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Hammond v. District of Columbia

United States District Court, District of Columbia

April 28, 2016

JAMES HAMMOND, SR., on behalf of J.H. Plaintiff,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

REGGIE B. WALTON United States District Judge.

James Hammond, Sr. (“the plaintiff”), on behalf of his minor son, J.H. (“the Student”), brings this action against the District of Columbia (“the defendant” or the “District”) under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”).[1] Pending before the Court are the Plaintiff’s Memorandum in Support of Motion for Summary Judgment (“Pl.’s Mot. Summ. J.”), and the Defendant’s Opposition to Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment and Cross Motion for Summary Judgment (“Def.’s Cross-Mot. Summ. J.”). Upon careful consideration of the parties’ submissions and the entire record in this case, the Court concludes that it must grant in part and deny in part the plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment and deny the defendant’s cross-motion for summary judgment.[2]

I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

In August 2012, the Student’s mother retained Alana Hecht, an attorney with the law firm D.C. Disability Law Group, P.C., to help obtain the Student an appropriate educational placement. Pl.’s State. Mat. Facts ¶ 55. At the time, the Student was attending his “neighborhood school.” Id. ¶ 51. During the 2012-13 school year, however, the Student’s mother transferred him to Ballou Senior High School (“Ballou”). Id. ¶ 56. At Ballou, the Student “made no academic progress” and “had attendance problems, behavior problems, and learning difficulties.” Id. ¶ 57. In fact, the Student “failed ninth grade during the 12-13 school year and again during the 13-14 school year.” Id. ¶ 59. Despite these shortcomings, the defendant “refused to increase the hours on [the Student’s individualized education program (“IEP”)] . . . and refused to offer any alternative placements for [him].” Id. ¶ 60.

“Initially, [an administrative] Complaint was filed on the [mother’s] behalf in June of 2014.” Id. ¶ 61. “The Complaint alleged a number of denials of a [free appropriate public education][, ] including [the] failure to provide an appropriate IEP and placement for the Student.” Id. ¶ 62. “The parties had a resolution session, a Pre-Hearing Conference, and . . . filed their five-day disclosure documents in preparation for the due process hearing.” Id. ¶ 63.

Thereafter, attorney Hecht learned that the Student “had been placed in his father’s custody and that the mother . . . was no longer the legal guardian.” Id. ¶ 64. Hecht “attempted to continue on with the case and asked for permission to change the Petitioner in the case from the mother to the father . . . .” Id. ¶ 65. “However, the [defendant] objected to the continuance and substitution . . ., and the Hearing Officer . . . did not allow such a replacement, instead requiring that the case be withdrawn without prejudice and refiled with the father as Petitioner.” Id. ¶ 66.

Because the 2014-15 school year was fast approaching, “the father . . . sent a letter to [the defendant] regarding his intent to unilaterally place [the Student] at New Beginnings Vocational School.” Id. ¶ 68. The defendant responded, stating that it “would not be willing to fund the private placement at New Beginnings Vocational . . ., [and] alleging . . . that a [free appropriate public education] was available for [the Student] at Ballou.” Id. ¶ 71.

“[T]he Student, who by then was age 16, and in the ninth grade for the third time, began the 2014-2015 [school year] unilaterally placed at New Beginnings Vocational School.” Id. ¶ 72. “Immediately after the Student started at New Beginnings, the Student began having more academic and emotional/social success than he had displayed in years.” Id. ¶ 73.

Unable to settle the case, “the [d]ue process complaint was re-filed on September 18, 2014 by [the father].” Id. ¶ 75. “A Pre-Hearing Order was issued on October 14, 2014, ” id. ¶ 79, which “certified for hearing” eleven issues, see id. ¶ 80.

The parties served five-day disclosures on each other. Id. ¶ 82. The plaintiff’s “five-day disclosure contained a list of 6 potential witnesses including one expert and a list of 46 proposed exhibits totaling 540 pages.” Id. ¶ 83. The defendant’s “five-day disclosure contained a list of 8 witnesses and . . . proposed exhibits totaling approximately 63 pages.” Id. ¶ 85. According to the plaintiff, “[b]ecause [the defendant] listed 8 potential witnesses that included several general and special education teachers, an Assistant Principal, a Dean of Students, and two social workers, [Hecht] had to expend a significant amount of time and preparation in advance of the hearing.” Id. ¶ 86.

“[T]he parties appeared at the Student Hearing Office for the Due Process Hearing on October 31, 2014 and November 6, 2014.” Id. ¶ 87. “The Hearing lasted approximately 10 hours over [the] two separate days.” Id. ¶ 88. The hearing “included opening arguments, direct examination, cross examination, and closing arguments.” Id. ¶ 89. The hearing also “included discussion with [the] hearing officer . . . to discuss putting documents into the record, expected witnesses, and legal issues surrounding the claims in the complaint.” Id. At the hearing, the plaintiff “presented all 46 of [his] exhibits and all 6 witnesses in support of [his] case.” Id. ¶ 90. For its part, the defendant “presented its 10 proposed exhibits, but failed to call even one of the 8 witnesses that it had listed in its disclosure letter.” Id. ¶ 91. Nonetheless, Hecht declares that she “had to prepare for [these witnesses] in the event [they] were called.” Id.

