United States District Court, District of Columbia
TAEKITA DICKS, et al. Plaintiffs,
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM OPINION (June 13, 2015) [Dkts. ##11, 14]
RICHARD J. LEON, District Judge.
Plaintiff Taekita Dicks, as parent and next friend of C.D. ("plaintiffs"), commenced this action under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400 et seq., against the District of Columbia ("defendant"), seeking $33, 198.50 in attorneys' fees and costs incurred in connection with their administrative due process complaint. See generally Compl. [Dkt. #1]. Before the Court are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. See Pls.' Mot. Summ. J. ("Pls.' Mot.") [Dkt. #11]; Def.'s Cross Mot. Summ. J. & Opp'n to Pls.' Mot. Summ. J. ("Def.'s Mot.") [Dkt. #14]. After due consideration of the parties' pleadings, the relevant law, and the entire record herein, plaintiffs' motion is DENIED and defendant's motion is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part.
To ensure "that all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education, " or "FAPE, " the IDEA requires that school officials locate and evaluate children suspected of suffering from disabilities - the so-called "child find" obligation. 20 U.S.C. § 1400(d)(1)(A); id. at § 1412(a)(3). To enforce this mandate, the IDEA affords "procedural safeguards" to the parents of a disabled student who object to the "identification, evaluation, or educational placement of the child, " or, more broadly, to the state's "provision of a free appropriate public education to such child." 20 U.S.C. §§ 1415(a), (b)(6), (f)(1). Plaintiffs here exercised that right.
On January 13, 2014, plaintiffs filed an administrative due process complaint alleging that the District of Columbia Public Schools ("DCPS") denied C.D. a FAPE by failing to timely assess the student's eligibility for special education services. See Pls.' Stmt. Mat. Facts ("Pls.' SOMF") ¶¶ 3-4 [Dkt. #11-2]; Pls.' Mot. Ex. 1 [Dkt. #11-4]. Plaintiffs sought, as relief, independent comprehensive psychological and functional behavioral assessments of C.D., a multi-disciplinary team ("MDT") meeting to gauge C.D.'s eligibility for special education, and, if necessary, the development of an appropriate individualized education program ("IEP"). Pls.' SOMF ¶ 9; Pls.' Mot. Ex. 1 at 6. Plaintiffs also requested a suitable placement for the 2014-2015 school year, compensatory education, and reimbursement for attorney's fees. Pls.' Mot. Ex. 1 at 6.
On February 19, 2014, DCPS made a settlement offer to plaintiffs. The offer stipulated that DCPS would: (1) fund an independent comprehensive psychological evaluation of C.D.; (2) conduct a functional behavior assessment of C.D.; and (3) convene an IEP meeting to develop a behavioral intervention plan and to "review and revise" C.D.'s IEP. Def.'s Ex. 1 at ¶¶ 5(a)-(c) [Dkt. #14-1]. The offer also capped reimbursement for plaintiffs' attorney's fees at $400.00 and required plaintiff "to waive all rights, claims, causes of action, known and unknown, against DCPS under IDEA that [plaintiffs] now assert or could assert in the future for a [FAPE]." Def.'s Ex. 1 at ¶¶ 6-7. Plaintiffs rejected the offer.
The administrative hearing proceeded as scheduled on March 6, 2014. Pls.' SOMF ¶ 7; Pls.' Mot. Ex. 5 [Dkt. #11-8]. The Hearing Officer ("HO") rendered its decision (the "HOD") shortly thereafter on March 28, 2014. Pls.' SOMF ¶ 8; Pls.' Mot. Ex. 5. Its findings were three-fold. The HO found that DCPS violated the IDEA by failing to timely evaluate C.D. and by failing, moreover, to comply with its "child find" obligation for the 2013-2014 school year. Pls.' Mot. Ex. 5 at 6-7. The HO also found, however, that there was insufficient evidence to conclude that DCPS had violated its "child find" obligation during the 2012-2013 school year. Pls.' Mot. Ex. 5 at 6. As recompense, the HO ordered DCPS to fund comprehensive psychological and functional behavioral assessments of C.D., to convene an MDT meeting to determine C.D.'s eligibility for special education, and, "if necessary, " to develop an IEP and "determine an appropriate school placement." Pls.' SOMF ¶ 9; Pls.' Mot. Ex. 5 at 9. The HO denied plaintiffs' other requests for relief. Pls.' Mot. Ex. 5 at 9. Plaintiffs commenced this action on September 26, 2014, seeking reimbursement for the attorney's fees and costs incurred during the pendency of the administrative proceeding. See Compl. The parties moved separately for summary judgment. See generally Pls.' Mot.; Def.'s Mot.
The IDEA permits courts to award "reasonable" attorney's fees to "the prevailing party" in an administrative due process action. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B). A party prevails if she 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, 278-79 (1st Cir. 1978)). Fees awarded pursuant to the IDEA are based on legal "rates prevailing in the community in which the action or proceeding arose for the kind and quality of services furnished, " 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(C), and are calculated by multiplying "the number of hours reasonably expended on the litigation" by the "reasonable hourly rate, " Hensley, 461 U.S. at 433. As the touchstone of any fee award under the IDEA, "reasonableness" is a fact-specific inquiry and requires that plaintiffs supply sufficient documentation for the Court to determine "with a high degree of certainty" that the hours claimed are neither excessive nor duplicative. In re Olson, 884 F.2d 1415, 1428-29 (D.C. Cir. 1989) (emphasis in original) (internal quotation marks omitted).
Summary judgment is appropriate "if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact" such that "the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). Although the Court draws "all justifiable inferences" in favor of the non-moving party, the party opposing summary judgment "may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of his pleading" and must instead "set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). When evaluating cross motions for summary judgment, "the court shall grant summary judgment only if one of the moving parties is entitled to judgment as a matter of law upon material facts that are not genuinely disputed." Select Specialty Hosp. Bloomington, Inc. v. Sebelius, 774 F.Supp.2d 332, 338 (D.D.C. 2011) (quoting GCI Health Care Ctrs., Inc. v. Thompson, 209 F.Supp.2d 63, 67-68 (D.D.C. 2002).
Defendant does not contest the reasonableness of the $335.00 hourly rate charged by plaintiffs' counsel. See generally Def.'s Mem. P. & A. Supp. Def.'s Cross Mot. Summ. J. & Opp'n to Pls.' Mot. Summ. J. ("Def.'s Mem.") [Dkt. #14]. Defendant does, however, challenge other aspects of plaintiffs' fee request, including plaintiffs' eligibility for fees incurred after DCPS's February 19, 2014 settlement offer, the reasonableness of the hours expended on particular tasks, and plaintiffs' status as prevailing parties. See Def.'s Mem. at 7-13. For the following reasons, I find that plaintiffs are entitled a portion of the fees incurred between January 7, 2014 and August 5, 2014.
I. Recoverability of Fees Incurred After DCPS's Settlement Offer
Defendant argues that it is not liable for any attorney's fees incurred after DCPS's February 19, 2014 settlement offer. See Def.'s Mem. at 7-9. I disagree. The IDEA precludes an award of attorney's fees for services rendered "subsequent to the time of a written offer of settlement" if "the relief finally obtained by the parents is not more favorable to the parents than the offer of settlement, " 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(D)(i), unless the parents were "substantially justified in rejecting the settlement offer, " id. at § 1415(i)(3)(E). There is no dispute that DCPS timely made, and plaintiffs timely declined, a settlement offer. The question instead is whether the HOD provides ...