United States District Court, District of Columbia
MEMORANDUM OPINION GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN
PART PLAINTIFF’S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT AND
GRANTING DEFENDANT’S CROSS-MOTION FOR SUMMARY
RUDOLPH CONTRERAS UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
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.
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
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
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. 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). 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’
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).
Attorneys’ Fees in IDEA Litigation
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.
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 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).
District does not challenge the reasonableness of Ms.
Wilhite’s counsel’s hours spent litigating her
case. See Def.’s Cross-Mot. 1. 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).
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)).
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 “ surveys [that] update
[the Matrix];  affidavits reciting the precise fees that
attorneys with similar qualifications have received
from fee-paying clients in comparable cases; and  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.”).
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); 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.
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’s declaration).
These affidavits describe ...