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Wilhite v. District of Columbia

United States District Court, District of Columbia

June 22, 2015

DANIELLE WILHITE, As parent/guardian of C.Y. Plaintiff,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

ALAN KAY, Magistrate Judge.

The parties consented for this case to be directly reassigned to the undersigned for all purposes pursuant to Local Civil Rule 73.1(a). (Meet and Confer [8] at 2; Referral to Magistrate Judge [9]). Pending before the Court are Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment ("Motion") [12] and Memorandum of Points and Authorities in Support of Plaintiff['s] Motion for Summary Judgment ("Memorandum") [12-1]; Defendant's Cross Motion for Summary Judgment and Memorandum of Points and Authorities in Support Thereof [13] and Defendant's Opposition to Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment and Memorandum of Points and Authorities in Support Thereof [14] (collectively, "Def.'s Cross Motion"); Plaintiff's Reply in Support of its Motion for Summary Judgment [15] and Plaintiff's Response Opposing Defendant's Cross Motion for Summary Judgment [16] (collectively, "Pl.'s Reply"); and Defendant's Reply in Support of its Cross Motion for Summary Judgment ("Def.'s Reply") [17]. Plaintiff Danielle Wilhite ("Plaintiff") requests from Defendant District of Columbia ("Defendant") a total of $41, 130 in attorney's fees incurred by Plaintiff in pursuing an administrative proceeding brought pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act and Individuals with Disabilities in Education Improvement Act (collectively, the "IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. § 1400, et seq. (2012). (Memorandum at 2, 7). Defendant contests the number of hours for which Plaintiff is entitled attorney's fees and the hourly rate Plaintiff's counsel applied. (Def.'s Cross Motion at 6-10). Upon consideration of Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment, Defendant's Cross Motion, Plaintiff's Reply and Defendant's Reply, and for the reasons set forth, the undersigned grants in part and denies in part Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment [12] and grants in part and denies in part Defendant's Cross Motion for Summary Judgment [13].

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff is the parent/guardian of a minor student ("the student") with disabilities who requires special education services pursuant to the IDEA. (Memorandum at 2). The IDEA guarantees all children with disabilities a Free Appropriate Public Education ("FAPE"), 20 U.S.C. § 1400(d)(1)(A) (2012), 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) (2012). Defendant District of Columbia is a municipal corporation that operates the District of Columbia Public Schools system ("DCPS"). (Complaint for Declaratory Judgment and Relief [1] ("Compl.") ¶ 4). Pursuant to the IDEA, Defendant receives federal funds 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 (2012). Pursuant to 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B) (2012), a court may award reasonable attorney's fees to a parent of a child with a disability who prevails in an IDEA proceeding.

The student attended a DCPS full-time special education program at "School A" for the 2012-2013 school year ("SY") (Hearing Officer's Determination ("HOD") [12-5] at 2). At the end of SY 2012-2013, School A closed. ( Id. ). DCPS failed to inform Plaintiff where the student would attend school for the SY 2013-2014 until after that school year had begun. ( Id. ). Therefore, the student was not in school during the first few weeks of SY 2013-2014. ( Id. ). Once DCPS informed Plaintiff of the student's new placement, Plaintiff enrolled the student in a DCPS special education program at "School B, " where the student was suspended multiple times throughout the first semester and in January 2014. ( Id. ). Plaintiff claims that the suspensions totaled more than ten school days and DCPS failed to convene a manifestation determination review ("MDR") meeting. ( Id. ). On February 11, 2014, the student was suspended for forty-five days. ( Id. ). Plaintiff claims DCPS failed to convene a MDR and provide the student with an alternative placement. ( Id. ). The student did not attend school following the suspension until approximately April 7, 2014, when Plaintiff placed him in a private full-time special education school, "School C." ( Id. ).

