United States District Court, D. Columbia.
LAVONDA JONES, Parent and Next Friend of D.T., a minor, Plaintiff,
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, Defendant
LAVONDA JONES, Plaintiff: Domiento Cornelius Hill, LAW
OFFICES OF DOMIENTO C.R. HILL, Upper Marlboro, MD.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, Defendant: Aaron Josiah Finkhousen,
LEAD ATTORNEY, OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL FOR THE
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, Washington, DC.
A. HOWELL, United States District Judge.
prevailed before an administrative agency on her claim under
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., and again prevailed in this Court by
demonstrating her entitlement to payment of $45,272.77 in
attorneys' fees and costs, the plaintiff Lavonda Jones,
who is suing on behalf of herself and her minor child, now
seeks an additional $10,468.50 in fees and costs incurred in
litigating her first successful fees motion ("
fees-on-fees" ). Pl.'s Mot. Fees & Costs ("
Pl.'s Mot." ), ECF No. 21.
defendant District of Columbia, after objecting to only
eleven minutes of more than 130 hours billed by the
plaintiff's counsel in pursuing her successful
administrative action, now insists that the plaintiff may not
be reimbursed for attorneys' fees incurred in defeating
this objection. According to the District, the plaintiff is
not entitled to any further payment of attorneys' fees
stemming from her first successful fee application because
she has failed to produce sufficient additional evidence
" supporting the reasonableness of the rate [she]
request[s]." Def.'s Opp'n Pl.'s Mot. Award
Fees & Costs (" Def.'s Opp'n" ) at 3, ECF
No. 22. Thus, nearly two years after the plaintiff initiated
her administrative action, more than a year after she
prevailed in all her substantive IDEA claims, and almost
three months after prevailing on her claim to attorneys'
fees and costs, the District invites the Court to prolong
this matter further by requiring the plaintiff to demonstrate
anew that the fees she requests are compensable under the
IDEA and to establish a separate fee rate for fees-on-fees.
The Court declines this invitation, and for the reasons
outlined below, the plaintiff's motion for fees-on-fees
plaintiff brought the first of two administrative complaints
alleging that the District denied her disabled child a free
and appropriate public education, in violation of the IDEA,
on January 30, 2014. Jones v. District of Columbia,
No. 15-cv-155 (BAH), 2015 WL 5093559, at *3 (D.D.C. Aug. 18,
2015). On August 5, 2014, following a three-day evidentiary
hearing in June 2014, the plaintiff prevailed on all counts
in her administrative action, successfully obtaining both an
independent assessment of her child's disability and a
reevaluation of the child's educational needs, as well as
more than seventy hours of compensatory education in the form
of one-on-one tutoring for her child. Id.
prevailed in her administrative action, the plaintiff filed
this action on January 30, 2015, to assert her statutory
right as a prevailing parent under the IDEA, 20 U.S.C. §
1415(i)(3)(B)(i)(I), to seek an award of reasonable
attorneys' fees and costs. Jones, 2015 WL
5093559, at *4; Compl., ECF No. 1. Following referral, a
Magistrate Judge on this Court issued a Report and
Recommendation (" R& R" ) recommending that the
plaintiff be awarded $45,272.77 in attorneys' fees and
costs--all of her requested relief. Jones, 2015 WL
5093559, at *1, *7. The plaintiff voluntarily chose to
request attorneys' fees at the rate of $345 per hour,
which is three-quarters of the rate applicable to her
attorney on the U.S. Attorney's Office Laffey Matrix
(" USAO Laffey Matrix" ), [WL] at *5,
after indicating that this rate was counsel's normal
billing rate for work performed during the period when
services were rendered to the plaintiff, see Decl.
of Domiento C.R. Hill, ¶ ¶ 15-16, ECF No. 10-14.
The District did not challenge the hourly rate proffered as
reasonable by the plaintiff but instead ultimately disputed,
unsuccessfully, only two of dozens of billing entries
submitted by the plaintiff's attorney in connection with
her successful administrative action. Jones, 2015 WL
5093559, at *6.
neither party filed a timely objection, this Court adopted
the R& R in full on August 18, 2015. See
Id. at *1. Having prevailed in her action to obtain
attorneys' fees arising from the administrative
proceedings, the plaintiff has now moved, pursuant to Federal
Rule of Civil Procedure 54(d)(2)(B), to obtain reimbursement
of $10,468.50 of attorneys' fees and costs incurred in
litigating in federal court her successful petition for fees
and costs. See Pl.'s Mot. at 1.
