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Joaquin v. Friendship Public Charter School

United States District Court, District of Columbia

May 27, 2016

BARBARA JOAQUIN, Plaintiff,
v.
FRIENDSHIP PUBLIC CHARTER SCHOOL, Defendant. Re Document, : 24

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          RUDOLPH CONTRERAS, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         I. INTRODUCTION

         In this 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.

         II. BACKGROUND

         In 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.

         In June 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.

         On 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.

         III. LEGAL STANDARD

         Under 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).

         A “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. 2015).

         If the 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. 2015).[1]

         IV. ANALYSIS

         A. Prevailing Party

         FPCS 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.

         To be 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, 792-93 (1989).

         Here, 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).

         FPCS’s 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.

         Nor 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).[2] 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 different facts.

         The 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).[3] 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).

         B. Reasonableness of Fees Requested

         1. Hours Worked

         a. Reduction of Ms. Joaquin’s Award to Account for Limited Success

         FPCS 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).[4] 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”).

         FPCS’s 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).

         To the 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).

         Here, 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 judgment.”).

         The 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 ...


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