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Taylor v. District of Columbia

United States District Court, District of Columbia

September 7, 2016




         The plaintiff, Tiffani Taylor, brought this action against the defendant, the District of Columbia, for an award of attorney's fees and costs incurred in conjunction with the plaintiffs administrative challenge as to whether the District of Columbia Public School Systems ("DCPS") was providing her son, D.T., a free appropriate education ("FAPE") as required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. § 1400 (2012) (the "IDEA"). See generally Complaint ("Compl."). Having prevailed on her administrative challenge, the plaintiff then filed this action seeking attorney's fees and costs totaling $102, 536.60, in addition to reasonable fees and costs associated with this litigation. See Mem. Supp. of Pl.'s Mot. for Attorneys' Fees ("Pl.'s Mem.") at 12. This case was then referred to Magistrate Judge Alan Kay for a report and recommendation ("Report"), see Oct. 27, 2015 Order, ECF No. 6, which he issued on April 25, 2016, recommending that the Court grant in part and deny in part the plaintiffs request for attorney's fees. Currently pending before the Court is the Plaintiffs Objections to the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation ("Pl.'s Objs."). Upon careful consideration of the parties' submissions, [1] the Court concludes that it must overrule the plaintiffs objections and adopt Magistrate Judge Kay's Report in its entirety.


         A. Review of Objections to Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 72(b) permits district judges to refer certain motions- such as motions for attorney's fees-to a Magistrate Judge for proposed findings of fact and recommendations for the disposition of such motions. Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b). A dissatisfied party is obligated to raise timely objections to a Magistrate Judge's Report and upon doing so, the Court reviews de novo the portions of the Magistrate Judge's Report that have been properly challenged. LI The Court, in conducting its review, may "accept, reject, or modify the recommended disposition; receive further evidence; or return the matter to the [M]agistrate [J]udge with instructions." Id. Rule 72(b) provides two procedural limitations that affect a district court's review: (1) an objecting party is not permitted "to present new initiatives to the district judge, " Heard v. District of Columbia, No. CIV.A.02-296, 2006 WL 2568013, at *5 (D.D.C. Sept. 5, 2006) (quoting Aikens v. Shalala, 956 F.Supp. 14, 19 (D.D.C. 1997)), as the district court may review "only those issues that the parties have raised in their objections to the Magistrate Judge's report, " Aikens, 956 F.Supp. at 19; and (2) an objecting party relinquishes the opportunity to challenge the district court's adoption of any portion of the Magistrate Judge's Report that an objecting party has failed to timely file an objection. See Id. at 20 n. 7 ("A majority of the circuits have a longstanding rule that the failure of a party to object to either the factual or legal aspects of a Magistrate Judge's recommendations waives the opportunity to challenge the district court's adoption of those recommendations."); see also Thomas v. Arn, 474 U.S. 140, 150-51 (1985) ("It does not appear that Congress intended to require the district court review of a magistrate's factual or legal conclusions under a de novo or any other standard, when neither party objects to those findings.").

         B. Attorney's Fees in IDEA Litigation

         Pursuant to the IDEA, a district court may award a prevailing party in an IDEA administrative proceeding "reasonable attorney's fees." § 1415(i)(3)(B)(i). In awarding reimbursement of fees, the district court must first decide whether the party seeking the fees is a prevailing party and then determine whether the requested attorney's fees are reasonable. Jay v. District of Columbia, 75 F.Supp.3d 214, 218 (D.D.C. 2014) (Walton, J.) (citing Jackson v. District of Columbia, 696 F.Supp.2d 97, 101 (D.D.C. 2010)).


