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Wimbish v. District of Columbia

United States District Court, District of Columbia

May 3, 2017

JORIE WIMBISH, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, Defendant. JORIE WIMBISH, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Emmet G. Sullivan, United States District Judge

         Pending before the Court is plaintiff Jorie Wimbish's motion for attorneys' fees and costs pursuant to the attorneys' fees provision of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq. Ms. Wimbish seeks to recover attorneys' fees and costs arising from her successful obtainment of a “stay-put” order from this Court. That stay-put order mandates that the District of Columbia fund the entirety of the costs arising from Ms. Wimbish's minor daughter, J.W., attending the Stuart Hall School during the pendency of an underlying IDEA case between Ms. Wimbish and the District of Columbia Public Schools (“DCPS”).

         Upon consideration of the motion, the response and reply thereto, the parties' supplemental briefs, the entire record, and for the reasons stated below, Ms. Wimbish's motion is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART. The Court finds that the “reasonable hourly rates” proposed by Ms. Wimbish are appropriate, but will not, at this juncture, order reimbursement for her attorneys' preparation of the instant motion for attorneys' fees; Ms. Wimbish has indicated that she plans to file a supplemental motion related to “fees-on-fees” litigation. Accordingly, the Court ultimately awards Ms. Wimbish $50, 795.85.

         I. Background

         The factual background of this case is set out in Wimbish v. District of Columbia, 153 F.Supp.3d 4 (D.D.C. 2015) and will not be rehashed in full again here. In most relevant part, prior to the 2014-2015 school year, Ms. Wimbish enrolled J.W.-- who had been deemed eligible for special education services under the IDEA--at Stuart Hall School, a private boarding school in Staunton, Virginia. 153 F.Supp.3d at 7. On January 5, 2015, Ms. Wimbish filed an IDEA administrative due process complaint with the Office of Dispute Resolution of DCPS alleging that DCPS had failed to develop an appropriate individualized education program (“IEP”) for J.W. for the 2014-2015 school year and had failed to propose an adequate school placement. Id. The complaint sought reimbursement from DCPS for J.W.'s cost of attendance at Stuart Hall. Id.

         In a March 29, 2015 decision, an administrative Hearing Officer concluded that DCPS had denied J.W. a free appropriate public education (“FAPE”) for the 2014-2015 school year and ordered DCPS to fund 50% of Stuart Hall expenses for that school year. Id. at 8. The Hearing Officer relied on alternative bases to conclude that J.W. had been denied a FAPE. First, if J.W.'s most recent IEP--one that the parties had developed at a June 2014 meeting and one that Ms. Wimbish believed was not a mere draft but rather was a final, operative IEP, id. at 7--was operative, it was improper because it provided J.W. with an inappropriately restrictive program. Id. at 8. Alternatively, if the June 2014 IEP was just a “draft” IEP, as DCPS had argued, then J.W. had improperly not been provided an IEP for the 2014-2015 school year. Id. at 8. The Hearing Officer also found that Ms. Wimbish's enrollment of J.W. at Stuart Hall was proper, but only mandated that DCPS cover 50% of the Stuart Hall expenses because, following the June 2014 IEP meeting, Ms. Wimbish had refused to meet with DCPS to rewrite or revise the IEP that had been prepared at the June 2014 meeting. Id. at 8.

         After the 2014-2015 school year ended, DCPS contacted Ms. Wimbish to schedule a meeting to prepare J.W.'s IEP for the 2015-2016 school year. Id. But at their August 18, 2015 meeting, DCPS informed Ms. Wimbish that J.W. was no longer eligible for special education services. Id. Accordingly, DCPS explained that the meeting would not result in an updated IEP but rather would be aimed at developing a plan for accommodations under § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Id. at 8-9. Surprised by this turn of events, Ms. Wimbish asked that the meeting be adjourned, but DCPS continued the meeting in her and her counsel's absence and developed a § 504 plan for J.W. Id. at 9.

