # 12] (" Def.'s Mot." ). After the Court referred the matter to a Magistrate Judge, the Magistrate Judge issued a Report and Recommendation suggesting that plaintiff be awarded $39,276.63 in attorneys' fees and costs. Report and Recommendation [Dkt. # 19] (" Report" ) at 17. Plaintiff timely filed written objections to the Report. Pl.'s Objections to Report [Dkt. # 20]; P. & A. in Supp. of Pl.'s Objections [Dkt. # 20-1] (" Pl.'s Objections" ). Defendant responded to plaintiff's objections, but it did not object to any portion of the Report. Def.'s Response to Pl.'s Objections [Dkt. # 23] (" Def.'s Response" ).

After careful review of the Report, the parties' pleadings, and the available evidence, the Court will adopt the Report and Recommendation, except in two respects. First, the Court rejects the Report's recommendation that plaintiff's counsel be compensated at an hourly rate of $382.50, which the Magistrate Judge arrived at by reducing the applicable Laffey Matrix[1] rate of $510 per hour by 25% on the grounds that the underlying action was not complex. See Report at 9--13. Instead, the Court finds that $465 per hour more accurately reflects the reasonable hourly rate for plaintiff's counsel's time. Further, the Court will increase the reasonable hours awarded to plaintiff to include reimbursement for a half hour of time expended in preparing for a prehearing conference on December 31, 2013 that was inadvertently omitted from plaintiff's fee award due to a clerical error. The Court will therefore grant in part and deny in part the pending motions for summary judgment, and it will enter judgment in the amount of $47,796.25 in favor of plaintiff.

BACKGROUND

Plaintiff, the parent of a student enrolled in a District of Columbia Public School and the student's educational advocate, filed a due process complaint with DCPS alleging that defendant denied her child access to a free appropriate public education as required under the IDEA. Hearing Officer's Determination, Ex. 1 to Pl.'s Mot. [Dkt. # 8-5] (" HOD" ) at 2. A prehearing conference was held on December 31, 2014, and on January 27, 2014, the Hearing Officer conducted a one-day administrative hearing. Id. at 1--2; Report at 12--13. During the hearing, plaintiff entered fifty-eight documents into evidence, and defendant entered one document. HOD at 3, 16--17. The hearing included the testimony of six witnesses, including two experts. Id. at 3, 18. On February 18, 2014, the Hearing Officer issued a decision in plaintiff's favor. Id. at 8--14; Report at 3--8.

Following the decision, plaintiff's counsel, Elizabeth Jester, submitted an invoice to DCPS seeking reimbursement of her fees and costs for the administrative proceeding. See Ex. 2 to Pl.'s Mot. [Dkt. # 8-6] (" Jester Invoice" ). Jester has practiced law for more than twenty years and she focuses her practice on children's rights and special education cases in the District of Columbia. Decl. of Elizabeth Jester in Supp. of Pl.'s Mot. [Dkt. # 8-3] (" Jester Decl." ) ¶ ¶ 4--5, 11--12. Jester sought reimbursement from DCPS for $54,564.46 in fees and costs, based on 105.6 hours of work: 104.6 hours of attorney services, including travel time, at a rate of $510 per hour,[2] and 1 hour of paralegal time at a rate of $145 per hour. Id. ¶ ¶ 11, 14; see also Jester Invoice at 4--14.

Defendant never paid plaintiff's counsel's invoice, Report at 2, and on July 2, 2014, plaintiff filed a complaint in this Court seeking reimbursement of the requested attorneys' fees and costs. Compl. ¶ 7. On July 7, 2014, this Court referred the case to a Magistrate Judge for full case management and the preparation of a report and recommendation pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 72(b)(1) and Local Rule of Civil Procedure 72.3(a). Referral to Magistrate Judge Order [Dkt. # 3]. On August 22, 2014, plaintiff moved for summary judgment, and on September 22, 2014, defendant cross-moved for summary judgment. See Pl.'s Mot.; Def.'s Mot.

On December 2, 2014, the Magistrate Judge issued his Report, recommending that the Court grant in part and deny in part both motions. Report at 17. Citing Rooths v. District of Columbia, 802 F.Supp.2d 56, 63 (D.D.C. 2011), and other similar holdings from this District, the Magistrate Judge concluded that the applicable Laffey Matrix rate of $510 per hour, reduced by 25%, was the reasonable hourly rate for Jester's services. Report at 9--13. The Magistrate Judge based this recommendation on his finding that " there is no evidence that the issues were in any way complex" and that defendant had during the administrative proceeding " failed to present any real defense to liability and, therefore, there was nothing Jester had to do to establish liability." Id. at 11--13. In light of those conclusions, the Magistrate Judge found " that an award of 75% of the Laffey rate more than adequately compensates plaintiff's counsel for her work." Id. at 11. The Magistrate Judge also prepared a spreadsheet listing the hours requested and the total fees recommended for each of plaintiff's tasks. See Ex. 1 to Report [Dkt. # 19-1] (" Report Spreadsheet" ). From that spreadsheet, it appears that plaintiff's requested hours were found to be reasonable, with the exception of 7.3 hours of travel time, which the Magistrate Judge recommended reducing by half. Report at 15--16; see generally Report Spreadsheet. In total, the Report recommended that plaintiff receive $38.567.13 in fees and $709.50 in costs, for an award of $39,276.63. Report at 17.

On December 19, 2014, plaintiff objected to the Report, arguing that the 25% reduction of the Laffey rate of $510 was unwarranted and that the Magistrate Judge erred by not compensating plaintiff for one half hour of time spent preparing for a prehearing conference.[3] Pl.'s Objections at 4--10. Defendant, in turn, asked the Court to adopt the Magistrate Judge's recommendations in their entirety. See generally Def.'s Response. To aid the Court in its consideration of the Report and plaintiff's objections, the Court ordered plaintiff to file a copy of the engagement letter with her counsel, Minute Order (Feb. 23, 2015), and plaintiff complied on February 26, 2015. See Ex. 1 to Pl.'s Response to the Court's Order [Dkt. # 25-1] (" Retainer Agreement" ).

STANDARD OF REVIEW

When a party objects to a Magistrate Judge's recommendations, the Court reviews de novo the portion of the report to which the party has objected. Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(3); LCvR 72.3(c); Smith v. District of Columbia, 846 F.Supp.2d 197, 198--99 (D.D.C. 2012); D.D. ex rel. Davis v. District of Columbia, 470 F.Supp.2d 1, 1--3 (D.D.C. 2007). The Court may " accept, reject, or modify" the Magistrate Judge's recommendations. Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(3); LCvR 72.3(c).

Under the IDEA, a court has the discretion to " award reasonable attorneys' fees as part of the costs . . . to a prevailing party who is the parent of a child with a disability" in an administrative proceeding. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B)(i)(I). Therefore, if a court determines that the plaintiff seeking attorneys' fees is a prevailing party, it must determine whether the requested attorneys' fees are reasonable. Jackson v. District of Columbia, 696 F.Supp.2d 97, 101 (D.D.C. 2010); see also Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433, 103 S.Ct. 1933, 76 L.Ed.2d 40 (1983). Courts typically determine the reasonableness of attorneys' fees based on the " number of hours reasonably expended on the litigation multiplied by a reasonable hourly rate." Jackson, 696 F.Supp.2d at 101, quoting Hensley, 461 U.S. at 433. This is sometimes called the " lodestar" method. See, e.g., Perdue v. Kenny A., 559 U.S. 542, 546, 130 S.Ct. 1662, 176 L.Ed.2d 494 (2010). The plaintiff ...


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