United States District Court, District of Columbia
RUDOLPH CONTRERAS, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
action, Plaintiff Barbara Joaquin seeks from Defendant
Friendship Public Charter School (“FPCS”) an
award of the attorneys’ fees and costs under the
Individuals with Disabilities Education Act
(“IDEA”), 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400-1482. Ms.
Joaquin argues that she was the prevailing party and that her
requested fees and costs are reasonable. See
Pl.’s Mot. Fees & Costs at 4-15, ECF No. 24
(“Pl.’s Mot.”); see also
Pl.’s Reply Opp’n Mot. Fees & Costs at 1, ECF
No. 26 (“Pl.’s Reply”) (seeking the
“total sum” of amounts identified in her itemized
exhibits); Pl.’s Reply Ex. 1 at 27 (seeking $119,
636.31 in fees and costs). FPCS disputes Ms. Joaquin’s
prevailing party status as well as the reasonableness of the
fees she seeks. See Def.’s Opp’n Mot.
Fees & Costs, ECF No. 25 (“Def.’s
Opp’n”). The Court concludes that Ms. Joaquin was
the prevailing party, but that only some of Ms.
Joaquin’s requested fees are reasonable. Accordingly,
the Court will grant in part and deny in part her motion for
fees and costs.
January 2014, Ms. Joaquin filed an administrative due process
complaint alleging that FPCS had denied her son, G.H., a free
appropriate public education (“FAPE”) in
violation of the IDEA. Joaquin v. Friendship Pub. Charter
Sch., No. 14-1119, 2015 WL 5175885, at *2 (D.D.C. Sept.
3, 2015); Compl. ¶ 3, ECF No. 1. Ms. Joaquin alleged
that FPCS had failed to implement G.H.’s individualized
education program (“IEP”) or, in the alternative,
that FPCS had failed to provide or develop an appropriate IEP
for G.H. Joaquin, 2015 WL 5175885, at *2. After an
administrative hearing, a hearing officer rejected Ms.
Joaquin’s claims and denied all her requests for
relief. See Compl. ¶ 3.
2014, Ms. Joaquin appealed to this Court. Joaquin,
2015 WL 5175885, at *3. Her federal complaint asked this
Court to (1) declare that FPCS denied G.H. a FAPE in
violation of the IDEA; (2) order FPCS to provide G.H. with
comprehensive psychological, functional, behavioral,
vocational, and other assessments; (3) order FPCS to convene
an IEP team meeting to review and revise G.H.’s IEP;
and (4) mandate compensatory education. See Compl.
at 3. After reviewing the administrative record, this Court
found that FPCS denied G.H. a FAPE and violated the IDEA by
failing to provide G.H. with any of his IEP-mandated
transition services. See Joaquin, 2015 WL 5175885,
at *10. The Court remanded the case to the administrative
hearing officer to allow the hearing officer (1) to determine
whether Ms. Joaquin’s requested compensatory education
would be pertinent to G.H.’s wrongfully denied
transition services, and (2) if yes, to develop a reasonably
calculated award of compensatory education. See id.
remand, the parties reached an agreement on an appropriate
award of compensatory education, and the hearing officer
issued a consent order that reflected their agreement.
See Pl.’s Mot. Ex. 12 at 2, ECF No. 24-12. The
consent order required FPCS to provide Ms. Joaquin with
funding, to a maximum amount of $1950, for third-party
transition services of Ms. Joaquin’s choosing.
Id. After the hearing officer dismissed Ms.
Joaquin’s administrative case, id., Ms.
Joaquin filed a motion for fees and costs, which is before
the Court now. See Pl.’s Mot.
the IDEA, this 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). In doing so, the Court follows a two-step
inquiry: first, the court must determine whether the party
seeking attorneys’ fees is the prevailing party;
second, the court must determine whether the requested fees
are reasonable. See McAllister v. District of
Columbia, 21 F.Supp. 3d 94, 99 (D.D.C. 2014);
Jackson v. District of Columbia, 696 F.Supp.2d 97,
101 (D.D.C. 2010).
