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Reed v. District of Columbia

United States District Court, D. Columbia

September 28, 2015

ASHIMA REED, et al., Plaintiffs,

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

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         JAMES E. BOASBERG, United States District Judge.

         Reasonable attorney fees must be " adequate to attract competent counsel," but should not " produce windfalls to attorneys." Blum v. Stenson, 465 U.S. 886, 893-94, 104 S.Ct. 1541, 79 L.Ed.2d 891 (1984) (citation omitted). Six Plaintiffs, who are parents and legal guardians acting on behalf of their children, have brought this action for the recovery of attorney fees and costs -- pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq. -- incurred in administrative proceedings against the District of Columbia Public Schools. Ruling on Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment, Magistrate Judge Alan Kay, to whom the case was referred, issued a Report and Recommendation

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granting approximately 40% of the total fees sought. Plaintiffs have now submitted their Objections to that Report. Finding that the Report largely applies the IDEA appropriately in calculating the correct amount due, the Court will accept the majority of its recommendations, albeit with some modifications.

         I. Background

         The Court will not reiterate the full factual background of the case, which is set out in the thorough Report. See R& R at 6-12. A brief recap here concerning each Plaintiff will suffice.

         A. S.R.

         Plaintiff Reed, parent of minor student S.R., filed a Due Process Complaint in May 2013, alleging that S.R. was denied a free appropriate public education (FAPE) due to the District's alleged failure to identify, locate, and evaluate him as a student with a suspected disability. Reed requested, inter alia, that the District fund independent and comprehensive assessments of S.R. and convene an individualized-education-program (IEP) team to review such assessments and determine S.R.'s eligibility for special-education services. A due-process hearing was held that summer, and the Hearing Officer ordered the District to fund the requested assessments and determine whether S.R. was indeed eligible for special-education services. See R& R at 6-7; Pl. MSJ, Exh. 1 (Hearing Officer Determination (HOD)) at 1-11.

         B. C.G.

         C.G. is an adult student who has been determined to be eligible for special-education and related services as a student with a disability under IDEA. His parent, Plaintiff Green, filed a Due Process Complaint in February 2013, alleging that the District failed to conduct re-evaluations, develop and implement an IEP, and provide appropriate placement. A hearing was held in May 2013, after which the Hearing Officer determined that the first issue was fully resolved and thus withdrawn, and that Plaintiff had satisfied his burden of proof on the remaining issues. See R& R at 7; HOD at 17-29.

         C. L.J.

         L.J. is a minor student who is eligible for services due to a learning disability. His legal guardian, Plaintiff Smith, filed a Due Process Complaint in June 2013, and the due-process hearing was held in September of that year. Smith alleged that, on numerous occasions, the District had failed to evaluate L.J. at his request. The Hearing Officer determined that L.J. had been denied a FAPE through the District's failure to evaluate him and awarded L.J. individualized tutoring by a certified teacher. See R& R at 7-8; HOD 39-63.

         D. I.M.

         I.M. is a minor student who is eligible for services due to a learning disability. Her parent, Plaintiff Addison, filed a Due Process Complaint in February 2013, alleging that the District failed to: include her in an IEP meeting; re-evaluate I.M. upon request; conduct a formal, timely assessment of I.M.'s therapy needs; provide I.M., on four separate occasions, with an appropriate IEP; implement I.M.'s IEP; and place I.M. in a full-time special-education program. She sought placement in a private special-education school, compensatory education, and funding for various evaluations. A two-day hearing was held in April 2013, after which the Hearing Officer determined that I.M. had satisfied her burden of proof on some, but not all, of these allegations. While the Hearing Officer rejected the request for compensatory education, he did award I.M. some relief, including amending her IEP and providing extra-curricular instruction and tutoring,

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as well as additional evaluations. See R& R at 8-10; HOD at 66-82.

