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Florita Staton v. District of Columbia

United States District Court, District of Columbia

September 30, 2015

FLORITA STATON as parent/guardian of D.S. Plaintiff,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

G. MICHAEL HARVEY, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

This matter was referred to the undersigned for all purposes. Plaintiff Florita Staton is the parent of D.S., a child protected by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq. Plaintiff initiated this action to recover attorney’s fees and costs incurred while litigating claims under the IDEA at the administrative level. On February 28, 2014, defendant made an offer of judgment to plaintiff as to that claim. Plaintiff accepted that offer of judgment on March 12, 2014.

Plaintiff also sought to recover her fees and costs expended during the instant fee-collection litigation. To that end, after accepting defendant’s offer of judgment, plaintiff filed a motion for an award of attorney’s fees and costs which seeks “fees-on-fees, ” or an award of fees and costs stemming from the prosecution of this civil action for fees. The matter is fully briefed and ripe for disposition. For the reasons stated below, the Court will grant in part and deny in part plaintiff’s motion for fees-on-fees.[1]

BACKGROUND

On October 3, 2013, plaintiff filed an administrative due process complaint against the District of Columbia Public Schools system (“DCPS”) on behalf of D.S. pursuant to the IDEA. Plaintiff prevailed, and she subsequently sought $31, 774.15 in attorney’s fees and costs from DCPS. Compl. ¶¶ 6-7. When DCPS failed to pay, plaintiff filed a civil action against defendant, the District of Columbia, on December 11, 2013. See id. ¶ 8. Defendant made an offer of judgment to plaintiff on February 28, 2014, in the amount of $21, 400, which plaintiff accepted on March 12, 2014. See Offer; Acceptance. The settlement figure represents approximately two-thirds of plaintiff’s original request. Compl. at ¶ 9.[2]

On April 4, 2014, plaintiff filed the instant motion to recover her fees-on-fees. See Mot. Plaintiff seeks to recover the attorney’s fees of her counsel, Carolyn Houck, in litigating this matter. Id. at 1. This motion seeks $9, 820, which is comprised of $9, 270 in attorney’s fees and $550 in costs. Id. at 6.

LEGAL STANDARD

Under the IDEA, this Court has discretion to “award reasonable attorney’s 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). “Parties who prevail at the administrative level can also recover fees-on-fees, as our general rule is that the court may award additional fees for ‘time reasonably devoted to obtaining attorney’s fees.’” Kaseman v. Dist. of Columbia, 444 F.3d 637, 640 (D.C. Cir. 2006) (quoting Envt’l Def. Fund v. EPA, 672 F.2d 42, 62 (D.C. Cir. 1982)). “The availability of ‘fees for fees’ is essential to carrying out Congress’ goal in including [fee-shifting] provision[s] in the first place.” Am. Fed’n of Gov’t Emps., AFL-CIO, Local 3882 v. Fed. Labor Relations Auth., 994 F.2d 20, 22 (D.C. Cir. 1993).

To determine the appropriate award, courts apply a three-part test. That test requires the court to determine the “number of hours reasonably expended in litigation, ” then set a “reasonable hourly rate, ” and finally decide whether a multiplier is warranted.[3] Save Our Cumberland Mountains, Inc. v. Hodel, 857 F.2d 1516, 1517 (D.C. Cir. banc 1988). The “fee applicant bears the burden of establishing entitlement to an award, documenting the appropriate hours, and justifying the reasonableness of the rates.” Covington v. Dist. of Columbia, 57 F.3d 1101, 1107-08 (D.C. Cir. 1995). Upon a proper showing as to these elements, a presumption applies that the number of hours billed and the hourly rates are reasonable. See Jackson v. Dist. of Columbia, 696 F.Supp.2d 97, 100-01 (D.D.C. 2010). The burden then shifts to the defendant “provide specific contrary evidence tending to show that a lower rate would be appropriate.” Covington, 57 F.3d at 1109-10.

As to the hourly-rate element, courts analyze three sub-elements: (1) “the attorney[’s] billing practices”; (2) “the attorney[’s] skill, experience, and reputation”; and (3) “the prevailing market rates in the relevant community.” Covington, 57 F.3d at 1107. The Court of Appeals has recently addressed the hourly-rate element. In Eley, the D.C. Circuit observed that determining a prevailing market rate is “inherently difficult, ” but nevertheless emphasized the “importance of fixing the prevailing hourly rate in each case with a fair degree of accuracy.” Eley v. Dist. of Columbia, 793 F.3d 97, 100 (D.C. Cir. 2015) (internal quotations omitted). To meet its burden with respect to the hourly-rate element, a fee applicant must “‘produce satisfactory evidence - in addition to the attorney’s own affidavits - that the requested rates are in line with those prevailing in the community for similar services by lawyers of reasonably comparable skill, experience and reputation.’” Id. (quoting Blum v. Stenson, 465 U.S. 886, 895 n.11 (1984)).

One such type of additional evidence permitted in this Circuit is attorney’s fee matrices such as the Laffey Matrix prepared by the Civil Division of the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia (“USAO Laffey Matrix”). Id.; Rooths v. Dist. of Columbia, 802 F.Supp.2d 56, 62 (D.D.C. 2011). The USAO Laffey Matrix is for use when a fee-shifting statute permits the recovery of reasonable attorney’s fees. See Mot., Ex. 3. It was created to demonstrate the “prevailing rates in the community for lawyers of comparable skill, expertise and reputation in complex federal litigation.” Laffey v. Nw. Airlines, Inc., 572 F.Supp. 354, 371-72 (D.D.C. 1984). But while such attorneys’ fee matrices can “provide a useful starting point” in calculating the prevailing market rate, see Covington, 57 F.3d at 1109, as Eley confirms, a fee applicant does not meet its burden on the third element merely by submitting the USAO Laffey Matrix, or one of its variants, [4] with a fee application. Rather, the applicant is obliged to demonstrate that the suggested rates in the matrix are “in line with those prevailing in the community for similar services.” Eley, 793 F.3d at 104 (emphasis in original); id. at 100 (“‘An applicant is required to provide specific evidence of the prevailing community rate for the type of work for which he seeks an award.’”) (quoting Nat’l Ass’n of Concerned Veterans v. Sec’y of Def., 675 F.2d 1319, 1325 (D.C. Cir. 1982) (emphasis in original)).

A fee applicant can make this showing by supplementing fee matrices with other evidence such as “surveys to update the[m]; affidavits reciting the precise fees that attorneys with similar qualifications have received from fee-paying clients in comparable cases; and evidence of recent fees awarded by the courts or through settlement to attorneys with comparable qualifications handling similar cases.” Id. at 101 (quoting Covington, 57 F.3d at 1109); see also id. at 104, n. 5 (“Evidence of the prevailing market rate can take many forms.”); Covington, 57 F.3d at 1113 (Henderson, J. dissenting) (“‘A statistically reliable, well-documented, and extensive survey of the rates clients pay for a certain sub-market of legal services would be powerfully persuasive.’”).

DISCUSSION

Defendant does not dispute that plaintiff is a prevailing party or that a fees-on-fees recovery is permissible under the IDEA. Defendant does, however, challenge the reasonableness of the fees that plaintiff seeks. The Court first considers the reasonableness of the hourly rate charged by Ms. Houck before ...


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