IDEA provides that " the court, in its discretion may
award reasonable attorneys' fees . . . to a prevailing
party who is the parent of a child with a disability."
20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B)(i). This statutory language
makes plain that a prevailing party in an IDEA action may
seek the award of attorneys' fees that are "
reasonable." Id. The D.C. Circuit has developed
a " three-part" analysis for assessing whether a
requested fee award is reasonable under federal statutes
authorizing fee-shifting. Eley v. District of
Columbia, 793 F.3d 97, 100 (D.C. Cir. 2015). "
First, the court must determine the number of hours
reasonably expended in litigation. Second, it must set the
reasonable hourly rate. Finally, it must determine whether
use of a multiplier is warranted." Id.
(internal citations and quotations omitted). With regard
to the proposed hourly rate, the Court considers 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.' Id.
(quoting Covington v. District of Columbia, 57 F.3d
1101, 1107-08, 313 U.S.App.D.C. 16 (D.C. Cir. 1995)).
availability of reasonable attorneys' fees applies to
fees incurred in IDEA litigation both before administrative
agencies and in federal court, as well as to fees incurred to
vindicate a plaintiff's right to fees. Thus, the D.C.
Circuit held in Kaseman v. District of Columbia that
" parties who prevail at the administrative level can
also recover fees-on-fees, as [the D.C. Circuit's]
general rule is that the court may award additional fees for
'time reasonably devoted to obtaining attorney's
fees.'" 444 F.3d 637, 640, 370 U.S.App.D.C. 292
(D.C. Cir. 2006) (quoting Envtl. Def. Fund v. EPA,
672 F.2d 42, 62, 217 U.S.App.D.C. 189 (D.C. Cir. 1982)). In
broadly allowing successful plaintiffs to obtain
fees-on-fees, the D.C. Circuit has emphasized that the
availability of such awards " 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, 301 U.S.App.D.C. 293 (D.C. Cir.
1993) (emphasis added). In this way, " such fees are
often necessary to fulfill the purposes of the statutory
scheme on which the action is based." Id.
general, " [t]he 'fee applicant bears the burden of
establishing entitlement to an award, documenting the
appropriate hours, and justifying the reasonableness of the
rates' and the opposing party remains 'free to rebut
a fee claim.'" Id. (quoting
Covington, 57 F.3d at 1107-08). Once an applicant
meets this initial burden, a presumption applies that the
number of hours billed and the hourly rates are reasonable.
Jackson v. District of Columbia, 696 F.Supp.2d 97,
101 (D.D.C. 2010) (citing Blackman v. District of
Columbia, 677 F.Supp.2d 169, 172 (D.D.C. 2010)). At that
point, the burden shifts to the opposing party to "
provide specific contrary evidence tending to show that a
lower rate would be appropriate." Covington, 57
F.3d at 1109-10 (quoting Nat'l Ass'n of Concerned
Veterans v. Sec'y of Def., 675 F.2d 1319, 1326, 219
U.S.App.D.C. 94 (D.C. Cir. 1982)).
the IDEA authorizes the court to award reasonable
attorneys' fees " in its discretion," 20 U.S.C.
§ 1415(i)(3)(B)(i), the D.C. Circuit has observed,
" notwithstanding the apparently permissive language of
the statute, the Supreme Court has interpreted similar
language in other fee-shifting contexts to mean that the
prevailing plaintiff 'should ordinarily recover an
attorney's fee unless special circumstances would render
such an award unjust.'" Price v. District of
Columbia, 792 F.3d 112, 114-15 (D.C. Cir. 2015) (citing
authorities). A district court's award of attorneys'
fees is reviewed for an abuse of discretion. Eley,
793 F.3d at 103 (citing King v. Palmer, 950 F.2d
771, 785, 292 U.S.App.D.C. 362 (D.C. Cir. 1991) (en banc)),
and the D.C. Circuit will not upset such an award "
'absent clear misapplication of legal principles,
arbitrary fact finding, or unprincipled disregard for the
record evidence,'" id. (quoting Kattan
ex rel. Thomas v. District. of Columbia, 995 F.2d 274,
278, 301 U.S.App.D.C. 374 (D.C. Cir. 1993)).
enacted the IDEA 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 and prepare them
for employment and independent living." 20 U.S.C. §
1400(d)(1)(A); see also Calloway v. District of
Columbia, 216 F.3d 1, 3, 342 U.S.App.D.C. 110 (D.C. Cir.