         E. E.J.

         Plaintiff James, parent of minor student E.J., filed a Due Process Complaint in June 2013, alleging that the District failed to: provide E.J. an appropriate, or any, educational placement in 2011-2012; provide an appropriate placement in 2012-2013; identify an appropriate placement at a June 2013 meeting; and adequately include E.J.'s parents in the decisionmaking process. E.J. sought maintenance of his current educational placement, a meeting to revise his IEP, and compensatory education. E.J. received a hearing in August 2013. The Hearing Officer ruled in E.J.'s favor on all but the second issue and ordered that the District fund E.J.'s placement for the 2013-14 year. See R& R at 10-11; HOD at 87-117.

         F. A.D.

         Plaintiff Holman, legal guardian of minor student A.D., filed a Due Process Complaint in September 2013, alleging that the District failed to implement an IEP and provide him with an appropriate placement. A.D. requested funding for an independent evaluation, an IEP meeting, and placement in a particular school program. A hearing was held in December 2013, after which the Hearing Officer determined that the District had denied A.D. a FAPE by failing to implement the speech-language services portion of his IEP, and the Officer ordered the District to fund the requested assessment, as well as a year of speech-language services. The Officer further determined that A.D. had not met the required burden of proof to support the claim that the District had failed to provide an appropriate placement. See R& R at 11-12; HOD at 120-38.

         G. Attorney Fees

         Following the conclusion of these administrative proceedings, Plaintiffs filed this action on November 10, 2014, and the case was subsequently referred to Magistrate Judge Kay for full case management. See ECF No. 4. Both sides thereafter filed Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment relating to fees and costs only. On June 2, 2015, Magistrate Judge Kay issued his Report recommending that Plaintiffs' Motion be denied and Defendant's be granted. Plaintiffs timely filed their Objections to the Report on August 13, 2015.

         II. Legal Standard

         Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 72(b), once a magistrate judge has entered a recommended disposition, a party may file specific written objections. The district court " must determine de novo any part of the magistrate judge's disposition that has been properly objected to." Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(3); see also Winston & Strawn LLP v. FDIC, 841 F.Supp.2d 225, 228 (D.D.C. 2012) (court must conduct de novo review of objected-to portions of magistrate judge's report and recommendation). The district court may then " accept, reject, or modify the recommended disposition." Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(3).

         III. Analysis

         The purpose of IDEA is " to ensure that all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs." 20 U.S.C. § 1400(d)(1)(A). " Implicit" in IDEA's guarantee " is the requirement that the education to which access is provided be sufficient to confer some educational benefit upon the handicapped child." Bd. of Educ. of Hendrick Hudson Cent. Sch. Dist. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 200, 102 S.Ct. 3034, 73 L.Ed.2d 690 (1982).

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As a condition of receiving funding under IDEA, school districts are required to adopt procedures to ensure appropriate educational placement of students with disabilities. See 20 U.S.C. § 1413.

         Of relevance to this case, IDEA confers on the Court discretion to " award reasonable attorneys' fees as part of the costs to the parents of a child with a disability who is the prevailing party" in an action under the Act. See 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B)(i)(I). This includes the authority to award fees to a party who has prevailed in an administrative due-process hearing. See Moore v. District of Columbia, 907 F.2d 165, 166, 285 U.S.App.D.C. 95 (D.C. Cir. 1990).

         Plaintiffs brought such an action, seeking a total of $226,625.31 in legal fees and costs for their six IDEA matters. See Compl. at 3 (Appendix). The Magistrate Judge recommended significant reductions to this amount, arriving at a total award of $89,917.60 -- roughly 40% of the requested fees. See R& R at 31-36. Plaintiffs raise five objections to the Report's recommendations: (1) the hourly rate of compensation is inappropriately low; (2) billed hours were improperly reduced in accordance with Plaintiffs' success rate; (3) settlement conference and work hours deemed " too remote in time" were improperly excluded; (4) expense charges were improperly reduced; and (5) current, not historical, rates should have been used. The Court considers each objection in turn.

         A. The Hourly Rate

         The issue at the heart of this case is what constitutes a reasonable hourly rate by which the Court should calculate fee awards for IDEA matters in the District. Plaintiffs object that the Magistrate Judge recommended an inappropriately low rate. Although its reasoning diverges somewhat from the Report, the Court concurs that the rate is justified.

         1. ...

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