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Briggs v. District of Columbia

United States District Court, District of Columbia

March 23, 2016

SHAMEA BRIGGS, Plaintiff,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

DEBORAH A. ROBINSON UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

Plaintiff Shamea Briggs brings this action to recover attorneys’ fees and costs that she incurred in connection with administrative proceedings conducted pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”), 20 U.S.C. § 1400, et seq. Complaint (Document No. 1). On April 2, 2015, the Court granted in part and denied in part Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment, awarding Plaintiff $20, 934.78 in legal fees and costs for the successful prosecution of Plaintiff's administrative claims. See Order (Document No. 19). Plaintiff now seeks to recover fees and costs pertaining to that fee-collection litigation. Plaintiff’s Motion for an Award of Attorney Fees and Costs (“Plaintiff’s Motion”) (Document No. 20). Upon consideration of the motion, the memoranda in support thereof and opposition thereto, the attached exhibits, and the entire record herein, the court will grant in part and deny in part Plaintiff’s motion.

BACKGROUND

Plaintiff Shamea Briggs is the parent of J.K., a minor student residing in the District of Columbia who is eligible to receive special education and related services. Complaint (Document No. 1) ¶¶ 2, 4. On January 24, 2013, an administrative due process hearing under the IDEA was held with regard to J.K. Id. ¶ 4. That same day, the Hearing Officer issued a decision finding that Plaintiff was the prevailing party. Id. On May 22, 2014, Plaintiff submitted a fee petition for $28, 773.12, which became the subject of the previous fee litigation in this matter. Id. ¶ 5.

In an order adopting the Report and Recommendation issued by the Magistrate Judge to whom the matter had been referred, the assigned United States District Judge to whom this matter was then assigned awarded Plaintiff $20, 934.78 in legal fees and costs. See Order (Document No. 19). In so doing, the Court the determined that based on the circumstances and complexity of the matter, Plaintiff was entitled to an award reflecting an hourly rate at three-quarters of her counsel’s applicable hourly rate based on the Laffey matrix.[1] Id.; see also Report and Recommendation (Document No. 16) at 9.

CONTENTIONS OF THE PARTIES

Plaintiff submits that she was the prevailing party in this action and is, therefore, entitled to reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs as provided by the applicable authorities. See Plaintiff’s Points and Authorities in Support of Plaintiff’s Motion for an Award of Attorney Fees and Costs (“Plaintiff’s Memorandum”) (Document No. 20-1) at 2. Accordingly, as a result of the aforementioned fee-collection litigation, Plaintiff seeks a total of $13, 786.59, which reflects $13, 313 in attorneys’ fees at a rate of $520 per hour. Plaintiff’s Memorandum (Document No. 20-1) at 2; see also Plaintiff’s Invoice (Document No. 20-4); see also Plaintiff’s Reply to Defendant’s Opposition to Plaintiff’s Motion for Attorney Fees (Plaintiff’s Reply”) (Document No. 22) at 4.[2] Plaintiff avers that the $520 hourly rate requested is a reflection of the applicable hourly rate for an attorney with expertise and experience of Plaintiff’s counsel, according to the Laffey matrix. Plaintiff’s Memorandum (Document No. 20-1) at 2-3. However, on May 28, 2015 at hearing before the undersigned, counsel for Plaintiff indicated that she is willing to accept an award at three-quarters of her applicable Laffey rate, given that the Court had previously determined that such a percentage was appropriate in this matter. In addition, Plaintiff further contends that the number of hours requested are also reasonable. Plaintiff’s Memorandum (Document No. 20-1) at 4-5; Plaintiff’s Reply (Document No. 22) at 4.

Through written submissions, and on the record at the May 28, 2015 hearing, Defendant urges the court to use its discretion to deny Plaintiff any additional award of attorney’s fees.[3]See Defendant’s Opposition to Plaintiffs’ Motion for an Award of Attorney’s Fees and Costs (“Defendant’s Opposition”) (Document No. 21) at 3-5. Defendant argues that an “automatic award of fees on fees . . . inhibits settlement and unnecessarily burdens judicial and government resources.” Id. at 4. In the alternative, Defendant argues that Plaintiff’s award should be significantly reduced to reflect one-half of the applicable Laffey rate for Plaintiff’s attorney, given the straight-forward nature of the fee-collection litigation. Id. at 5-6. Additionally, Defendant contends that the already reduced award should be reduced once again to reflect Plaintiff’s “limited success” in the previous attorneys’ fees matter. Id. at 6-7. With regard to the number of hours billed, Defendant takes issue with regard to only four and one half hours, reflecting the time Plaintiff’s counsel spent preparing the motion for attorneys’ fees and subsequent reply. Id. at 7-8; see also Plaintiff’s Reply (Document No. 22) at 4. Defendant argues that these actions are too attenuated from Plaintiff’s underlying due process complaint to be compensable. Defendant’s Reply at 7-8.

