United States District Court, District of Columbia
C. Lamberth United States District Judge.
case is before the Court on plaintiffs motion for attorney
fees, ECF No. 8, and defendant's cross motion for summary
judgment, ECF No. 10. The case was referred to a magistrate
judge and on March 15, 2016, Magistrate Judge Deborah A.
Robinson issued a Report and Recommendation, ECF No. 15. This
Court accepts and adopts in part, and modifies in part
Magistrate Judge Robinson's Report and Recommendation.
For the reasons stated below, plaintiffs motion for
attorney's fees is granted in part and denied in part,
and defendant's cross-motion for summary judgment is
denied as moot.
factual background of mis case and the contentions of the
parties are set out in Magistrate Judge Robinson's Report
and Recommendation. See R. & R. 1-5. In sum, the
Hearing Officer found that plaintiffs child, J.S. was denied
a free appropriate public education ("FAPE") as
required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act
("IDEA") on two occasions. Id. at 2.
Plaintiff then commenced an action for attorneys' fees,
asking for $52, 556 in accordance with the Laffey
Matrix. Id. at 3. Defendant contends that plaintiff
is only entitled to fees at rates equal to 75% of the
Laffey Matrix, and thus that plaintiff is only
entitled to $38, 389.40.
Judge Robinson found that plaintiff was the prevailing party
and that plaintiff met her burden of demonstrating that the
claimed rates were appropriate based on the complexity of the
underlying action. Id. at 9-10. Magistrate Judge
Robinson then found that defendant failed to show that the
market rate for IDEA proceedings was equal to 75% of the
Laffey Matrix rates. Id. at 10-11.
Magistrate Judge Robinson found, however, that counsel failed
to consistently exercise the requisite billing judgment and
therefore recommended a reduction of the number of hours
claimed by 20%. Id. at 11-12. Finally, Magistrate
Judge Robinson recommended reducing the rate for travel time
by one half. Id. at 12. Plaintiff objected to the
reduction in hours recommendation, arguing that it lacked
specificity and that it included items compensable under the
IDEA, and defendant objected to use of the full
Laffey Matrix rates.
IDEA provides that courts may award reasonable attorney's
fees to prevailing parties. 20 U.S.C. §
1415(i)(3)(B)(i). The fees must be "based on rates
prevailing in the community in which the action or proceeding
arose for the kind and quality of services furnished."
Id. § 1415(i)(3)(C). A three part analysis
guides the assessment of whether a requested fee award is
reasonable: "First, the court must determine the
'number of hours reasonably expended in litigation.'
Second, it must set the 'reasonable hourly rate.'
Finally, it must determine whether use of a multiplier is
warranted." Eley v. District of Columbia, 793
F.3d 97, 100 (D.C. Cir. 2015) (internal citations omitted).
To determine a reasonable hourly rate, the court considers
"(1) the attorneyf's] billing practices, (2) the
attorneyf's] skill, experience, and reputation and (3)
the prevailing market rates in the relevant community."
Id. (internal quotation marks omitted).
Attorney's fee litigation employs a burden-shifting
The fee applicant bears the burden of establishing
entitlement to an award, documenting the appropriate hours,
and justifying the reasonableness of the rates. Once an
applicant meets this initial burden, a presumption applies
that the number of hours billed and the hourly rates are
reasonable. At that point, the burden shifts to the opposing
party to provide specific contrary evidence tending to show
that a lower rate would be appropriate.
Flood v. District of Columbia, No. CV 15-497 (BAH),
2016 WL 1180159, at *3 (D.D.C. Mar. 25, 2016) (internal
citations and quotation marks omitted).
Reasonableness of Rates Requested
Court refers to its Memorandum Opinion in Joaquin v.
District of Columbia, 14-cv-1160, also issued today, for
a summary of the relevant legal framework. Most importantly,
as fully discussed in Joaquin, the D.C. Circuit in
Eley v. District of Columbia, 793 F.3d 97, 100 (D.C.