“prevailing party” is one “who has been
awarded some relief by the court.” Buckhannon Bd.
& Care Home, Inc. v. W.Va. Dep’t of Health &
Human Res., 532 U.S. 598, 603 (2001); see also
Alegria v. District of Columbia, 391 F.3d 262, 264 (D.C.
Cir. 2004) (applying Buckhannon’s prevailing
party analysis in the IDEA context). Specifically,
“plaintiffs may be considered ‘prevailing
parties’ for attorney’s fees purposes if they
succeed on any significant issue in litigation which achieves
some of the benefit the parties sought in bringing
suit.” Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433
(1983) (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Nadeau
v. Helgemoe, 581 F.2d 275, 278-79 (1st Cir. 1978));
see also Artis ex rel. S.A. v. District of Columbia,
543 F.Supp.2d 15, 22 (D.D.C. 2008) (noting that
“[a]lthough a hearing officer may make a prevailing
party determination, it is the province of the district court
to make the ultimate decision as to who prevailed in an IDEA
action”). To determine whether the party moving for
fees is a prevailing party, courts in this circuit apply a
three-part test: “(1) there must be a
‘court-ordered change in the legal relationship’
of the parties; (2) the judgment must be in favor of the
party seeking the fees; and (3) the judicial pronouncement
must be accompanied by judicial relief.” District
of Columbia v. Straus, 590 F.3d 898, 901 (D.C. Cir.
2010) (quoting Thomas v. Nat’l Sci. Found.,
330 F.3d 486, 492-93 (D.C. Cir. 2003)); accord Arthur v.
District of Columbia, 106 F.Supp. 3d 230, 234 (D.D.C.
Court determines that a plaintiff is a “prevailing
party, ” the court must then determine whether the fees
sought are reasonable. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B). A
reasonable fee is calculated by multiplying “the number
of hours reasonably expended on the litigation . . . by a
reasonable hourly rate.” Hensley, 461 U.S. at
433; see also Jackson, 696 F.Supp.2d at 101
(applying Hensley in the IDEA context). The
plaintiff bears the burden of establishing the reasonableness
of any fee requests, and, specifically, whether both the
hourly rate and the number of hours spent on any particular
task are reasonable. See Eley v. District of
Columbia, 793 F.3d 97, 104 (D.C. Cir. 2015);
Jackson, 696 F.Supp.2d at 101 (citing In re
North, 59 F.3d 184, 189 (D.C. Cir. 1995)). A plaintiff
may do so by submitting evidence of “the
attorneys’ billing practices; the attorneys’
skill, experience, and reputation; and the prevailing market
rates of the relevant community.” McAllister,
21 F.Supp. 3d at 100 (internal quotation marks omitted)
(quoting Covington v. District of Columbia, 57 F.3d
1101, 1107 (D.C. Cir. 1995)). Once the plaintiff has provided
that evidence, the Court presumes that the number of hours
billed is reasonable, and the burden shifts to the defendant
to rebut the plaintiff’s showing. Covington,
57 F.3d at 1109-10; Blackman v. District of
Columbia, 677 F.Supp.2d 169, 172 (D.D.C. 2010). However,
if both parties fail to present satisfactory evidence
demonstrating that their proposed hourly rates are
reasonable, the court may determine a reasonable hourly rate
by reference to the Laffey Matrix. See Brown v.
District of Columbia, 80 F.Supp. 3d 90, 96 (D.D.C.
argues that Ms. Joaquin is not a prevailing party because the
relief she obtained was not what she originally sought.
