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Shaw v. District of Columbia

United States District Court, District of Columbia

September 28, 2016

JUSTINA SHAW, Plaintiff,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Royce C. Lamberth United States District Judge.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         This 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.[1]

         II. BACKGROUND

         The 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.

         Magistrate 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.

         III. ANALYSIS

         The 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 scheme:

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).

         A. Reasonableness of Rates Requested

         The 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 rates.

         Plaintiff 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 experts." Id.

         Other 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. ...


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