         Neither party has objected to three portions of the fee award recommended in Magistrate Judge Kay's Report: (1) reimbursement of the plaintiffs attorney's travel time at hourly rates equivalent to 50% of the determined reasonable hourly attorney fee rate; (2) the exclusion of 0.2 hours of the total number of hours billed by plaintiffs counsel; and (3) reimbursement of the plaintiffs attorney's costs totaling $186.60. See Pl.'s Obis.; see also Defi's Obis. Resp. The Court therefore accepts the unchallenged recommendations proposed by Magistrate Judge Kay as reasonable and adequately substantiated. Accordingly, the Court adopts the Report's findings as to those aspects of its attorney's fee award. See Report at 22-23.

         The plaintiff, however, objects to four of Magistrate Judge Kay's findings: (1) the reduction of the plaintiffs attorney's fees request by 10% based upon the acquisition of only partial relief; (2) the reduction of the plaintiffs attorney's fees rate to 75% of the United States Attorney's Office ("USAO") Laffey attorney fees rates; (3) the reduction of the plaintiffs attorney's fees rate for performing administrative tasks to 75% of the USAO Laffey rates for paralegals; and (4) the reduction of attorney's fees request for the purpose of preserving public funds. See Pl.'s Objs. at 2, 4, 8-9. In response, the defendant requests that the Court deny each of the plaintiffs objections and adopt Magistrate Judge Kay's Report in its entirety. See Def's Objs. Resp. at 7. The Court will address each of the plaintiffs objections in turn.

         A. The Plaintiffs Prevailing Party Status

         1. The Plaintiffs Degree of Success Warrants A Reduction in Fees

         Although the plaintiff "prevailed on the most significant aspects of her [IDEA] claims, " Magistrate Judge Kay determined that she was only a partially prevailing party because "she failed to obtain 'wrap around' services, " and therefore, he recommended an overall reduction in the amount of 10% of the fee request because the plaintiffs "relief was limited in comparison to the proceeding as a whole." Report at 11 (citing cases). In objecting to the recommended 10% reduction, the plaintiff asserts that her attorney should be awarded full compensation for his services because her son "received full time placement at a non-public school, " which "is an excellent result." Pl.'s Objs. at2-3 (citing Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 435 (1983) ("Where a plaintiff has obtained excellent results, [her] attorney should recover a fully compensatory fee.").

         "[I]t is the degree of the plaintiffs success that is the critical factor to the determination of the size of a reasonable fee." Piatt v. District of Columbia, __F.Supp.3d__, __, 2016 WL 912171, at*8 (D.D.C. Mar. 7, 2016) (quoting A.S. v. District of Columbia, __ 842 F.Supp.2d 40, 47 (D.D.C. 2012)). However, '"a finding that the plaintiff obtained significant relief does not end the analysis." Id. (citing Hensley, 461 U.S. at 439-40). "The ultimate question to be decided by the Court is what is 'reasonable in light of [the plaintiffs] level of success.'" Id. (citing Hensley, 461 U.S. at 440). "A reduced fee award is appropriate if the relief, however significant, is limited in comparison to the scope of the litigation as a whole." Id. (quoting Hensley, 461 U.S. at 440).