2000). Unfortunately, however, the District's historical
failure to fulfill its obligations under the IDEA is well
documented. As described by the D.C. Circuit, by the late
1990s, the District's persistent failure to meet its IDEA
obligations " reached crisis proportions," such
that the District " had virtually ceased to conduct
timely hearings requested by parents under IDEA and to issue
final decisions within the required timelines."
Calloway, 216 F.3d at 3. To address these and other
failures, the District and the Department of Education
entered into a Compliance Agreement mandating that the
District come into full compliance with the requirements of
IDEA by no later than July 2001. Id. at 4 (citing
Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services;
Assistance to States for the Education of Individuals with
Disabilities, 63 Fed.Reg. 41370, 41371).
recently, those parents who do succeed in pursuing
administrative IDEA claims against the District, and who are
therefore entitled to seek reimbursement for reasonable
attorneys' fees incurred in pursuing their claims, have
encountered substantial difficulties in obtaining such
reimbursement. For example, as this Court recently observed,
the District's failure to pay requested, and indeed
court-ordered, reimbursement of attorneys' fees to
prevailing parents has been sufficiently troubling as to
raise questions about whether the District is hampering the
ability of parents to retain competent counsel in the area of
IDEA litigation. Thomas v. District of Columbia, 908
F.Supp.2d 233, 245 (D.D.C. 2012) (noting evidence that the
District had failed to comply with thirteen of twenty-one
court orders issued in the preceding year directing the
payment of attorneys' fees, describing the experiences of
local IDEA practitioners who, due to such delays, were forced
to significantly reduce litigation staff, and noting that the
" largest firm in the District whose practice is solely
special education" lost half of its 800 clients after
the District stopped processing or paying all invoices
submitted by the firm between February 2012 and December
2012). This pattern of non-payment was " not only
troubling but relevant to the [reasonable] fee inquiry . . .
because the District's consistently dismal track record
compels the conclusion that higher fees may need to be
awarded in [IDEA] cases in order to ensure that competent
counsel continues to be attracted to [IDEA] litigation."
Id. at 246 (recognizing the " well-established
principle that " a 'reasonable' fee is a fee
that is sufficient to induce a capable attorney to undertake
the representation of a meritorious . . . case" (quoting
Perdue v. Kenny A. ex rel. Winn, 559 U.S. 542, 130
S.Ct. 1662, 176 L.Ed.2d 494 (2010)).
discussed in more detail below, while the District is, of
course, entitled to contest a requested fee award, the case
at hand presents an apt illustration of the District's
practice of asserting arguments that, if accepted, would
increase the burden to recover reimbursement of
attorneys' fees under the IDEA and prolong this phase of
the litigation in federal court, with the concomitant result
of delaying reimbursement of attorneys' fees and costs.
plaintiff's present request for $10,468.50 in
attorneys' fees reflect all of the fees accrued in
litigating the plaintiff's fee petition in federal court,
including: (1) $9,993.50 for attorney's fees,
representing 43.30 hours of attorney time billed at $230.00
per hour, or half of the hourly rate applicable
to a lawyer, such as plaintiff's counsel, with fifteen
years of experience, under the USAO Laffey Matrix;
and (2) $475.00 in filing and service costs. Mem. Supp.
Pl.'s Mot. Fees & Costs (Pl.'s Mem.) at 4-5, ECF No.
21-1. In opposing this motion, the District does not contest
that the plaintiff prevailed both in seeking accommodations
for her child under the IDEA and in her subsequent effort
before this Court to recover attorneys' fees stemming
from her successful administrative case. Nor does the
District contest the number of hours spent by plaintiff's
counsel in successfully litigating the fee petition in
the District argues that the plaintiff has failed to put
forward sufficient additional evidence to
demonstrate that her counsel's fees associated with the
successful fee application were reasonable and urges the
Court to deny reimbursement of all or some of these
outstanding fees. Thus, more than a year after the
District's defense of the plaintiff's administrative
complaint was rejected, and months after the District again
failed in its subsequent effort before this Court to
challenge a negligible portion of the fees incurred during
the administrative proceeding, the District now contends that
the plaintiff bears anew the full burden of demonstrating the
reasonableness of the hourly rate requested for reimbursement
of the fees incurred in this federal litigation.
the District contends that the plaintiff's request for
outstanding attorneys' fees is unreasonable for two
primary reasons. First, the District argues that fees
incurred in preparing the instant motion for reimbursement of
the costs of litigating in federal court are " not
reasonably related to the administrative action" and are
therefore not compensable under the IDEA fee-shifting
provision. Def.'s Opp'n at 1. Second, the District
argues that the hourly rate proposed by the plaintiff at half