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Snead v. District of Columbia

United States District Court, D. Columbia

October 7, 2015

BERNADETTE SNEAD, AS PARENT/GUARDIAN OF C.S., Plaintiff,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, Defendant

          For BERNADETTE SNEAD, AS PARENT/GUARDIAN OF C.S., Plaintiff: Steve Nabors, LEAD ATTORNEY, MORAN & ASSOCIATES, Washington, DC; Carolyn W. Houck, LAW OFFICE OF CAROLYN HOUCK, St. Michaels, MD.

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

         MEMORANDUM OPINION

         ELLEN SEGAL HUVELLE, United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Bernadette Snead brings this action against the District of Columbia to recover attorney's fees and costs related to her successful administrative proceeding on behalf of her son under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004. 20 U.S.C. § § 1400, et seq. (" IDEA" ). The parties have submitted cross-motions for summary judgment, disagreeing primarily over the reasonableness of the hourly rates charged by plaintiff's two attorneys--Carolyn Houk and Stevie Nabors. See 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(C) (defining as reasonable those " rates prevailing in the community in which the action or proceeding arose for the kind and quality of services furnished" ). Plaintiff seeks a total of $67,624.90 in fees for the legal services of Ms. Houck--for whom plaintiff submits a rate of $460 per hour based on the USAO Laffey Matrix--and Mr. Nabors, for whom plaintiff submits a rate of $328 per hour based on the customary rates charged by Mr. Nabors and the so-called LSI (or " enhanced" ) Laffey Matrix. (Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment, June 19, 2015, ECF No. 10 (" Pl.'s Mot." ), at 7-8.) The District contends that Ms. Houk and Mr. Nabors should be reimbursed at no more than 3/4 the rate allotted to them under the USAO Laffey matrix, for a maximum award of $50,169.51. (Defendant's Opposition to Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment and Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment, July 17, 2015, ECF No. 12 (" Def.'s Cross-Mot." ), at 14.) For the reasons explained herein, the Court agrees that a reduced USAO Laffey rate is appropriate for the legal services provided here, and therefore, it will grant defendant's cross-motion for summary judgment.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff is the mother of C.S., a student eligible to receive special education and related services under the IDEA. On November 18, 2014, Hospitality Public Charter School called plaintiff to a meeting to inform her that it had decided to expel C.S.[1] (Pl.'s Mot., Ex. 1, Hearing Officer's Determination (" HOD" ), at 2.) On November 25, 2014, the school held a Manifestation Determination Review (" MDR" ) and concluded that the behavior that had precipitated C.S.'s expulsion was not a manifestation of his disability. ( Id. at 2.) Plaintiff proceeded to file a due process complaint on December 30, 2014, alleging that District of Columbia Schools (" DCPS" ) and the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (" OSSE" ) denied C.S. a free appropriate public education (" FAPE" ) by failing to determine that C.S.'s behavior was a manifestation of his disability and to develop and implement an individual education program for C.S. for the 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 school years. ( Id. )

         OSSE and DCPS each filed timely responses to the complaint and filed a joint motion to dismiss on January 8, 2015.[2] ( Id. ) The parties held a number of conference calls with the Hearing Officer, and attempted, without success, to come to a resolution. ( Id. at 2-3.) The Hearing Officer issued a pre-hearing order on January 15, 2015, outlining the issues to be adjudicated at the hearing. ( Id. at 3.) On January 26, 2015, plaintiff filed a motion for summary adjudication of the MDR issue. ( Id. ) The Hearing Officer subsequently denied the joint motion to dismiss on January 29, 2015, and reserved plaintiff's motion for summary adjudication on the MDR for the hearing. ( Id. ) On January 30, 2015, DCPS filed an amended response to the complaint conceding that DCPS was the LEA for C.S.'s school for special education purposes. ( Id. ) Plaintiff immediately filed a motion to strike the amended response and to request a more definite statement, to which DCPS responded on February 1, 2015, by acknowledging that DCPS was indeed the LEA for C.S. at the time of the incident for which he was expelled. ( Id. )

         At the hearing on February 2, 2015, the parties submitted documents; most were admitted into the record, while others were withdrawn and a few were set aside pending presentation of testimony. ( Id. at 3 n.4.) After DCPS clarified for the record that it had reversed its original MDR determination of November 25, 2014, and had determined that the conduct for which C.S. had been expelled was in fact a manifestation of his disability, the Hearing Officer ruled in plaintiff's favor, stating that C.S. had been denied a FAPE. ( Id. at 3.) The Hearing Officer allowed the parties to engage in settlement discussions and their settlement was incorporated into a comprehensive Consent Order on February 6, 2015.[3]

