United States District Court, District of Columbia
MEMORANDUM OPINION GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN
PART PLAINTIFFS' MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT; GRANTING IN
PART AND DENYING IN PART DEFENDANT'S CROSS-MOTION FOR
RUDOLPH CONTRERAS, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
the parents of T.C., a minor child with special needs, seek
to recover from Defendant, the District of Columbia
(“the District”), the attorneys' fees and
costs incurred during their administrative proceeding against
the District of Columbia Public Schools (“DCPS”)
under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004
(“IDEA”), 20 U.S.C. § 1415 et. seq.
Plaintiffs seek over $50, 000 in attorneys' fees and
costs billed by their attorney, Elizabeth Jester, over the
course of almost two years. The parties agree that Plaintiffs
were the prevailing parties in the administrative
proceedings, but the District disputes the reasonableness of
their requested fees and argues that the Court should apply a
reduced hourly rate. The Court holds that Plaintiffs have
failed to demonstrate either that the full USAO
Laffey Matrix rates sought by Plaintiffs are the
prevailing market rates for IDEA litigation, or that the
underlying due process proceedings were sufficiently complex
to warrant the award of full USAO Laffey Matrix
rates. The Court therefore concludes that only some of
Plaintiffs' requested fees are reasonable and reduces
Plaintiffs' attorneys' fees accordingly. The Court
grants Plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment in part
and denies it in part, and grants Defendant's
cross-motion for summary judgment in part and denies it in
February 2015, Plaintiffs Thomas Cox, Sr. and Delores Lewis,
filed an administrative due process complaint against DCPS
under the IDEA, because they felt DCPS was not meeting the
special education needs of their son, T.C. Compl.
¶¶ 2, 4, ECF No. 1. Plaintiffs alleged that DCPS
denied T.C. the free and appropriate public education he was
entitled to under the IDEA. See Pls.' Mot. Summ.
J., Ex. 1 (“Hearing Officer Determination”) at
3-4, ECF No. 7-4 (listing the issues to be determined in the
proceedings). In support of their administrative complaint,
Plaintiffs contended that DCPS failed to meet T.C.'s
specified needs during the 2014-2015 academic year in three
respects. First, Plaintiffs argued that DCPS did not obtain
and implement the Individualized Education Program (the
“IEP”) from T.C.'s prior school and failed to
implement its own IEP, thus denying T.C. a Free Appropriate
Public Education (“FAPE”) for the 2014-15 school
year. Hearing Officer Determination at 3. Second, they
contended that DCPS's IEP-which it eventually created for
T.C. in October 2014-provided T.C. with “an inadequate
amount of special education hours, insufficient occupational
therapy, insufficient assistive technology, and inappropriate
and insufficient goals and objectives, ” therefore
denying him a FAPE. Hearing Officer Determination at 3.
Third, Plaintiffs claimed that in preparing the October 2014
IEP, DCPS failed to consider T.C.'s most recent
evaluations, disregarded Plaintiffs' concerns, and
improperly convened an IEP team “without the presence
of a general education teacher.” Hearing Officer
Determination at 4.
administrative due process hearing was set for April 2015,
but had to be rescheduled to the next month, because
Plaintiffs had a personal emergency. Compl. ¶ 4; Hearing
Officer Determination at 2. After the hearing, Hearing
Officer Michael Lazan (“the Hearing Officer”),
awarded Plaintiffs most of the relief they sought. The
Hearing Officer ordered DCPS to modify T.C.'s IEP to
include specialized instruction, provide a psychoeducational
assessment, and convene an IEP team to review the assessment
and “formulate an appropriate program” for T.C.
Hearing Officer Determination at 18.
February 2016, Plaintiffs' counsel, Elizabeth Jester,
submitted an application for payment of attorneys' fees
to DCPS under the fee-shifting provision of the IDEA. Compl.
¶ 5; Pls.' Mot. Summ. J., Ex. 2, ECF No. 7-5. As of
the filing of the complaint on September 7, 2016, Plaintiffs
had not received any payment from the District. Compl. ¶
support of their claim for attorneys' fees, Plaintiffs
filed the affidavits of four attorneys who frequently
represent clients involved in IDEA litigation. See
Verified Statement of Douglas Tyrka (“Tyrka
Aff.”), ECF No. 7-11; Verified Statement of Diana M.
