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Wilhite v. District of Columbia

United States District Court, District of Columbia

July 25, 2016

DANIELLE WILHITE, Plaintiff,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, Defendant. Re Document Nos. 7, 9

          MEMORANDUM OPINION GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART PLAINTIFF’S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT AND GRANTING DEFENDANT’S CROSS-MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          RUDOLPH CONTRERAS UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Plaintiff Danielle Wilhite, on behalf of her son J.Y., seeks from Defendant the District of Columbia attorneys’ fees and costs arising from Ms. Wilhite’s administrative proceeding against the District under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA), 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400- 1482. See Compl. 1, ECF No. 1; Pl.’s Mot. Summ. J. 1, ECF No. 7. Although the parties agree that Ms. Wilhite was the prevailing party in the administrative proceeding, the District disputes the reasonableness of her requested fees and argues that the Court should employ a reduced hourly rate. See Mem. P. & A. Supp. Pl.’s Mot. Summ. J. 2-7, ECF No. 7-1 [hereinafter Pl.’s Mem.]; Def.’s Mem. Opp’n Pl’s Mot. Summ. J. & Def.’s Cross-Mot. Summ. J. 2-12, ECF No. 9 [hereinafter Def.’s Cross-Mot.]. The Court concludes that only some of Ms. Wilhite’s requested fees are reasonable and adopts the District’s suggested hourly rate. Accordingly, the Court will deny in part and grant in part Ms. Wilhite’s motion for summary judgment on her fees request, and the Court will grant the District’s cross-motion for summary judgment on Ms. Wilhite’s fees request.

         II. BACKGROUND

         Ms. Wilhite is the mother of J.Y., who in June 2015 was an eighteen-year-old tenth-grade student at Anacostia Senior High School and was eligible for special education and related services. See Hearing Officer Determination, Pl.’s Mot. Summ. J. Ex. 1, at 1, 3, App. A, ECF No. 7-4 [hereinafter HOD]. In March 2015, Ms. Wilhite filed an administrative due process complaint against the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) and alleged that DCPS denied J.Y. the free and appropriate public education to which he was entitled under the IDEA. See HOD 1. In support of her contention, Ms. Wilhite presented three claims regarding DCPS’s failure to meet J.Y.’s specified needs during the 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 academic years: she alleged that DCPS (1) failed to develop appropriate individualized education plans (IEPs) for J.Y., (2) failed to implement J.Y.’s existing IEPs effectively, and (3) failed to provide appropriate school placements for J.Y. See HOD 2. Ms. Wilhite sought an order (1) that would require DCPS to convene a new meeting to revise J.Y.’s IEP appropriately, (2) that would require DCPS to provide funding for placement at a nonpublic school, and (3) that would award compensatory education. See HOD 3.

         Ms. Wilhite and DCPS participated in a two-day administrative due process hearing in May 2015, and the hearing officer issued a determination in June 2015. See HOD 1. The hearing officer found in favor of Ms. Wilhite on all three of her claims and granted Ms. Wilhite all of the relief that she had requested. See HOD 8-13. In August 2015, Ms. Wilhite filed a complaint in this Court against the District for her attorneys’ fees and costs incurred in connection with the administrative due process proceeding. See Compl.

         The parties have filed cross-motions for summary judgment on the amount of fees and costs to award Ms. Wilhite. See Pl.’s Mot. Summ. J.; Def.’s Cross-Mot. Ms. Wilhite requests $61, 120 in attorneys’ fees and costs, which she calculates using the full rate applicable to her attorney under the 2014-2015 Laffey Matrix.[1] See Pl.’s Mem. 4-6, 7-8; Pl.’s Mot. Summ. J. Ex. 2, ECF No. 7-5 [hereinafter Laffey Matrix]; Pl.’s Mot. Summ. J. Ex. 3, ECF No. 7-6 (reproducing Ms. Wilhite’s counsel’s fee invoice).[2] The District urges the Court to instead use an hourly rate equal to three-quarters of the Laffey Matrix rate. See Def.’s Cross-Mot. 1, 6-12. The Court summarizes the governing legal standards before analyzing the merits of the parties’ assertions.

         III. LEGAL STANDARDS

         A. Summary Judgment

         A court may grant summary judgment when “the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The movant bears the initial burden of identifying portions of the record that demonstrate the absence of any genuine issue of material fact. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(1); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). In response, the non-movant must point to specific facts in the record that reveal a genuine issue that is suitable for trial. See Id. at 324. In an action for attorneys’ fees following an administrative proceeding under the IDEA, the “party moving for summary judgment on legal fees must demonstrate prevailing party status and the reasonableness of the fees requested in terms of hours spent and hourly rate.” McAllister v. District of Columbia, 21 F.Supp.3d 94, 99 (D.D.C. 2014).

         B. Attorneys’ Fees in IDEA Litigation

         The IDEA seeks to ensure that disabled children receive a free and appropriate public education tailored to the specific needs of each child. See 20 U.S.C. § 1400(d)(1)(A). If a child’s parent believes that a school district has not adhered to the IDEA, that parent may file an administrative complaint with the local education agency. See 20 U.S.C. § 1415(b)(6). Under the IDEA, a district court may award “reasonable attorneys’ fees” to a prevailing party in an IDEA administrative proceeding. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B)(i). In doing so, the Court follows a two-step inquiry: first, the Court must determine whether the party seeking the fees is the prevailing party; second, the Court must determine whether the requested attorneys’ fees 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).

