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Jones v. District of Columbia

United States District Court, D. Columbia.

October 29, 2015

LAVONDA JONES, Parent and Next Friend of D.T., a minor, Plaintiff,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, Defendant

          For LAVONDA JONES, Plaintiff: Domiento Cornelius Hill, LAW OFFICES OF DOMIENTO C.R. HILL, Upper Marlboro, MD.

         For DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, Defendant: Aaron Josiah Finkhousen, LEAD ATTORNEY, OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, Washington, DC.

         MEMORANDUM OPINION

         BERYL A. HOWELL, United States District Judge.

         Having 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.

         The 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 is granted.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The 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.

         Having 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" )[1], [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.

         After 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.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         The 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).[2] 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)).

         The 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.

         In 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)).

         While 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)).

         III. DISCUSSION

         Congress 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).

         More 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)).

         As 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.

         The 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,[3] 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 federal court.

         Instead, 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.[4] 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.

         Specifically, 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 the ...


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