See Def.’s Opp’n at 5-9. Ms. Joaquin
argues that she is a prevailing party because “[i]n
this Court’s decision and the [administrative] remand
decision together, Ms. Joaquin obtained the declaration that
[FPCS] had denied her son FAPE and compensatory
education.” Pl.’s Mot. at 4.
considered a “prevailing party, ” Ms. Joaquin
must have: (1) experienced a court-ordered change in her
legal relationship with FPCS, (2) obtained a favorable
judgment, and (3) received a judicial pronouncement
accompanied by some judicial relief. See Straus, 590
F.3d at 901 (articulating the three-part test for determining
prevailing party status). A party need not succeed on every
claim to be a prevailing party, because a court has
discretion to consider the extent to which a party prevails
on various issues when calculating fee awards. See
Hensley, 461 U.S. at 433-37 (explaining that if a party
enjoys limited success on the merits, a court may reduce an
award accordingly). “The touchstone of the prevailing
party inquiry must be the material alteration of the legal
relationship of the parties in a manner which Congress sought
to promote in the fee statute.” Tex. State Teachers
Ass’n v. Garland Indep. Sch. Dist., 489 U.S. 782,
Ms. Joaquin has experienced a material alteration of her
legal relationship with FPCS through a court-ordered change,
and so she satisfies the first prong of the three-part test
for determining prevailing-party status. See Straus,
590 F.3d at 901. A consent order, like a consent decree,
works as a court-ordered change. See, e.g.,
Buckhannon, 532 U.S. at 604 (“[S]ettlement
agreements enforced through a consent decree may serve as the
basis for an award of attorneys’ fees. . . . [They are]
a court-ordered ‘chang[e] [in] the legal relationship
between [the plaintiff] and the defendant.’”
(quoting Tex. State Teachers Ass’n, 489 U.S.
at 792)); Arthur v. District of Columbia, 106
F.Supp. 3d 230, 234-35 (D.D.C. 2015) (finding that an
administrative consent order sufficed to establish the
plaintiff’s prevailing-party status). Because Ms.
Joaquin brought suit against FPCS, and because of the
resulting consent order on remand, FPCS must fund transition
services for G.H. See Pl.’s Mot. Ex. 12 at 2.
The consent order required FPCS to “modify [its]
behavior in a way that directly benefits the plaintiff,
” and it thereby materially altered the legal
relationship between Ms. Joaquin and FPCS. See Farrar v.
Hobby, 506 U.S. 103, 111-12 (1992).
arguments to the contrary do not change the Court’s
view. FPCS argues that no material alteration occurred
because Ms. Joaquin did not receive most of the substantive
relief which she originally sought. See Def.’s
Opp’n at 5-9. But “the degree of the
plaintiff’s success in relation to the other goals of
the lawsuit is a factor critical to the determination of the
size of a reasonable fee, not to eligibility for a
fee award at all.” Tex. State Teachers
Ass’n, 489 U.S. at 790 (emphasis added);
accord Arthur, 106 F.Supp. 3d at 235-36. Thus,
“[w]hile partial versus complete success is a
consideration in assessing the amount of fees, the
critical question in evaluating the availability of
fees ‘is whether fee claimants have received any
benefit at all.’” Grano v. Barry, 783
F.2d 1104, 1109 (D.C. Cir. 1986) (emphases added) (quoting
Miller v. Staats, 70 F.2d 336, 341 n.30 (D.C. Cir.
1983)). Even if Ms. Joaquin achieved only partial success,
she still experienced a material alteration in her legal
relationship with FPCS.
does FPCS change the Court’s determination on the first
prong of the prevailing party test by citing to E.S. ex
rel. R.S. v. Skidmore Tynan Independent School District,
No. 06-0360, 2007 WL 81794 (S.D. Tex. Jan. 8,
2007). In that case, the plaintiffs were denied
prevailing party status because their complaint did not
explicitly seek the relief they ultimately received. E.S.
ex rel. R.S., 2007 WL 81794, at *4-6. FPCS appears to
analogize to E.S. by arguing that (1) at her
administrative hearing, Ms. Joaquin did not personally allege
that G.H. did not receive transition services, so (2) Ms.