         The District does not contest that Ms. Wilhite was the prevailing party. See Def.’s Cross-Mot. 1 (challenging only the reasonableness of Ms. Wilhite’s requested hourly rate). Therefore, the Court analyzes solely whether Ms. Wilhite’s requested attorneys’ fees are reasonable.

         A reasonable fee is calculated by multiplying “the number of hours reasonably expended on the litigation . . . by a reasonable hourly rate.” Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983); 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. See 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).

         IV. ANALYSIS

         The District does not challenge the reasonableness of Ms. Wilhite’s counsel’s hours spent litigating her case. See Def.’s Cross-Mot. 1.[3] Accordingly, the Court proceeds to address whether Ms. Wilhite’s requested hourly rate is reasonable. See Def.’s Cross-Mot. 2-12 (arguing that it is not).

         A. Governing Principles

         “Whether an hourly rate is reasonable turns on three sub-elements: (1) ‘the attorney’s billing practices, ’ (2) ‘the attorney’s skill, experience, and reputation’ and (3) ‘the prevailing market rates in the relevant community.’” Eley, 793 F.3d at 100 (brackets omitted) (quoting Covington, 57 F.3d at 1107). Because the plaintiff bears the burden of justifying the reasonableness of her attorneys’ requested hourly rate, she must “produce satisfactory evidence-in addition to the attorney’s own affidavits-that the requested rates are in line with those prevailing in the community for similar services by lawyers of reasonably comparable skill, experience, and reputation.” Id. at 100, 104 (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Blum v. Stenson, 465 U.S. 886, 895 n.11 (1984)).

         To that end, if an IDEA plaintiff wishes to request rates based on the Laffey Matrix, she must provide “evidence that her ‘requested rates are in line with those prevailing in the community for similar services, ’ i.e., IDEA litigation.” Id. at 104 (quoting Covington, 57 F.3d at 1109). That evidence may be found in “[1] surveys [that] update [the Matrix]; [2] affidavits reciting the precise fees that attorneys with similar qualifications have received from fee-paying clients in comparable cases; and [3] evidence of recent fees awarded by the courts or through settlement to attorneys with comparable qualifications handling similar cases.” Id. at 101 (emphasis added) (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Covington, 57 F.3d at 1109). As the D.C. Circuit has made clear, the district court may not simply conclude that “some version of the Laffey matrix is presumptively reasonable.” Eley, 793 F.3d at 105 (internal quotation mark omitted) (quoting Eley v. District of Columbia, 999 F.Supp.2d 137, 159 (D.D.C. 2013))); see also Snead v. District of Columbia, 139 F.Supp.3d 375, 379 (D.D.C. 2015) (“Laffey should not be the default rate for fees awarded pursuant to [the] IDEA.”).

         In support of her request for the Laffey Matrix rate, Ms. Wilhite provides affidavits from IDEA practitioners, and she cites cases from this district in which attorneys have received Laffey Matrix rates. See Pl.’s Mem. 5-6 (citing Merrick v. District of Columbia, 134 F.Supp.3d 328 (D.D.C. 2015)); District of Columbia v. Kirksey-Harrington, 125 F.Supp.3d 4 (D.D.C. 2015); Bucher v. District of Columbia, 777 F.Supp.2d 69 (D.D.C. 2011);[4] and Cox v. District of Columbia, 754 F.Supp.2d 66 (D.D.C. 2010)); Pl.’s Mot. Summ. J. Ex. 4, ECF No. 7-7 (providing affidavits from eleven IDEA practitioners); Pl.’s Reply 4 (citing Eley v. District of Columbia, 999 F.Supp.2d 137 (D.D.C. 2013), vacated and remanded on other grounds, 793 F.3d 97 (D.C. Cir. 2015); and Irving v. D.C. Pub. Schs., 815 F.Supp.2d 119 (D.D.C. 2011)). In response to the District’s motion for summary judgment, Ms. Wilhite also argues that her case warrants the Laffey Matrix rate because of its complexity and that Laffey Matrix rates in IDEA litigation do not undermine education-related public interests. See Pl.’s Reply & Opp’n Def.’s Mot. Summ. J. 6-7, ECF No. 11 [hereinafter Pl.’s Reply]. The Court addresses each of Ms. Wilhite’s four sources of support for her position in turn.

         B. Affidavits

         As noted before, an IDEA plaintiff requesting a particular hourly rate may support her requested hourly rate by providing “affidavits reciting the precise fees that attorneys with similar qualifications have received from fee-paying clients in comparable cases.” Eley, 793 F.3d at 101 (emphasis added) (quoting Covington, 57 F.3d at 1109). Ms. Wilhite provides eleven affidavits from other IDEA practitioners and her own attorney’s declaration. See Pl.’s Mot. Summ. J. Ex. 4 (reproducing the affidavits); id. Ex. 5, ECF No. 7-8 (reproducing Ms. Houck‚Äôs declaration). These affidavits describe ...


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