Savit (“Savit Aff.”), ECF No. 7-12; Verified
Statement of Domiento C.R. Hill (“Hill Aff.”),
ECF No. 7-13; Verified Statement of Alana Hecht (“Hecht
Aff.”), ECF No. 7-14. These affidavits provide
information on the practitioners' IDEA litigation
experience, their perceived complexity of the proceedings,
and their hourly rates charged. Plaintiffs' first
affiant, Douglas Tyrka, states that his firm has billed DCPS
for hundreds of cases, and each bill has requested the full
rate in the USAO Laffey matrix. Tyrka Aff. ¶
13. The second affiant states that she bills the same amount
for IDEA cases and non-IDEA cases, and that IDEA cases are
“at least as complex as employment discrimination and
commercial dispute work.” Savit Aff. ¶¶ 5-6.
The third affiant states that he has “restricted
[him]self” to charging seventy-five percent of the USAO
Laffey matrix rates, because his firm values speedy
recovery of fees over the prospect of full Laffey
rates. Hill Aff. ¶ 14. The final affiant cited by
Plaintiffs states that she is “typically awarded at
least $270.00 per hour for [her] IDEA work.” Hecht Aff.
the IDEA, “every child with a disability in this
country is entitled to a ‘free appropriate public
education, ' or FAPE.” Leggett v. District of
Columbia, 793 F.3d 59, 62 (D.C. Cir. 2015) (quoting 20
U.S.C. § 1400(d)(1)(A)). The “primary
purpose” of the IDEA is “to ensure that all
children with disabilities have available to them a[n] . . .
education that emphasizes special education and related
services designed to . . . prepare them for further
education, employment, and independent living.”
Id. at 63 (quoting 20 U.S.C. § 1400(d)(1)(A))
(alteration in original). “A free appropriate public
education entitles ‘each child with a disability'
to an ‘individualized education program' that is
tailored to meet his or her unique needs.” Henry v.
District of Columbia, 750 F.Supp.2d 94, 96 (D.D.C. 2010)
(quoting 20 U.S.C. §§ 1414(d)(1)(A)-(2)(A)).
is the “primary vehicle” for implementing the
IDEA. Lesesne ex rel. B.F. v. District of Columbia,
447 F.3d 828, 830 (D.C. Cir. 2006). IEPs are
“[p]repared at meetings between a representative of the
local school district, the child's teacher, the parents
or guardians, and, whenever appropriate, the disabled
child.” Id. (alteration in original). It
“sets out the child's present educational
performance, establishes annual and short-term objectives for
improvements in that performance, and describes the specially
designed instruction and services that will enable the child
to meet those objectives.” Id.
the parents of a student with a disability are dissatisfied
with a school district or agency's “identification,
evaluation, or educational placement of the child, or the
provision of a free appropriate public education to such
child, ” 20 U.S.C. § 1415(b)(6), the IDEA entitles
them to an “impartial due process hearing, ”
id. § 1415(f). If a hearing officer finds that
a school district or agency denied a child a FAPE, he may
award, among other remedies, compensatory education, which is
“educational services . . . to be provided
prospectively to compensate for a past deficient
program.” Reid ex rel. Reid v. District of
Columbia, 401 F.3d 516, 522 (D.C. Cir. 2005)
(quoting G. ex rel. RG v. Fort Bragg Dependent
Schs., 343 F.3d 295, 308 (4th Cir. 2003)). Any party
aggrieved by the hearing officer's determination may
bring a civil action in state or federal court. See
20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2).
the IDEA, prevailing parties in the administrative
proceedings are entitled to an award of reasonable
attorneys' fees and costs. 20 U.S.C. §
1415(i)(3)(B). The Laffey Matrix is a fee schedule
used in some cases to determine reasonable hourly rates for
legal work. See generally Laffey v. Nw. Airlines,
Inc., 572 F.Supp. 354, 371-75 (D.D.C. 1983),
aff'd in part, rev'd in part on other
grounds, 746 F.2d 4 (D.C. Cir. 1984), overruled in
part on other grounds; Save Our Cumberland
Mountains, Inc. v. Hodel, 857 F.2d 1516 (D.C. Cir. 1988)
(establishing the first Laffey fee matrix, in the
context of a longstanding employment discrimination class
action). It is not unique to the IDEA. See, e.g.,
Laffey, 572 F.Supp. 354. The United States
Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia prepares
the matrix for use in federal litigation cases in which a
“fee-shifting” statute allows prevailing
plaintiffs to recover their attorneys' fees. See Eley
v. District of Columbia, 793 F.3d 97, 101 (D.C. Cir.
2015); see also USAO Attorney's Fees
Matrix-2016-2017 (“2016-2017 Laffey
Matrix”), Civil Div. of the U.S. Attorney's Office
visited July 23, 2017); USAO Attorney's Fees
Matrix-2015-2016 (“2015-2016 Laffey
Matrix”), Civil Div. of the U.S. Attorney's Office
visited July 23, 2017); USAO Attorney's Fees
Matrix-2014-2015 (“2014-15 Laffey
Matrix”), Civil Div. of the U.S. Attorney's Office
(last visited July 23, 2017). Updated Laffey Matrix
rates are available through the U.S. Attorney's
Office's website. See Civil Division, U.S.