On April 4, 2014, Plaintiff filed an Administrative Due Process Complaint Notice with the District of Columbia State Enforcement and Investigation Division. (Due Process Compl. [12-4] at 1). Plaintiff alleged that DCPS denied the student a FAPE by failing to (1) adequately evaluate, including failing to perform triennial evaluations, and/or to evaluate in all areas of suspected disabilities; (2) use appropriate criteria when determining the existence of a learning disability; (3) develop an appropriate IEP on March 12, 2014; (4) implement IEPs during SY 2013-2014; (5) comply with disciplinary regulations when suspending the student during SY 2013-2014; (6) provide appropriate school placement during SY 2013-2014; and (7) provide prior written notice to the parent when proposing a change to the student's identification, evaluation, and educational placement. ( Id. at 5). Plaintiff sought an order for DCPS to (1) fund the student's placement at School C, retroactively from April 7, 2014; (2) participate in the development of an Individualized Education Program ("IEP") at School C about 30 days after the student's enrollment; (3) fund an independent comprehensive psychological evaluation and an independent functional behavioral assessment ("FBA"); and (4) fund the compensatory education plan Plaintiff provided during SY 2013-14. ( Id. at 6).

At the May 9, 2014 hearing, the Hearing Officer considered whether DCPS failed to provide the student a FAPE by any of the following:

1. failing to comply with disciplinary regulations when suspending the student on multiple occasions during SY 2013-2014 ("Issue 1");
2. failing to adequately evaluate, including perform a FBA upon the student's suspension in January 2014 ("Issue 2");
3. failing to develop an appropriate IEP on March 12, 2014, because Plaintiff was not included in the IEP meeting ("Issue 3");
4. failing to implement the student's IEP during SY 2013-2014 after the student was suspended in January 2014 ("Issue 4");
5. failing to provide an appropriate school placement after the student was suspended in January 2014 ("Issue 5"); and
6. failing to provide prior written notice regarding the student's change of placement at the time of the forty-five day suspension on February 11, 2014 ("Issue 6").

(HOD at 2, 4).

The HOD was issued on May 21, 2014. ( Id. at 13). The Hearing Officer found that Plaintiff sustained her burden of proof on Issues 1, 2, 4 and 5, but failed to do so on Issues 3 and 6. ( Id. at 8-12). Plaintiff sustained her burden on Issue 1 because she proved DCPS denied the student a FAPE by not convening a MDR after the student's eleventh day of suspension during SY 2012-2013 and thus failing to comply with 34 C.F.R. §§ 300.530-536 ( Id. at 8-9). Plaintiff sustained her burden on Issue 2 because she proved DCPS denied the student a FAPE by failing to comply with 34 C.F.R. §§ 300.530-536 because it did not conduct a FBA after the student's eleventh day of suspension during SY 2013-2014, January 2014 suspension for ten school days or February 11, 2014 forty-five day suspension. ( Id. at 9-10). Plaintiff did not sustain her burden on Issue 3 because there was insufficient evidence that an IEP document from a meeting Plaintiff participated in "was the student's current IEP or that an IEP meeting was held with or without the parent to develop that document." ( Id. at 10). Plaintiff sustained her burden on Issue 4 because she proved DCPS denied the student a FAPE by failing to provide the student educational services or behavioral intervention services pursuant to 34 C.F.R. § 300.530(d) and implement his IEP during the time the student was suspended after his October 2013 suspension and every suspension thereafter. ( Id. at 10-11). Plaintiff sustained her burden on Issue 5 because she proved DCPS denied the student a FAPE by failing to provide the student an alternative placement during his forty-five day suspension pursuant to 34 C.F.R. § 300.530(d). ( Id. at 11-12). Plaintiff did not sustain her burden on Issue 6 because there was evidence that Plaintiff was provided a notice of proposed suspension when the student was suspended on February 11, 2014 and there was no evidence that Plaintiff needed to be provided with additional documentation. ( Id. at 12).

In fashioning appropriate relief, the Hearing Officer noted that Plaintiff failed to propose appropriate services to compensate the student for the services from which he should have benefited during his total fifty-three days of suspension in accordance with his IEP during SY 2013-2014 at School A. ( Id. at 12). Notwithstanding this failure on the part of Plaintiff, the Hearing Officer concluded that in the interests of equity, the student should be awarded at least nominal services as compensation. ( Id. ). Accordingly, the Hearing Officer ordered DCPS to provide the student with thirty hours of independent tutoring and fifteen hours of independent counseling or mentoring within thirty calendar days of the release of the HOD. ( Id. at 13). The Hearing Officer also directed DCPS to place and fund the student at School C retroactively from April 7, 2014 through the remainder of SY 2013-2014. ( Id. ). Finally, the Hearing ...


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