         On August 20, 2015, Ms. Wimbish filed an administrative due process complaint challenging J.W.'s removal from special education services. Id. at 9. Upon learning that DCPS did not intend to fund any portion of J.W.'s placement at Stuart Hall during the pendency of this IDEA case, Ms. Wimbish filed a motion for a stay-put injunction in this Court on September 1, 2015. Id. The IDEA's “stay-put provision” requires a local educational agency to maintain a child in his or her “current educational placement” during the pendency of IDEA administrative and judicial proceedings. Id. at 9-10 (citing 34 C.F.R. § 300.518(a)). This Court granted Ms. Wimbish's motion, as it determined that Stuart Hall is J.W.'s “current educational placement” and that the District is obligated to fund 100% of J.W.'s attendance at Stuart Hall, retroactive to the commencement of the 2015-2016 school year, during the pendency of all administrative and judicial proceedings arising from Ms. Wimbish's August 20, 2015 administrative due process complaint. Id. at 10-13.

         On November 16, 2015, a Hearing Officer issued a decision concerning Ms. Wimbish's August 20, 2015 due process complaint, and Ms. Wimbish's partial appeal of that decision, filed in this Court on December 16, 2015, remains pending following the conclusion of briefing on February 9, 2017.[1] See Id. at 9 n.4. Meanwhile, in January 2016, Ms. Wimbish filed a motion for attorneys' fees and costs related to the stay-put portion of this litigation. See Mot. for Attorneys' Fees, ECF No. 17. That motion is ripe and ready for the Court's adjudication.

         II. Analysis

         The IDEA provides that a court “in its discretion, may award reasonable attorneys' fees . . . to a prevailing party who is the parent of a child with a disability.” 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B)(i). Although this Court has yet to rule on Ms. Wimbish's partial appeal of the Hearing Officer's November 16, 2015 decision, the District does not dispute that Ms. Wimbish is “a prevailing party who is the parent of a child with a disability” as concerns the stay-put portion of this IDEA litigation. See generally Def.'s Opp. to Pl.'s Mot. for Attorneys' Fees (“Def.'s Opp.”), ECF No. 18 (omitting any argument that Ms. Wimbish is not a “prevailing party”); see also Douglas v. District of Columbia, 67 F.Supp.3d 36, 41-42 (D.D.C. 2014) (holding that a party that obtained a stay-put order was a “prevailing party”); Laster v. District of Columbia, No. 05-1875, 2006 WL 2085394, at *2-3 (D.D.C. July 25, 2006) (same). The dispute here thus narrows to whether the attorneys' fees that Ms. Wimbish seeks from the stay-put litigation constitute “reasonable attorneys' fees.”

         That “reasonable attorneys' fees” determination depends on a three-part analysis: “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 and quotation marks omitted). The District does not challenge the hours that Ms. Wimbish's attorneys devoted to the stay-put litigation, see generally Def.'s Opp., ECF No. 18, and the IDEA prohibits application of any multiplier. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(C). Accordingly, the dispute here narrows further still: All that needs to be determined is the attorneys' “reasonable hourly rate.”

         “Whether an hourly rate is reasonable turns on three sub-elements: (1) the attorney[s'] billing practices, (2) the attorney[s'] skill, experience, and reputation and (3) the prevailing market rates in the relevant community.” Eley, 793 F.3d at 100 (internal quotation marks omitted). All that is in dispute here is the prevailing market rates in the relevant community. See generally Def.'s Opp., ECF No. 18; Pl.'s Reply, ECF No. 19. Ms. Wimbish contends that she is entitled to be reimbursed at the rates provided for her attorneys under the Laffey Matrix maintained by the United States Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia (“USAO Laffey Matrix”).[2] Pl.'s Mem. in Supp. of Mot. for Attorneys' Fees and Costs (“Pl.'s Mem. Supp.”), ECF No. 17-1 at 6-11. The District, on the other hand, contends that the rates sought are unreasonably high and proposes 75% of the USAO Laffey Matrix as the reasonable hourly rates. Def.'s Opp., ECF No. 18 at 6-11.

         Ms. Wimbish, the fee applicant here, bears the initial burden of justifying the reasonableness of the rates that she proposes. Eley, 793 F.3d at 100. She may meet that burden “upon either of two showings”: First, she can “demonstrate that IDEA proceedings qualify as ‘complex federal litigation, ' to which Laffey rates presumptively apply.” Second, alternatively, she “may demonstrate that rates customarily charged by IDEA practitioners in the District are comparable to those provided under the US[AO] Laffey Matrix.” Flood v. District of Columbia, 172 F.Supp.3d 197, 210 (D.D.C. 2016); see also Reed v. ...


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