         Here, the plaintiffs level of success at the administrative level warrants a reduction in the overall fees the plaintiffs counsel is entitled to recover. There is no dispute that the plaintiff is a fully prevailing party in Administrative Complaint Case #2014-0233 ("Case 233"). See Report at 9 (citation omitted). On the other hand, there is also no dispute that the plaintiff only partially prevailed in Administrative Complaint Case #2014-0192 ("Case 192"), in which she succeeded on only two of the four claims presented. Id. More importantly, the plaintiff did not receive the full relief she sought. LI at 10-11. Although the plaintiff failed "to propose appropriate compensatory services" and did not "specify what remedy would effectively rectify the harm, " see Pl.'s Mot., Exhibit ("Ex.") 4 (Hearing Officer Determination, Case 192) ("Case 192 Determination") at 14, the administrative hearing officer "conclude[d] that to award the student no compensation for the missed services would be inequitable, " id, and thus, he awarded the plaintiffs son "nominal services as compensation, " full-time placement in a private school, "[thirty] hours of independent tutoring, and [fifteen] hours of independent counseling or mentoring." Id. But, he did not award the plaintiffs son two forms of relief sought: wrap around services and other services in the form of therapeutic transport, outside counseling, and therapeutic recreation. See Id. at 15 ("All other requested relief is denied."). While the plaintiffs unsuccessful claims were procedural in nature and the relief the plaintiff received was substantial, "[t]he result is what matters, " Hensley, 461 U.S. at 435, and awarding a full fee award to the plaintiffs counsel where the plaintiff "has achieved only partial or limited success, " id at 436, would be excessive. Therefore, because the plaintiff did not prevail on two of the four claims in Case 192 and she did not obtain the full relief sought, the Court, in its discretion, finds that full compensation for all of the work performed by the plaintiffs counsel would be disproportionate to the degree of success achieved. See Hensley, 461 U.S. at 440; see also Piatt, __F.Supp.3d at __, 2016 WL 912171, at *9 (noting that because the plaintiff was unsuccessful in obtaining certain relief sought, full compensation would be unreasonable); Brown v. District of Columbia, 80 F.Supp.3d 90, 99 (D.D.C. 2015) ("[I]t is undisputed that [the] [p]laintiff received less than all of the relief he sought at the administrative level, so a reduction in fees is justified.").

         2. Determining What is a Reasonable Reduction

         The plaintiff next asserts that "any reduction to account for the failure to obtain wrap around services should be based on the number of hours actually spent attempting to obtain those services, " and if the Court, in its discretion, decides to reduce her attorney's fees, a reduction of "4.2 hours rather than 10% of the bill, is a reasonable reduction to account for partial success." Pl.'s Objs. at 3-4. The defendant argues in response that the specific hours for work related to wrap around services are not readily identifiable because the entries in the plaintiffs attorney's invoice, examples which are cited by the defendant, see Defi's Objs. Resp. at 2, "appear to concern the entirety of [the p]laintiffs' administrative complaint, " and cannot be separated from the entries that concern only wraparound services, Defi's Objs. Resp. at2. The plaintiff replies that the billing statement is sufficiently detailed, as noted by Magistrate Judge Kay, and that the defendant presented no evidence that the billing entries it identified are in fact related to the effort to acquire wrap around services. Pl.'s Objs. Reply at 1-3.

         If "a prevailing party has achieved only partial success, this Court has discretion to exercise its equitable judgment to 'identify specific hours that should be eliminated, or . .. simply reduce the award to account for the limited success.'" Briggs v. District of Columbia, 102 F.Supp.3d 164, 171 (D.D.C. 2015) (citing Hensley, 461 U.S. at 436-37). When determining which method should be used to reduce the attorney's fee, "the court must analyze the relationships amongst the successful and unsuccessful claims." McAllister v. District of Columbia, 21 F.Supp.3d 94, 102 (D.D.C. 2014) (citing Hensley, 461 U.S. at434-35), on reconsideration in part, 53 F.Supp.3d 55 (D.D.C. 2014), affd, 794 F.3d 15 (D.C. Cir. 2015). If the claims are interrelated such that they '"involve a common core of facts, ' or are based on 'related legal theories, ' '[m]uch of counsel's time will likely be devoted to the litigation as a whole, making it difficult to divide the hours on a claim-by-claim basis.'" Id. (quoting Hensley, 461 U.S. at 435). And under such circumstances, courts should "focus on the significance of the overall relief obtained by the plaintiff in relation to the hours that counsel reasonably expended on the litigation." Id. (quoting Hensley, 461 U.S. at435).