         Plaintiff now seeks attorney's fees for Mr. Nabors and Ms. Houk, both of whom assisted in her achieving prevailing party status. (Pl.'s Mot., Ex. 2, Houk Declaration (" Houk Declaration" ) at 3 (explaining that plaintiff required two attorneys to successfully litigate plaintiff's claim against both OSSE and DCPS, which were presenting independent defenses); Pl.'s Mot., Ex. 6, Invoice.) [4]

         ANALYSIS

         The only disputed issue is what constitutes a reasonable hourly rate for the two attorneys who litigated plaintiff's IDEA claim. Fee awards under the IDEA " shall be based on 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) (emphasis added). The statute also instructs that courts " shall reduce" the quantity of the award if it " unreasonably exceeds the hourly rate . . . for similar services by attorneys of reasonably comparable skill, reputation, and experience" in the community. Id. at § 1415(i)(3)(F)(ii). The D.C. Circuit has explained that the " fee applicant bears the burden of establishing entitlement to an award, documenting the appropriate hours, and justifying the reasonableness of the rates," which entails " produc[ing] satisfactory evidence--in addition to [their] attorney's own affidavits--that [their] requested rates" are appropriate. Covington v. District of Columbia, 57 F.3d 1101, 1107-08, 313 U.S.App.D.C. 16 (D.C. Cir. 1995). Applicants may " submit attorneys' fee matrices as one type of evidence that provides a useful starting point in calculating the prevailing market rate" for attorneys' services. Eley v. District of Columbia, 793 F.3d 97, 100 (D.C. Cir. 2015) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). A fee matrix lays out hourly fees charged by attorneys at various levels of experience in a particular geographic region or market for the same type of work. " Fee matrices in general are 'somewhat crude,'" including " the Laffey matrix in particular," and " [f]or this reason, a fee applicant supplements fee matrices with other evidence such as surveys to update them; 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.

         The " most commonly used fee matrix is the 'Laffey matrix,'" id., established in Laffey v. Northwest Airlines, Inc., 572 F.Supp. 354, 371 (D.D.C. 1983), aff'd in part, rev'd in part on other grounds, 746 F.2d 4, 241 U.S.App.D.C. 11 (D.C. Cir. 1984). The Laffey Matrix, however, proposes a presumptive maximum for " complex federal litigation." Id. at 372. There are two variations of Laffey matrices: the primary one (" USAO Laffey" ) is calculated by the United States Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia and is updated regularly to account for inflation using the Consumer Price Index, and the second is often referred to as " enhanced Laffey" or " LSI Laffey" and is adjusted for inflation using only the legal services component of the Consumer Price Index, which has risen more swiftly than the general CPI. See Eley, 793 F.3d at 101-02.

         Recently, the D.C. Circuit declined to categorically determine whether IDEA proceedings constitute the type of litigation that is " sufficiently 'complex' to use either version of the Laffey Matrix (and if so, which version of the Laffey Matrix is more appropriate)." Id. at 105. The Eley Court did, however, make clear that Laffey should not be the default rate for fees awarded pursuant to IDEA. See id. (holding that district courts may not begin their analysis from the premise that " some version of the Laffey matric is presumptively reasonable" ). If a party wishes the Court to use the Laffey matrix, it must establish that its rates reflect what attorneys of comparable skill in the region generally charge for IDEA proceedings.

         Prior to Eley, district courts within this circuit were split on whether Laffey applied to IDEA cases. CompareBaker v. D.C. Pub. Sch., 815 F.Supp.2d 102, 112-13 (D.D.C. 2011) (" This court has previously held that attorney's fees in IDEA actions are presumptively reasonable if they conform to the Laffey Matrix . . .[and] has already rejected the suggestion that IDEA administrative litigation is categorically less complex than other forms of litigation." ) withHuntley v. District of Columbia, 860 F.Supp.2d 53, 58 (D.D.C. 2012) (" [T]his case involves IDEA litigation, which is not complex federal litigation because most if not all of the attorney's fees in question are the result of counsel's preparation for attendance at routine administrative hearings." ); see alsoMcCla ...


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