APPLICABLE STANDARDS

In actions for attorney’s fees that are brought pursuant to the IDEA, “the court, in its discretion, may award reasonable attorneys’ fees as part of the costs” to the prevailing party. 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. District of Columbia, 444 F.3d 637, 640 (D.C. Cir. 2006) (quoting Envtl. Def. Fund v. EPA, 672 F.2d 42, 62 (D.C. Cir. 1982)). In evaluating such a request, the court must first determine “whether the party seeking attorney's fees is the prevailing party, ” and if so, must then evaluate whether the requested fees are reasonable. Wood v. District of Columbia, 72 F.Supp. 3d 13, 18 (D.D.C. 2014) (citing Staton v. District of Columbia, No. 13-773, 2014 WL 2700894, at *3 (D.D.C. June 11, 2014), adopted by, 2014 WL 2959017; Douglas v. District of Columbia, 67 F.Supp. 3d 36, 40 (D.D.C. 2014)).

As the Circuit recently observed, “[t]he IDEA provides no further guidance for determining an appropriate fee award.” Eley v. District of Columbia, 793 F.3d 97, 100 (D.C. Cir. 2015). Thus, the common mechanism for the determination of a reasonable award is generally “the number of hours reasonably expended” multiplied by a reasonable hourly rate. Wood, F.Supp. 3d at 18 (citing Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983)). The party requesting fees bears the burden of demonstrating the reasonableness of the hours expended, and “may satisfy this burden by submitting an invoice that is sufficiently detailed to permit the District Court to make an independent determination whether or not the hours claimed are justified.” Id. (citing Hensley, 461 U.S. at 433). The party requesting fees “also bears the burden of establishing the reasonableness of the hourly rate sought, ” and in doing so, “must submit 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.” Wood, 72 F.Supp. 3d at 18-19 (internal quotation marks omitted) (citing In re North, 59 F.3d 184, 189 (D.C. Cir. 1995)). If the party requesting fees satisfies its burden, “there is a presumption that the number of hours billed and the hourly rates are reasonable, ” and “the burden then shifts to the [opposing party] to rebut” this presumption. Id. (citations omitted) (quoting another source) (internal quotation marks omitted).

In this jurisdiction, the Laffey Matrix serves as the commonly accepted benchmark for the determination of prevailing market rates for attorneys' fees in complex federal court litigation. See Eley, 793 F.3d at 100. “The prevailing market rate provides merely a starting point for determining the reasonableness of a billing rate . . . . The fee applicant should also submit evidence, including affidavits, regarding her counsel's general billing practices, skill, experience and reputation.” Wood, 72 F.Supp. 3d at 21 (quoting Baker v. District of Columbia Pub. Sch., 815 F.Supp.2d 102, 114 (D.D.C. 2011)) (citations omitted) (internal quotation marks and alterations omitted).

With regard to fee-collection or fees-on-fees litigation in IDEA matters, it is well settled that the straightforward nature of the proceedings warrants an award at one-half of an attorney’s applicable Laffey rate. See, e.g., Briggs v. District of Columbia, 102 F.Supp. 3d 164, 169 (D.D.C. 2015); Turley v. District of Columbia, No. 14-0004, 2015 WL 7292752, at *5 (D.D.C. Oct. 20, 2015); Staton v. District of Columbia, No. 13-cv-1966, 2015 WL 5728884, at *5 (D.D.C. Sept. 30, 2015); Means v. District of Columbia, 999 F.Supp.2d 128, 136 (D.D.C. 2013); Garvin v. District of Columbia, 910 F.Supp.2d 135, 140 (D.D.C. 2012); Wright v. District of Columbia, 883 F.Supp.2d 132, 135 (D.D.C. 2012); Collins v. District of Columbia, No. 15-00136, 2015 WL 7720464, at *10 (D.D.C. Nov. 30, 2015).

In addition, when “a plaintiff has achieved only partial or limited success, the product of hours reasonably expended on the litigation as a whole times a reasonable hourly rate may be an excessive amount.” Hensley, 461 U.S. at 436. Therefore, a “success based” reduction in an award may be warranted given certain circumstances. See Briggs, 102 F.Supp. 3d at 171 (further reducing an award to reflect the fact that ...


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