United States District Court, District of Columbia
RUDOLPH CONTRERAS UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
Granting in Part & Denying in Part Plaintiffs’ Motion for Summary Judgment and Granting in Part & Denying in Part Defendant’s Cross Motion for Summary Judgment
In this action, Plaintiffs Jaden McNeil, Patrick Canavan, and Daniel McNeil (collectively “Plaintiffs”) seek from Defendant the District of Columbia (“the District”) an award of attorneys’ fees and costs incurred in pursuing an administrative claim under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (the “IDEA”), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq. Plaintiffs have moved for summary judgment on the basis that they were the prevailing parties, and further that the fees and expenses requested are reasonable. See Pls.’ Mot. Summ. J., ECF No. 11. The District disputes Plaintiffs’ contentions regarding the reasonableness of the fees and expenses sought in its opposition and cross motion for summary judgment. See Def.’s Cross Mot. Summ. J., ECF No. 12; Def.’s Opp’n Mot. Summ. J. (“Def.’s Opp’n”), ECF No. 13. The Court concludes that part, but not all, of Plaintiffs’ request is reasonable. Accordingly, the Court grants in part and denies in part the parties’ respective motions.
II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND
In May of 2014, Plaintiffs filed a due process complaint against the District of Columbia Public Schools (“DCPS”). See Am. Compl. ¶ 24, ECF No. 3; see also Pls.’ Reply to Def.’s Opp’n to Mot. Summ. J. (“Pls.’ Reply”) Ex. D, ECF No. 15-4. In the due process complaint, Plaintiffs alleged that the District had failed to provide Plaintiff Jaden McNeil with a free and appropriate public education, pursuant to his rights as a disabled student entitled to special education and related services. See Pls.’ Reply Ex. D. In support of this contention, Plaintiffs alleged three instances during which DCPS failed to uphold its obligations to Jaden under the IDEA: in 2012, when DCPS failed to amend Jaden’s insufficient individualized education program (“IEP”) after his enrollment at Hospitality High School Public Charter School (“Hospitality”); when Hospitality failed to address Jaden’s need for a different IEP or educational setting; and in 2013, when DCPS began developing an alternative IEP for Jaden, but took over a year to do so, leaving Plaintiffs Patrick Canavan and Daniel McNeil to fund alternative education options for Jaden. See Id. at 4–6.
After withdrawing Jaden from Hospitality, Plaintiffs sought placement for Jaden at Legacy Outdoor Adventures (“Legacy”), a wilderness program, which he successfully completed. See Id. at 5. Upon completion of the Legacy program, and after investigation by Jaden’s parents and notice to both Hospitality and DCPS, Jaden transferred to the F.L. Chamberlain School (“Chamberlain”) in Massachusetts, a residential school approved by the State Superintendent of Education for placement of DCPS special education students. See Id. at 6. Plaintiffs alleged that, after relocating Jaden to Chamberlain, DCPS agreed to fund a portion of his enrollment at the school, but never confirmed this with proper documentation. See Id. During Jaden’s enrollment at Chamberlain, Plaintiffs Patrick Canavan and Daniel McNeil were responsible for funding Jaden’s ongoing education, and Jaden’s IEP remained unfinished. See id.
The due process complaint was heard on August 1st, 6th, and 14th of 2014. See Am. Compl. Ex. 1, ECF No. 3-1. At the conclusion of the proceedings, the hearing officer determined that DCPS failed to provide Jaden a Free and Appropriate Public Education (“FAPE”), as required by 34 C.F.R. § 300.17 (2011), when it failed to correct Jaden’s inappropriate IEP during his enrollment at Hospitality, see Am. Compl. Ex. 1 at 14–16. The hearing officer also determined that Plaintiffs had acted appropriately in their decisions to both send Jaden to Legacy and, subsequently, to enroll Jaden at Chamberlain. See Id. at 16. As a result, the District was ordered to reimburse Plaintiffs for the tuition, fees, and expenses incurred in sending Jaden both to Legacy and to Chamberlain. See Id. Plaintiffs’ claims regarding DCPS’s alleged failure to convene an IEP meeting in 2012 and the delay in revising Jaden’s IEP were denied. See Id. at 16–17. The hearing officer also denied Plaintiffs’ claim for compensatory education, as a result of Jaden’s excellent results following his placements at Legacy and Chamberlain. See Id. at 18.
