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McNeil v. Options Public Charter School

United States District Court, District of Columbia

September 22, 2016

JUDIE MCNEIL, Parent and next friend of J.M., a minor Plaintiffs,
v.
OPTIONS PUBLIC CHARTER SCHOOL, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          DEBORAH A. ROBINSON, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff Judie McNeil initially brought this action, in her own right and on behalf of her minor child, J.M. (“Plaintiffs”), to recover $19, 293.57 in attorneys' fees and costs that Plaintiffs incurred in connection with administrative proceeding conducted pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”), 20 U.S.C. §1400, et seq. See Complaint for Declaratory Judgment, Injunctive and Other Relief (Document No. 1).

         On March 1, 2013, the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge recommended that the Court grant in part and deny in part Plaintiffs' Motion for Summary Judgment. See Report and Recommendation (Document No. 16); McNeil v. Options Pub. Charter Sch., No. 12-0529, 2012 WL 791199, at * 4 (D.D.C. Mar. 1, 2013). The undersigned recommended a reduction of the number of hours for which Plaintiffs sought fees, to reflect their limited success in the underlying administrative proceeding. McNeil, 2013 WL 791199, at *7.[1] On March 25, 2013, the Court (Sullivan, J.), sua sponte, stayed proceedings in this case pending further order of the Court. See 03/25/2013 Minute Order. On May 23, 2014, the Court granted Plaintiffs' unopposed motion to lift the stay, adopted the Report and Recommendation filed by the undersigned, and awarded Plaintiff $11.439.51 in attorneys' fees. See 05/23/2014 Minute Order.

         On June 27, 2014, Defendant filed Defendant's Motion to Correct the Court's May 23, 2014 Minute Order. See Motion to Correct (Document No. 21) at 1. Defendant asserted that the Court made a mistake in its calculation of attorneys' fees by awarding Plaintiffs $11, 439.51 instead of $1, 914.54. Id. at 3; see also Memorandum of Points and Authorities in Support of Motion to Correct the Court's May 23, 2014 Minute Order at 2-3. On June 27, 2014, the Court (Sullivan, J.), granted Defendant's motion and amended the Order to reflect an award of fees in the amount of $1, 914.54. See 07/03/2014 Minute Order.

         Plaintiffs now seek to recover fees and costs incurred in that fee litigation. Plaintiffs' Motion for Attorneys' Fees (“Plaintiffs' Motion”) (Document No. 19). Upon consideration of the motion, the memoranda in support thereof and the opposition thereto, the exhibits offered by the parties, and the entire record herein, the undersigned will grant in part and deny in part Plaintiffs' motion.

         CONTENTIONS OF THE PARTIES

         Plaintiffs submit that they are prevailing parties and thus are eligible for an additional award of fees for the time spent on obtaining attorneys' fees. Memorandum of Points and Authorities Submitted in Support of the Plaintiffs' Motion for Attorneys' Fees (“Plaintiffs' Memorandum”) (Document No. 19) at 4-5. Plaintiffs assert that the hours expended in the fees litigation are reasonable. See id. at 5-7. Plaintiffs further contend that they have fully documented their attorneys' fees by attaching a detailed itemization of tasks performed and hours expended on this case; an affidavit from James E. Brown describing the billing practices and specialization of the firm and also the qualifications of Ms. Neloms, who completed work on this case before leaving the firm in 2012; and an affidavit from Robert Jones detailing his qualifications, skill, and experience. See Plaintiffs' Memorandum at 5; see also Plaintiffs' Invoice; Exhibit 2 (“Jones Affidavit”) (Document No. 19-2) at 5-7; Exhibit 3 (“Brown Affidavit”) (Document No. 19-2) at 9-10.

         Plaintiffs assert that the hourly rates requested are reasonable and reflect the applicable hourly rate for attorneys with the demonstrated skills, experience, and reputation of Plaintiffs' attorneys. See Plaintiffs' Memorandum at 7-9. Furthermore, Plaintiffs have “voluntarily chosen to limit their fee request to ¾ of the Laffey matrix rate.” Id. at 8.[2] Accordingly, Plaintiffs seek a total of $6, 690.07, which includes $6, 540.07 in attorneys' fees at the rates of $333.75 per hour for work performed by Roxanne Neloms and $217.50 per hour for work performed by Robert W. Jones. See Plaintiffs' Memorandum at 6; see also Exhibit 1 (“Plaintiffs' Invoice”) (Document No. 19-2) at 2-3.[3]