Joaquin did not originally seek relief in the form of
transition services. See Def.’s Opp’n at
8-9 (arguing that Ms. Joaquin’s “evidence
presented at the Due Process hearing clearly established that
the violation for which she was requesting compensatory
education was not in any way connected to transition
services”). But Ms. Joaquin’s administrative
complaint did allege FPCS’s “[f]ailure to
appropriately implement [G.H.’s] IEP, ”
see Due Process Compl. Notice at 1, Administrative
R. at 3, ECF No. 12-1 (alleging FPCS’s failure to
implement G.H.’s IEP), and FPCS does not dispute the
fact that G.H.’s IEP included a provision requiring
transition services, see Def.’s Opp’n at
8-9 (conceding that Ms. Joaquin’s administrative due
process complaint “broadly pled” FPCS’s
failure to provide transition services); IEP at 17-18,
Administrative R. at 445-46, ECF No. 12-3 (including
transition services in G.H.’s IEP). Transition services
for G.H. were, therefore, part of the relief Ms. Joaquin
originally sought. Thus, aside from being merely persuasive
authority from another jurisdiction, E.S. does not
apply to Ms. Joaquin’s fees motion because it addresses
other two prongs of the prevailing party test are easily
satisfied and FPCS does not argue otherwise. With respect to
the second prong, Ms. Joaquin received a judgment in her
favor because the Court, contrary to the hearing
officer’s decision in the administrative proceeding,
found that FPCS denied G.H a FAPE and remanded the case to
allow the hearing officer to determine an appropriate remedy.
See Joaquin, 2015 WL 5175885, at *10; see also
McCrary v. District of Columbia, 791 F.Supp.2d 191,
197-98 (finding the second prong of the prevailing party test
satisfied because the Hearing Officer determined that the
District of Columbia denied the student a FAPE). With respect
to the third prong, the hearing officer’s consent order
granted Ms. Joaquin judicial relief. See generally
Buckhannon, 532 U.S at 606 (contrasting judicial relief,
obtained by adjudicative order, with extrajudicial alteration
of circumstances). Because Ms. Joaquin satisfies all three
prongs of the prevailing-party test, the Court finds that Ms.
Joaquin was a prevailing party in this case and presumes that
she should receive an award of attorneys’ fees and
costs. See 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B).
Reasonableness of Fees Requested
Reduction of Ms. Joaquin’s Award to Account for Limited
argues that even if the Court finds that Ms. Joaquin
prevailed, the Court should nonetheless deny or reduce her
fee award to account for Ms. Joaquin’s de
minimis or limited success. See Def.’s
Opp’n at 10-13. The Court may reduce an
attorneys’ fee award to account for limited success on
the merits. Hensley, 461 U.S. at 434-36. Because Ms.
Joaquin received less than all of the relief she sought,
reducing her fee award is justifiable. See, e.g.,
Dickens v. Friendship-Edison P.C.S., 724 F.Supp.2d
113, 121-22 (D.D.C. 2010) (imposing a reduction on a fee
award with respect to one child’s claims, because the
plaintiffs received some but not all of the relief they
requested with respect to that child). However, an
outright denial of attorneys’ fees is not warranted on
these grounds. When, as here, monetary damages accompany
declaratory relief, the prevailing party is typically
entitled to some amount of attorneys’ fees.
See Thomas, 330 F.3d at 494 (naming “the
payment of damages” as judicial relief that warrants a
fee award under the Equal Access to Justice Act (quoting
Hewitt v. Helms, 482 U.S. 755, 761 (1987))).
Compare Pl.’s Mot. Ex. 12 at 2 (awarding Ms.
Joaquin $1950 in funding to remedy FPCS’s failure to
provide G.H. with transition services), with Farrar,
506 U.S. at 115 (noting, as an example of a plaintiff who
prevails but should receive no attorneys’ fees,
“[a] plaintiff who seeks compensatory damages but
receives no more than nominal damages”).
discussion of T.G. ex rel. T.G. v. Midland School
District 7, 848 F.Supp.2d 902 (C.D. Ill. 2012),
aff’d sub nom. Giosta v. Midland Sch. Dist. 7,
542 F. App’x 523 (7th Cir. 2013), does not change this
conclusion. See Def.’s Opp’n at 10-11
(discussing T.G., a case in which the plaintiffs
obtained limited compensatory education because the school
district partially denied the child a FAPE, but in which the
plaintiffs nonetheless achieved only a de minimis
victory that did not entitle them to an award of
attorneys’ fees). To be sure, “[i]n some
circumstances, even a plaintiff who formally
‘prevails’ . . . should receive no
attorney’s fees at all.” Farrar, 506
U.S. at 115. But in this district, “[w]hen a hearing
officer [or the Court] finds that a student was denied access
to a free appropriate public education, the student may
usually recover reasonable attorney’s fees as the
prevailing party because a denial of a free appropriate
public education is a direct violation of the statute.”