On November 23, 2014, Plaintiffs filed an initial complaint against the District for the recovery of attorneys’ fees and expenses incurred in connection with the administrative due process hearing. See Compl., ECF No. 1. In their Amended Complaint, filed on March 20, 2015, Plaintiffs claim to be entitled to an award of legal fees and costs incurred as a result of their successful litigation for Jaden’s entitlement to a FAPE. See Am. Compl. ¶ 30. Plaintiffs subsequently filed a Motion for Summary Judgment on June 24, 2015, requesting $60, 643 in legal fees and $2, 252.74 in expenses. See Pls.’ Mot. Summ. J. ¶ 3. The District subsequently filed an Opposition and Cross Motion, asking that Plaintiffs’ Motion be denied in its entirety or, alternatively, requesting that the amount of fees and expenses awarded be substantially reduced. See generally Def.’s Cross Mot. Summ. J.; Def.’s Opp’n. Plaintiffs filed a Reply to the District’s Opposition on August 12, 2015. See Pls.’ Reply. The District subsequently filed its own Reply on August 24, 2015, reiterating its position that Plaintiffs failed to provide evidence supporting their hourly rates, and further, that Plaintiffs’ attorney charged an unreasonable number of hours for the proceedings. See generally Def.’s Reply, ECF No. 18. The District reiterated that any amount awarded to Plaintiffs should be reduced, on the grounds of Plaintiffs’ limited success on the merits. See Id. at 11–17.
A. Legal Standard for Summary Judgment
A party moving under the IDEA for summary judgment on legal fees must demonstrate prevailing party status and the reasonableness of the fees requested in terms of the hours spent and the hourly rate. See McAllister v. District of Columbia, 21 F.Supp.3d 94, 99 (D.D.C. 2014). Pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, summary judgment shall be granted if the movant shows that “there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247 (1986) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56). Summary judgment should be granted against a party “who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party’s case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). In response to a motion for summary judgment, the non-movant must point to specific facts in the record that reveal a genuine issue that is suitable for trial. Id. at 324.
B. Award for Reasonable Attorneys’ Fees
Pursuant to the IDEA, a district court 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). In doing so, the Court follows a two-step inquiry: First, the Court must decide whether the party seeking attorneys’ fees is the prevailing party; and second, the Court must establish whether the fees requested are reasonable. See McAllister, 21 F.Supp.3d at 99; Jackson v. District of Columbia, 696 F.Supp.2d 97, 101 (D.D.C. 2010). To establish an appropriate fee award the court must determine the number of hours counsel reasonably expended on the litigation and the reasonable hourly rate for that work. See Eley v. District of Columbia, 793 F.3d 97, 100 (D.C. Cir. 2015). “[T]he number of hours reasonably expended on the litigation multiplied by a reasonable hourly rate” provides “[t]he most useful starting point for determining the amount of a reasonable fee.” Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983).
1. Hourly Rate
The parties dispute whether the rates requested by Plaintiffs are “reasonable” within the meaning of the IDEA. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B)(i)(1); see also Pls.’ Mem. Supp. Mot. Summ. J. at 12–16 (“Pls.’ Mem. Supp.”), ECF No. 11; Def.’s Mem. Supp. Opp’n at 4–10, ECF No. 13. A plaintiff bears the burden of demonstrating that the requested hourly rate is reasonable. In reNorth (Bush Fee Application), 59 F.3d 184, 189 (D.C. Cir. 1995) (per curiam). A plaintiff may fulfill this burden “by submitting evidence on at least three fronts: ‘the attorneys’ billing practices; the attorneys’ skill, experience, and reputation; and the prevailing market rates in the relevant community.’” McAllister, 21 F.Supp.3d at 100 (quoting Covington v. District of Columbia, 57 F.3d 1101, 1103 (D.C. Cir. 1995)). If a plaintiff provides sufficient and convincing evidence on these matters, the number of hours billed and the attorney’s hourly rates are deemed reasonable, and the burden then shifts to the defendant to rebut the plaintiff’s showing. See Blackman v. District of Columbia, 677 F.Supp.2d 169, 172 (D.D.C. 2010); Watkins v. Vance, 328 ...