         Here, the Court finds that the plaintiffs successful and unsuccessful claims are interrelated and cannot be separated easily for the Court to appropriately identify specific hours to eliminate. In Case 192, the plaintiff succeeded in proving that DCPS denied the plaintiffs son a FAPE by failing to provide (1) an appropriate individualized education program, and (2) an appropriate placement and location of services. On the other hand, the plaintiff was unsuccessful in demonstrating that DCPS failed to provide (1) timely and accurate evaluations of her son's suspected disabilities, and (2) her son's educational records, including incident reports. Report at 9. Nonetheless, each claim shares a common core of facts that contributed to the plaintiff s chief argument that DCPS denied her son a FAPE. In fact, the Hearing Officer who adjudicated the underlying claims noted that the plaintiff used her son's educational records and records relating to her son's then current individualized education program, which formed the basis of the plaintiffs unsuccessful claims, to support her successful claims and primary argument. See Pl.'s Mot., Ex. 4 (Case 192 Determination) at 11, 13. Furthermore, even though the plaintiffs attorney's invoice contains certain entries relating to the pursuit of wrap around services, other entries may also be related to this pursuit, which are not easily identifiable. See Pl.'s Objs. at 4 (suggesting the reduction of one hour of hearing time for Case 192 as a sufficient estimate of the time dedicated to the presentation of evidence related to wrap around services because "[t]he only means of determining the exact time dedicated to wrap around services at the hearing would be a careful review of the hearing transcript [and t]hat review would be unnecessarily time consuming for the undersigned, for the District, and for the Court"); see also Def's Objs. Response at 2 (citing examples of the plaintiffs attorney's invoice entries that concern work performed for the plaintiffs Case 192). Therefore, the Court is not persuaded that the plaintiffs suggested approach for reducing the attorney's fees by the number of hours expended attempting to obtain the wrap around services is appropriate.

         Accordingly, the Court, in its discretion, will adopt Magistrate Judge Kay's recommendation to reduce the overall attorney's fee award by 10%, as a reasonable reduction given the plaintiffs limited success. See Piatt, __ F.Supp.3d at __, 2016 WL 912171, at *8-9 (holding that 15% reduction was reasonable because the plaintiff did not prevail on five out of the eight issues and failed to receive some relief sought, such as placement at a certain school and wrap around services); see also Brown, 80 F.Supp.3d at 101 ("Given that [the] [p]laintiff prevailed on the most important aspects of his claims and the de minimis nature of his procedural loss, the Court will exercise its broad discretion to reduce the total fees award for [the attorney] and her paralegal by 10% for partial success, even though [the p]laintiff technically lost on two of four claims at the hearing.").

         B. Determining the Reasonable Attorney's Fees to be Awarded

         The IDEA'S fee-shifting provision expressly empowers district courts to exercise discretion in determining what amounts to an award as reasonable attorney's fees to a "prevailing party who is the parent of a child with a disability." § 1415(i)(3)(B)(i)(I). The fee applicant, however, must demonstrate entitlement to a fee award. See Covington v. District of Columbia, 57 F.3d 1101, 1107 (D.C. Cir. 1995) (citing Blum v. Stenson, 465 U.S. 886, 896 n. 11 (1984)) ("[C]ourts properly have required prevailing attorneys to justify the reasonableness of the requested rate or rates."); see also Hensley, 461 U.S. at 437 ("[T]he fee applicant bears the burden of establishing entitlement to an award and document the appropriate hours expended and hourly rates.").

         In this District, an appropriate fee award turns on a three-part test. See Hammond v. District of Columbia, __ F.Supp.3d __, __, 2016 WL 1704116, at*5 (D.D.C. Apr. 28, 2016) (Walton, J.) (citing Eley v. District of Columbia, 793 F.3d 97, 99 (D.C. Cir. 2015)). "First, the court must determine the number of hours reasonably expended in litigation." LI (quoting Eley, 793 F.3d at 100). "Second, it must set the reasonable hourly rate." LI "Finally, it must determine whether use of a multiplier is warranted." LI However, because the parties do not object to Magistrate Judge Kay's recommendation regarding the number of hours reasonably expended by the plaintiffs attorney, [3]see generally Pl.'s Objs., and the IDEA prohibits application of any "bonus or multiplier, " ยง 1415(i)(3)(C), the Court must address only the plaintiffs ...

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