United States District Court, District of Columbia
SEGAL HUVELLE United States District Judge.
Damarcus S. and his mother, K.S., have moved for
attorney's fees and costs pursuant to the Individuals
with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”), 20
U.S.C. §§ 1400 et seq., which grants the
Court discretion to award reasonable fees to a prevailing
party. See Id. § 1415(i)(3)(B). (Pl.'s Mot.
for Attorneys' Fees and Costs [ECF No. 25]
(“Pls.' Mot.”).) The District of Columbia
(the “District”) does not dispute that plaintiffs
are entitled to fees, but it argues that plaintiffs'
request of $212, 081.51 in fees and $4, 097.60 in costs is
unreasonable and should be denied in part. (See
Def.'s Opp'n Br. [ECF No. 27] at 3.) The Court agrees
that plaintiffs are not entitled to the full amount
requested, though they are entitled to more than the District
proposes to pay. Therefore, plaintiffs' motion will be
granted in part and denied in part.
background of this case has been laid out in great detail in
the Court's previous Memorandum Opinion. See Damarcus
S. v. Dist. of Columbia, 2016 WL 2993158, at *1-*2
(D.D.C. May 23, 2016). As is relevant here, plaintiffs filed
an administrative complaint with the District in December
2014, alleging that numerous deficiencies in the
District's educational plans for Damarcus denied him a
Free Appropriate Public Education (“FAPE”), to
which he is entitled under IDEA. Id. at *2. After an
administrative Due Process Hearing in March 2015, the Hearing
Officer determined that plaintiffs were time-barred from
pursuing any claims involving conduct prior to December 16,
2012, and rejected all but one of plaintiffs' remaining
claims on the merits. Id. As a result of the
District's failure to conduct a behavioral assessment and
put in place an intervention plan for Damarcus in 2013 and
2014, plaintiffs were awarded (1) reimbursement for an
independent behavioral evaluation of Damarcus, and (2) fifty
hours of behavioral support services. Id. But
without explanation, the Hearing Officer ruled that those
behavioral-support hours would be forfeited if plaintiffs did
not use them before June 30, 2016. Id.
filed suit in this Court to challenge the Hearing
Officer's adverse determinations, and the parties then
cross-moved for summary judgment. The Court found for
plaintiffs on many claims: (1) that the Hearing Officer erred
in her blanket dismissal of all claims arising out of
pre-December 2012 conduct, rather than conducting an
individualized analysis of when plaintiffs knew or should
have known about each claim, id. at *6; (2) that the
District denied Damarcus a FAPE in 2013 and 2014 by
dramatically cutting his speech-language services and failing
to adjust his Individualized Education Program
(“IEP”) in response to his demonstrated lack of
progress, id. at *12; (3) that the Hearing
Officer's compensatory award was improperly limited as to
both subject (behavioral support services) and time (the June
2016 forfeiture provision), id. at *14; (4) that the
compensatory award of fifty hours was insufficient by failing
to reflect the pervasive effect of Damarcus's behavior on
all aspects of his education, id. at *14-*15; and
(5) that plaintiffs were entitled to reimbursement for an
independent neuropsychological evaluation of Damarcus,
id. at *15. In light of deficiencies in the record,
the Court remanded to the Hearing Officer to allow the
parties to more fully brief the issue of an appropriate award
of compensatory education. Id. at *12, *15.
other hand, the Court rejected plaintiffs' remaining
claims: (1) that Damarcus's 2013 and 2014 IEPs were
necessarily deficient because they relied on deficient
neuropsychological and speech-language evaluations,
id. at *8; (2) that Damarcus was denied a FAPE
because his IEPs failed to set out measureable baselines,
failed to specify that he would receive research-based,
peer-reviewed instruction, and set inappropriately low
benchmarks, id. at *9-*10; (3) that the District
failed to place Damarcus in the least restrictive
environment, id. at *12; (4) that the District
inappropriately implemented Damarcus's IEPs, id.
at *13; (5) that the District's treatment of Damarcus
violated Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, id.
at *16; and (6) that the District should be required to
immediately develop an appropriate IEP, id. at *17.
District does not dispute plaintiffs' entitlement to
attorney's fees, given the many claims on which
plaintiffs have prevailed. However, the District argues that
the award requested by plaintiffs is unreasonable on several
grounds, which the Court will now turn to.
UNREASONABLE BILLING RATES
District first argues that the hourly rates sought by
plaintiffs' attorneys and paralegals are unreasonable.
(Def.'s Opp'n Br. at 4-11.) In determining a
reasonable fee award, the Court must ensure that it is
“based on rates prevailing in the community in which
the action or proceeding arose for the kind and quality of
services furnished.” 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(C).