Cir. 2015) "suggested] a categorical approach to
identifying reasonable reimbursement rates for prevailing
IDEA plaintiffs, " and therefore reasonable rates are to
be determined without regard to the complexity of the
particular IDEA litigation at hand. See Flood v. District
of Columbia, No. CV 15-497 (BAH), 2016 WL 1180159, at
*6-8 (D.D.C. Mar. 25, 2016). Therefore, the Court declines to
accept Magistrate Judge Robinson's analysis that
Laffey rates were warranted due to the complexity of
the underlying action here. Instead, the Court finds that
Laffey rates are warranted because plaintiff has
submitted sufficient evidence showing that IDEA litigation as
a category is sufficiently complex to warrant Laffey
submitted evidence in the form of declarations by IDEA
attorneys. Four of those declarations address the complexity
of IDEA cases. See Hill Deck ¶¶ 5-7, ECF
No. 27-6; Savit Deck ¶¶6-11, ECF No. 27-4; Hecht.
Deck ¶¶ 7-11, ECF No. 27-2; Mendoza Deck
¶¶ 4-6, ECF No. 27-7. They state generally that
IDEA cases "require specialized non-legal knowledge
regarding special education." Hill Decl. ¶ 5. This
includes "knowledge of education policies, procedures,
techniques, best practices, records, and administration"
and "knowledge of specialized disciplines, including
psychology, speech and language pathology, occupational
therapy, physical therapy, and medicine, and others."
Id. In addition, the limited discovery and pretrial
proceedings in IDEA cases "makes the preparation and
litigation of IDEA cases more complicated, especially because
hearing officers typically allow respondents to spontaneously
adjust defenses." Id. ¶ 6. This
necessitates the preparation of "very many potential
defense cases presented by the respondent." Id.
Finally, the attorneys declared that "the administrative
work is generally at least as complex as the federal
work" in IDEA cases. Id. ¶ 7. They explain
that "because at the administrative level the legal
issues are rarely well defined until closing argument, at the
administrative level one usually needs much more legal
preparation and a much better general IDEA familiarity than
is required at the federal level, " and "one must
be very familiar with every existing document and must
prepare for a broad range of 'surprise' testimony,
including possible testimony from a diverse range of
courts in this District have acknowledged the complexity of
IDEA litigation. See Merrick, 134 F.Supp. at 339
(collecting cases and finding that "IDEA litigation is
sufficiently complex to warrant full Laffey
rates"); see also Sweatt v. District of
Columbia,82 F.Supp.3d 454, 459 (D.D.C. 2015);
Thomas v. District of Columbia,908 F.Supp.2d 233,
243 (D.D.C. 2012) (finding that Laffey rates should
serve as a starting point in IDEA cases because they often
involve appeals to federal court and the administrative
component typically requires expert testimony); Irving v.
D.C. Pub. Sch.,815 F.Supp.2d 119, 129 (D.D.C. 2011)
(reaffirming "that IDEA cases are sufficiently complex
to allow application of the Laffey Matrix");
Jackson v. District of Columbia,696 F.Supp.2d 97,
102 (D.D.C. 2010); Cox v. District of Columbia, 754
F.Supp.2d 66, 76 (D.D.C. 2010) ("Defendant's claim
that B.S. and E.J.'s hearings were
'uncomplicated' is absurd, as any reading of the
comprehensive decisions by the two Hearings Officers in these
cases demonstrates."). The court in Merrick
summarized: "IDEA cases require testimony from education
experts regarding whether a student has been denied a free
and public education, ... and plaintiffs' counsel must
understand the bureaucratic workings of [DCPS], .. . and
become conversant with a wide range of disabling cognitive,
emotional, and language-based disorders and the corresponding
therapeutic and educational approaches."
Merrick, 134 F.Supp. at 339. The court in
Merrick, in coming to this conclusion, relied on
declarations that "describefed] the particular
challenges that arise in special education cases, " and
"desrcib[ed] the frequent delays, unrealistic settlement
offers, and time-consuming fee litigation that increase the
complexity of IDEA cases." Id. The declarations
submitted here make similar assertions. ...