On December 1, 2014, the hearing officer issued her determination. Pl.’s Mot. Summ. J., Ex. C (Determination). In the 19-page decision, the hearing officer granted the plaintiff much of the relief he requested. See id. at 17-18. For instance, the hearing officer ordered the defendant to “review and revise [the Student’s] IEP to reflect a minimum of 27.5 hours of specialized instruction outside the general education setting, a minimum of one hour per week of behavioral support services outside the general education setting, and any other necessary related services.” Id. at 17. Furthermore, the hearing officer ordered the defendant to “reimburse [New Beginnings] for any and all reasonable and/or necessary costs associated with educating [the Student] incurred from the time [the Student] was unilaterally placed at [New Beginnings] . . ., until [the Student’s] IEP is revised and a Prior Written Notice is issued placing [the Student] at [New Beginnings] or another appropriate school setting.” Id.

On February 3, 2015, the plaintiff filed his Complaint for Declaratory Judgment & Relief (“Complaint”) in this Court. Compl. In the Complaint, the plaintiff alleges that the defendant “failed to reimburse the fees and costs due to [the] [p]laintiff, the prevailing party in the underlying administrative action brought under IDEA on behalf of [the Student].” Id. ¶ 2. In his prayer for relief, the plaintiff seeks a declaration that he is “the prevailing party under the IDEA, and therefore, . . . [he] is entitled to recover reasonable legal fees and costs incurred in the litigation.” Id. at 24. Further, the plaintiff seeks a declaration “that the rate paid to . . . Hecht . . . should be the rate proscribed under the Laffey Matrix.” Id. Likewise, the plaintiff asks the Court to declare that Hecht’s paralegal, Chithalina Khanchalern, “should be paid at the rate proscribed under the Laffey Matrix for paralegals.” Id. Based on the allegedly applicable Laffey Matrix rates, the plaintiff asks “the Court [to] award the [p]laintiff the sum of $38, 258.69 in attorneys’ fees and costs.” Id. Additionally, the plaintiff asks the Court to “award [the] [p]laintiff fees for litigating the current Complaint in [this] Court . . . for the purpose of collecting fees in the underlying administrative action.” Id. at 25.

On June 13, 2015, the plaintiff filed his motion for summary judgment. In his motion for summary judgment, the plaintiff argues that Hecht “is qualified based on her skills, reputation, and her market rate to receive the full Laffey Matrix rates.” Pl.’s Mem. at 5. To bolster this argument, the plaintiff asserts that the documentation that he provided in connection with his motion substantiates his claim that he is entitled to attorney fees at the full Laffey Matrix rate. Specifically, the plaintiff notes that he submitted with his motion “[a]ttorney Hecht’s Verified Statement, ” “a 2013 [National Law Journal] Billing Survey, ” and “affidavits from [two] other attorneys who also represent[] parents in special education matters in this jurisdiction.” Id. at 5- 6. The plaintiff also points to cases in which various judges on this Court have awarded Hecht “100% of the Laffey Matrix Rate.” Id. at 7. Similarly, the plaintiff contends that “Khanchalern has been repeatedly qualified as a paralegal and should be paid full Laffey matrix rates as a paralegal.” Id. at 8.

On July 17, 2015, the defendant filed its cross-motion for summary judgment. Def.’s Cross-Mot. Summ. J. In its cross-motion, the defendant notes that the plaintiff “seeks to be paid for 92.65 hours at the rate of $360.00” for Hecht’s services. Id. at 12. The defendant further notes that, for Khanchalern, the plaintiff “seeks to be paid for 32.10 hours at the rate of $145.00 per hour” for her services. Id. However, the defendant contends that, for Hecht, the plaintiff “should be paid no more than $270.00 per hour for 58 hours beginning at September 18, 2014, the date the Due Process Complaint was filed.” Id. And for Khanchalern, the defendant adds, the plaintiff “should be paid no more than $108.74 per hour for 19 hours.” Id.

These reductions reflect the defendant’s position that the plaintiff is “only entitled to 3/4 of the Laffey matrix rate for this matter.” Id. at 1. To buttress this position, the defendant contends that the plaintiff has failed to “offer [] relevant evidence supporting the prevailing rate in the community for the type of work done . . . in this case.” Id. at 2. The defendant notes that the plaintiff relies “on the Laffey Matrix to establish the rates prevailing in the community for [Hecht’s] services.” Id. However, the defendant asserts that the plaintiff’s “reliance on the Laffey Matrix is misplaced.” Id. at 3. In support of this assertion, the defendant observes that “the Laffey Matrix rates only establish the presumptive maximum market rates for complex federal litigation.” Id. In the defendant’s estimation, however, the plaintiff “offer[s] no evidence that IDEA administrative proceedings are subject to the same hourly rates that prevail in complex federal litigation.” Id. The defendant further maintains that the cases applying the Laffey Matrix to IDEA administrative proceedings are “wrong as a matter of ...


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