Plaintiffs bear the burden on this issue, as with all other
aspects of their fee request. See Covington v. Dist. of
Columbia, 57 F.3d 1101, 1107 (D.C. Cir. 1995)
(“[A] fee applicant bears the burden of establishing
entitlement to an award, documenting the appropriate hours,
and justifying the reasonableness of the rates[.]”).
addition to offering their own attorneys' affidavits, fee
applicants may also “submit attorneys' fee matrices
as one type of evidence that ‘provide[s] a useful
starting point' in calculating the prevailing market
rate.” Eley v. Dist. of Columbia, 793 F.3d 97,
100 (D.C. Cir. 2015) (quoting Covington, 57 F.3d at
1109). These matrices set out the hourly fees charged by
attorneys at various levels of experience in a particular
community for the same type of work, which offer a
“somewhat crude” approximation of prevailing
market rates. Snead v. Dist. of Columbia, 139
F.Supp.3d 375, 378 (D.D.C. 2015) (quoting Eley, 793
F.3d at 101). The most commonly used fee matrix was the
“Laffey Matrix, ” which was compiled by
the District United States Attorney's Office
(“USAO”) and updated annually to adjust for
inflation. Eley, 793 F.3d at 100-01. However,
beginning on June 1, 2015, the USAO discontinued the
Laffey Matrix in favor of a matrix that uses a new
methodology, which the Court will refer to as the “USAO
Matrix.” See USAO Attorney's Fees Matrix -
2015 - 2016,
plaintiffs' counsel submit an affidavit from Dennis C.
McAndrews, the Managing Partner at their firm, which attests
that these “hourly rates for attorneys of comparable
experience and skill in this area are at least equal to, and
frequently exceed, the hourly rates” they have
requested. (Ex. B to Pls.' Mot. [ECF No. 25-3] ¶
17.) They also submit affidavits from local attorneys who did
not work on this case, stating that the rates charged by
plaintiffs' attorneys are consistent with those charged
by their firms and other area firms, including in IDEA cases.
(Ex. 1 to Pls.' Reply Br. [ECF No. 29-1] ¶¶ 13,
22; Ex. 2 to Pls.' Reply Br. [ECF No. 29-2] ¶ 10.)
Finally, they submit the 2015-16 USAO Matrix, which reflects
rates charged in District of Columbia courts in civil cases
where a fee-shifting statute permits the prevailing party to
recover “reasonable” attorney's
fees. (Ex. C. to Pls.' Mot. at 1 & n.1.)
The attorney rates listed in the 2015-16 USAO Matrix are
uniformly higher than those sought by plaintiffs.
(Compare Ex. A to Pls.' Mot. with Ex. C
to Pl.'s Mot. at 1.)
District argues that the rates in the Laffey or USAO
Matrices should not be applied here, because those matrices
establish presumptive rates for more complex federal
litigation than typical IDEA administrative proceedings.
(Def.'s Opp'n Br. at 6.) Instead, it argues that
plaintiffs should receive 75% of Laffey or USAO
rates because “the overwhelming majority of cases
apply [such] rates to similar [IDEA] litigation, especially
in cases since Eley.” (Id. at 7 &
n.4, 9.) Plaintiffs respond by citing a slew of
post-Eley cases in which full Laffey or
USAO rates were awarded in IDEA cases. (See
Pls.' Reply Br. at 6 n.1.)
outset, it is worth repeating that plaintiffs do not seek
full USAO rates, or even a uniform percentage of them.
Instead, they seek the rates customarily charged by their
firm (see Ex. B to Pls.' Mot. ¶ 4), which
vary by attorney and are uniformly lower than the USAO Matrix
rates. For instance, Dennis McAndrews' rate of $450 is
only 79% of what an attorney of his experience level (38
years) would receive under the current USAO Matrix. In fact,
two junior attorneys who worked on the case are billed at
rates less than 75% of the current USAO rate.
(See Id. ¶ 11; Ex. A to Pls.' Mot. (billing
out fourth-year attorneys at $230/hour and $240/hour, which
is 71% and 74% of the USAO rates, respectively). The highest
attorney rates sought by plaintiffs in relation to the
current USAO Matrix are only 85% of those rates.
(See Ex. A to Pls.' Mot. (billing out Attorney
CEM (4 years) at $275/hour, where full USAO rate is
$325/hour). Thus, the District's argument about the
applicability of full Laffey or USAO rates in IDEA
litigation is off the mark-the relevant question is whether
plaintiffs have shouldered their burden to show that the
rates they actually seek are reasonable.
plaintiffs are correct that many of the cases cited by the
District involved routine IDEA matters, and thus, a 75%
Laffey rate was deemed appropriate in that context.