Artis ex. rel. S.A. v. District of Columbia, 543
F.Supp.2d 15, 22 (D.D.C. 2008); cf. Genrette v. Options
Pub. Charter Sch., 926 F.Supp.2d 364, 366-67
(D.D.C.2013) (finding that the plaintiff’s de
minimis relief did not support an award of
attorneys’ fees when “the Hearing Officer did
not conclude that [the plaintiff] was denied a
FAPE”); Bush ex rel. A.H. v. District of
Columbia, 579 F.Supp.2d 22, 33 (D.D.C. 2008) (finding
that one plaintiff should not receive an award of
attorneys’ fees because, having obtained an order
granting only her request for the scheduling of an IEP
meeting but not an order declaring that her daughter was
denied a FAPE, her success was de minimis).
extent that T.G. holds otherwise, that decision is
from the District Court for the Central District of Illinois
and therefore is not binding on this Court. Additionally, its
underlying procedural posture differs from Ms.
Joaquin’s here. In T.G., an IDEA case in which
the plaintiffs appealed a hearing officer’s
determinations about a student’s seventh through ninth
grade years, the district court denied the plaintiffs’
motion for summary judgment in full with a comprehensive
opinion. See T.G., 848 F.Supp.2d at 909-34. In doing
so, the court noted the plaintiffs’ ambitious goals:
Plaintiffs sought a finding that Defendant denied the
parents’ procedural rights, a finding that T.G.’s
IEPs for each of three school years were both inadequate and
improperly implemented, a finding that Defendant failed to
provide both specially designed instruction and appropriate
related services, reimbursement for four private evaluations,
and an order of substantially more compensatory education.
What they received was an order that, for one school year,
Defendant failed to provide a FAPE in three areas, and a
specifically-tailored order of compensatory education limited
to addressing that deficiency.
Id. at 933. The court specifically noted that the
plaintiffs pursued these goals “in their due process
complaint and their appeal” before the
district court. Id. (emphasis added).
although Ms. Joaquin also received less relief than she
initially sought, she narrowed the issues in contention as
her case progressed. By the time this Court considered her
motion for summary judgment on the hearing officer’s
determination below, Ms. Joaquin alleged only four discrete
ways in which she believed FPCS had denied G.H. a FAPE.
See Pl.’s Mot. Summ. J. at 8-13. Ms. Joaquin
achieved success on one of those allegations: the allegation
that “FPCS’s failure to provide transition
services was a material departure from G.H.’s IEP
amounting to the denial of a free appropriate public
education.” Joaquin, 2015 WL 5175885, at *8.
Because Ms. Joaquin narrowed the scope of her appeal and
hence reduced the number of attorney hours spent litigating
her appeal, her fee request, unlike the plaintiffs’ fee
request in T.G., is more likely to be
“reasonable in relation to the success achieved.”
Hensley, 461 U.S. at 436. Given the different
procedural postures presented in T.G. and in Ms.
Joaquin’s case here, the Court declines to follow
T.G. and will not deny Ms. Joaquin a reasonable fee
award. See generally Id. (“There is no precise
rule or formula for making [fee] determinations. . . . The
court necessarily has discretion in making this equitable
Court will nonetheless reduce Ms. Joaquin’s fee award
to account for Ms. Joaquin’s limited success. See
Id. (explaining that, when plaintiffs prevail on only
some of their claims, “a fee award based on the [total]
claimed hours” would be “excessive”). The
Court may reduce fees in a number of ways, such as by
eliminating specific hours or reducing the award as a whole.
Id. at 436-37. When determining how to reduce fee
awards for partially successful plaintiffs, the court must
analyze the relationships between the successful and