         Defendant, in its opposition, does not contest Plaintiffs' entitlement to fees, counsel's billing rates, or specific time entries. See generally Defendant's Memorandum of Points and Authorities in Opposition to Plaintiff[s]' Motion for Attorneys' Fees (“Defendant's Memorandum”) (Document No. 22) at 1-2. Rather, Defendant contends that Plaintiffs' fee request is unreasonable with respect to the “degree of success obtained through this litigation.” Id. Accordingly, Defendant submits that the Court should award Plaintiffs no more than $669.00 in fees “given the extremely limited success obtained though this litigation.” Id. at 2.

         In reply, Plaintiffs maintain that in the instant case, “there were effectively two issues presented before the Court: whether the Plaintiffs were entitled to an award of attorneys' fees, and if so what amount of fees.” Plaintiffs' Reply to the Defendant's Opposition to the Plaintiff's Motion for Attorneys' Fees (“Plaintiffs' Reply”) at 3. Thus, Plaintiffs contend that “there are no separate issues on which the Plaintiffs failed to prevail which are unrelated to the issues on which they prevailed.” Id. With respect to the number of hours claimed, Plaintiffs contend that the hours were reasonably expended in demonstrating that they prevailed in the underlying fee litigation and are entitled to an award of attorneys' fees. See id. As an example, Plaintiffs contend that as part of the initial fee litigation, the parties presented oral arguments on the motion for summary judgment before the undersigned. See id.; 11/05/2013 Minute Entry. Plaintiff further argues that the hours expended were necessary to secure any relief for Plaintiffs because Defendant had “strenuously” challenged Plaintiffs' prevailing party status and entitlement to any award of fees. See id. at 4. Finally, Plaintiff maintains that because Defendant “presented no arguments contesting the rate at which fees are sought or the specific time entries[, ]” the Court should find that Defendant has conceded those issues. Id. at 4-5.

         APPLICABLE STANDARDS

         In actions for attorney's fees that are brought pursuant to the IDEA, “the court, in its discretion, may award reasonable attorneys' fees as part of the costs” to the prevailing party. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B)(i). “Parties who prevail at the administrative level can also recover fees-on-fees, as our general rule is that the court may award additional fees for ‘time reasonably devoted to obtaining attorney's fees.'” Kaseman v. District of Columbia, 444 F.3d 637, 640 (D.C. Cir. 2006) (quoting Envtl. Def. Fund v. EPA, 672 F.2d 42, 62 (D.C. Cir. 1982)). In evaluating such a request, the Court must first determine “whether the party seeking attorney's fees is the prevailing party, ” and if so, must then evaluate whether the requested fees are reasonable. Wood v. District of Columbia, 72 F.Supp.3d 13, 18 (D.D.C. 2014) (citing Staton v. District of Columbia, No. 13-773, 2014 WL 2700894, at *3 (D.D.C. June 11, 2014), adopted by, 2014 WL 2959017; Douglas v. District of Columbia, 67 F.Supp.3d 36, 40 (D.D.C. 2014)).

         As the Circuit recently observed, “[t]he IDEA provides no further guidance for determining an appropriate fee award.” Eley v. District of Columbia, 793 F.3d 97, 100 (D.C. Cir. 2015). Thus, the common mechanism for the determination of a reasonable award is generally “the number of hours reasonably expended” multiplied by a reasonable hourly rate. Wood, 72 F.Supp.3d at 18 (citing Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983)). The party requesting fees bears the burden of demonstrating the reasonableness of the hours expended, and “may satisfy this burden by submitting an invoice that is sufficiently detailed to permit the District Court to make an independent determination whether or not the hours claimed are justified.” Id. (citing Hensley, 461 U.S. at 433).

         The party requesting fees “also bears the burden of establishing the reasonableness of the hourly rate sought, ” and in doing so, “must submit evidence on at least three fronts: the attorneys' billing practices; the attorneys' skill, experience, and reputation; and the prevailing market rates in the relevant community.” Wood, 72 F.Supp.3d at 18-19 (internal quotation marks omitted) (citing In re North, 59 F.3d 184, 189 (D.C. Cir. 1995)). If the party requesting fees satisfies its burden, ‚Äúthere is a presumption that the number of hours billed and the hourly rates are ...


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