See, e.g., Snead, 139 F.Supp.3d at 381
(involving an “unremarkable IDEA administrative
representation”); Joaquin v. Friendship Pub.
Charter Sch., 2016 WL 3034151, at *14 (D.D.C. May 27,
2016) (case was not “unusually complex”);
Platt v. Dist. of Columbia, 2016 WL 912171, at *11
(D.D.C. Mar. 7, 2016) (quoting Blackman v. Dist. Of
Columbia, 56 F.Supp.3d 19, 29 (D.D.C. 2014)) (case
involved “no ‘novel questions of law, '
burdensome discovery issues, or other unusual
complexities”); McAllister v. Dist. of
Columbia, 21 F.Supp.3d 94, 109 (D.D.C. 2014) (finding
lack of complexity in cases where, inter alia,
school district either defaulted or failed to contest issues,
no administrative hearing was conducted due to settlement, or
hearing had limited number of witnesses).
in contrast, the parties engaged in a two-day hearing with
ten witnesses and sixty-eight exhibits, resulting in the
creation of a 1, 300 page administrative record.
(See Pls.' Reply Br. at 11; Administrative
Record [ECF Nos. 12-13].) The case involved a challenging
question of statutory interpretation that was a matter of
first impression in this district, which arose from an
apparent drafting error in the 2004 amendment of the IDEA.
See Damarcus S., 2016 WL 2993158, at *4; see
also Blackman, 56 F.Supp.3d at 25 (“novel or
complicated questions of law” indicate complexity). The
District discounts that complexity when it chides plaintiffs
for “[m]erely summarizing the reasoning of”
G.L. v. Ligonier Valley School District Authority,
802 F.3d 601 (3d Cir. 2015), which this Court ultimately
adopted. (See Def.'s Opp'n Br. at 8.) But
the statutory issue was apparently complex enough that
both parties here actually reversed the positions
they took below. (See Def.'s Cross-Mot. for
Summ. J. [ECF No. 16] at 13 n.6.) Furthermore, the issue of
how to properly evaluate Damarcus's disability-whether to
use a Full-Scale IQ or General Ability Index-was complicated,
something the Court's Memorandum Opinion expressly noted.
See Damarcus S., 2016 WL 2993158, at *8 (“When
considering an issue of such complexity . . . .”). Put
simply, this was not a run-of-the-mill IDEA proceeding, and
therefore, the Court finds that rates falling between 75% and
100% of Laffey / USAO Matrix rates are reasonable.
raises the question of which rates should serve as the
appropriate point of comparison: the current USAO rates, or
the rates that applied in the years that the work was
actually performed. As noted, plaintiffs' requested rates
range from 71% to 85% of the current USAO rates; however,
when using the lower 2013-14 Laffey rates as a point of
comparison, those relative percentages rise to 84% to 110%.
(See Ex. A to Pls.' Mot.; Ex. B to Pls.'
Mot. (billing out Attorney MEG (25 years) at $430/hour, where
full Laffey rate was $510/ hour; billing out Attorney CEM (2
years) at $275/hour, where full Laffey rate was
$250/hour). In other words, plaintiffs seek rates for
previous years' work that occasionally exceed the
Laffey rates that applied in those years, even
though they all fall below the USAO Matrix rates.
District argues that historical Laffey rates should
apply (Def.'s Opp'n Br. at 10-11), and plaintiffs
respond that the D.C. Circuit has sanctioned the application
of current rates, as a means of accounting for the delay in
receiving payment, (Pls.' Reply Br. at 14 (citing
West v. Potter, 717 F.3d 1030, 1034 (D.C. Cir.
2013).) West was a Title VII case, a fact that was
expressly relevant to the result in that case. See
717 F.3d at 1034. West also notes that there is a
“strong presumption” in favor of the application
of historical rates. Id.; see also
Jackson-Johnson v. Dist. of Columbia, 2016 WL 1267153,
at *3 (D.D.C. Mar. 31, 2016) (applying historical rates);
Reed v. Dist. of Columbia, 134 F.Supp.3d 122, 137
(D.D.C. 2015) (same). There was no unusual delay in this
three-year IDEA case, no dilatory conduct on the part of the
District, and as noted, the rates requested by plaintiffs are
more reasonable in comparison to recent years' Matrix
rates than to those prior years' rates. See
West, 717 F.3d at 240 (appropriate to apply historical
rates if delay in payment was brief, or if rates sought by
plaintiffs incorporate compensation for delayed payment). The
Court thus deems it appropriate to compare plaintiffs'
requested rates to those in effect at the time the work was
performed. As discussed, plaintiffs are entitled to
attorneys' rates that fall between 75%-100% of
Laffey / USAO Matrix ...