United States District Court, District of Columbia
MEMORANDUM OPINION GRANTING PLAINTIFFS' MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT; DENYING DEFENDANT'S CROSS-MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT Re Document Nos.: 8, 10.
RUDOLPH CONTRERAS, District Judge.
In this action, Shermeka Arthur and her minor child Z.A. seek from the District of Columbia an award of attorneys' fees incurred in pursuing an administrative claim under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400 et seq. Arthur and Z.A. have moved for summary judgment on the basis that they were the prevailing parties in the administrative proceedings and that their requested fees are reasonable. The District disputes both contentions in its cross-motion for summary judgment and opposition. Because the Court concludes that the undisputed record evidence shows that Arthur and Z.A. were prevailing parties and that their requested fees are reasonable, the Court grants their motion for summary judgment and denies the District's cross-motion.
II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND
In December 2013, Arthur filed a due process complaint against the District of Columbia Public Schools ("DCPS"). See generally Admin. Due Process Compl., Pls.' Ex. 1, ECF No. 8-2. In the due process complaint, Arthur alleged that an October 2013 individualized education program ("IEP") created for her son Z.A. inappropriately reduced specialized instruction and speech and language services mandated by a prior November 2012 IEP, thereby denying Z.A. a free appropriate public education, in violation of the IDEA. See id. ¶¶ 16-21. By way of relief, Arthur sought a revision in Z.A.'s IEP to increase specialized instruction hours to no less than 20 hours per week and speech services to no less than 240 minutes per month. See id. at 7. The due process complaint also enumerated thirteen other requests for relief, including a speech and language evaluation conducted by DCPS, a meeting convened by DCPS to revise the IEP, compensatory education, and a finding that DCPS denied Z.A. a free appropriate public education. See id. at 7-9.
Subsequently, an impartial hearing officer scheduled a due process hearing for February 2014. See Consent Order 2, Pls.' Ex. 2, ECF No. 8-2. Shortly before the hearing was scheduled to take place, the parties informed the hearing officer that they had reached a resolution, to be documented in a consent order. Id. That same day, the impartial hearing officer issued the consent order, which "[b]ased upon the parties' agreement, " " ordered " that by February 21, 2014, DCPS "shall" amend Z.A.'s IEP "to restore the quantities of specialized instruction and related services" required by the November 2012 IEP, " i.e., (a) 12.5 hours per week of specialized instruction... and (b) 240 minutes per month of Speech-Language pathology services." Id. at 2-3. The consent order noted that DCPS was "not required to convene the Student's IEP Team to make the amendments" mandated, and granted no other relief requested in the due process complaint. Id. Lastly, the order dismissed the due process complaint with prejudice and without any right of appeal. See id. at 3.
In June 2014, Arthur and Z.A. ("Plaintiffs") filed this action to recover attorneys' fees incurred in connection with the administrative proceedings resolved by the consent order. See generally Compl., ECF No. 1. Plaintiffs moved for summary judgment, and the District subsequently filed a cross-motion for summary judgment and opposition. See Pls.' Mot. Summ. J., ECF No. 8; Def.'s Cross-Mot. Summ. J. & Opp'n, ECF No. 10. Both motions are now ripe.
A. Legal Standards
A court may grant summary judgment when "the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The movant bears the initial burden of identifying portions of the record that demonstrate the absence of any genuine issue of material fact. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). In response, the non-movant must point to specific facts in the record that reveal a genuine issue that is suitable for trial. See Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324. In an action for attorneys' fees following an administrative proceeding under the IDEA, the "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." McAllister v. District of Columbia, 21 F.Supp. 3d 94, 99 (D.D.C. 2014).
B. Prevailing Party
In their cross-motions for summary judgment, the parties primarily dispute whether Plaintiffs are "prevailing parties" within the meaning of the IDEA, such that they are entitled to an award of reasonable attorneys' fees for their success in the administrative proceedings. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B)(i)(I). For the reasons given below, the Court concludes that they are.
Enacted in 1975, the IDEA seeks to ensure that children with disabilities can enjoy a "free appropriate public education." 20 U.S.C. § 1400(d)(1)(A). To this end, the statute provides a range of "procedural safeguards, " id. § 1415(a), including a complaint procedure and right to an "impartial due process hearing" before the local educational agency, id. § 1415(f)(1). Moreover, "[i]n any action or proceeding brought under" the IDEA's procedural safeguard provisions, federal district courts "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)(i)(I); see also Alegria v. District of Columbia, 391 F.3d 262, 263 (D.C. Cir. 2004) (summarizing IDEA procedures).
The term "prevailing party" is a "legal term of art, " whose meaning the Supreme Court elucidated in Buckhannon Board and Care Home, Inc. v. West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources. 532 U.S. 598, 603 (2001). The Buckhannon Court held that prevailing party status requires "a court-ordered change in the legal relationship between the plaintiff and the defendant." Id. at 604 (internal alterations and quotation marks omitted). This change can result from "judgments on the merits" or "settlement agreements enforced through a consent decree." Id. By the same token, the Court rejected the so-called "catalyst theory, " under which a plaintiff can qualify as a prevailing party if his lawsuit merely brings about the result desired. Id. at 605. A defendant's "voluntary change in conduct, " the Court explained, lacks the requisite "judicial imprimatur. " Id. Similarly, "[p]rivate settlements do not entail ...