Attorney's Office for D.C.,
https://www.justice.gov/usao-dc/civil-division (last updated
Aug. 23, 2017) (publishing links to Laffey matrices
at the bottom of the webpage).
judgment is warranted when “the movant shows that there
is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant
is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.”
Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The movant bears the initial burden of
identifying portions of the record that demonstrate the
absence of any genuine issue of material fact. See
Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(1); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett,
477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). In response, the non-movant must
point to specific facts in the record that reveal a genuine
issue that is suitable for trial. See Id. at 324. In
an action for attorneys' fees following an administrative
proceeding under the IDEA, the “party moving for
summary judgment on legal fees must demonstrate prevailing
party status and the reasonableness of the fees requested in
terms of hours spent and hourly rate.” McAllister
v. District of Columbia, 21 F.Supp.3d 94, 99 (D.D.C.
parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment on the
amount of attorneys' fees owed to Plaintiffs.
See Pls.' P. & A. Supp. Pls.' Mot. Summ.
J. (“Pls.' Mot. Summ. J.”), ECF No. 7-2;
Def.'s Cross-Mot. Summ. J. (“Def.'s Mot. Summ.
J.”), ECF No. 8. Plaintiffs seek $54, 813.08, calculated
using the full rates in the USAO Laffey Matrix.
Compl. ¶ 7; Pls.' Mot. Summ. J. at 6; see
Pls.' Mot. Summ. J., Ex. 3 (“J & W
Invoice”), ECF No. 7-6. The District argues that the
Court should award an hourly rate equal to three-quarters of
the applicable Laffey Matrix rates. See
Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. at 12-14.
the IDEA, a district court 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). Thus, in cases like this, courts use a
two-step inquiry: first, the court must determine whether the
party seeking attorney's fees is the prevailing party,
and second, the court must determine whether the requested
fees are reasonable. See Jackson v. District of
Columbia, 696 F.Supp.2d 97, 101 (D.D.C. 2010). The Court
first addresses Plaintiffs' status as the prevailing
party in the administrative due process hearing. The Court
will then determine the appropriate fee award based on the
reasonableness of Plaintiffs' counsel's hourly rate.
argue that they were the prevailing parties in the underlying
administrative due process proceedings. Compl. ¶ 4;
Pls.' Statement ¶ 4, ECF No. 7-1. The District does
not dispute Plaintiffs' status as prevailing parties.
Def.'s Resp. Pls.' Statement ¶ 4, ECF No. 8-1.
The Court agrees with the parties.
District of Columbia v. Straus, the Court of Appeals
applied a three-part test to determine prevailing party
status: “(1) there must be a ‘court-ordered
change in the legal relationship' of the parties; (2) the
judgment must be in favor of the party seeking the fees; and
(3) the judicial pronouncement must be accompanied by
judicial relief.” 590 F.3d 898, 901 (D.C. Cir. 2010)
(quoting Thomas v. Nat'l Sci. Found., 330 F.3d
486, 492-93 (D.C. Cir. 2003)). A party need not succeed on
every claim to be the prevailing party; in calculating fee
awards, it is within a court's discretion to consider the
extent to which a party prevails on various issues.
Joaquin v. Friendship Pub. Charter Sch., 188
F.Supp.3d 1, 7 (D.D.C. 2016) (citing Hensley v.
Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433-37 (1933)).
the Hearing Officer found that DCPS denied T.C. a FAPE,
altering the relationship between the parties and satisfying
the first prong of Straus. See Hearing
Officer Determination at 12. As for the second and third
prongs, the Hearing Officer awarded Plaintiffs nearly all the
relief they sought and entered an Order in Plaintiffs'
favor, requiring DCPS to make various adjustments in
T.C.'s IEP. Hearing Officer Determination at 17-18.
Therefore, Plaintiffs obtained a favorable judgment and
declaratory relief. Taken together, Plaintiffs were indeed
the prevailing parties in the due process hearing. The Court
thus proceeds to determine the appropriate attorneys'
fees and costs award.
Appropriate Fee Award
prevailing parties in the administrative proceedings,
Plaintiffs seek reimbursement of their attorneys' fees at
the full applicable USAO Laffey Matrix rates because
they allege that these rates are the prevailing market rates
for IDEA litigation. Jester Decl. ¶¶ 10-12, ECF No.
7-7; see Pls.' Mot. Summ. J. at 5-15; J & W
Invoice. The District contends that Plaintiffs have failed to
show that full Laffey Matrix rates are the
prevailing fee rates in the IDEA litigation community.
Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. at 5-7. Instead, the District
argues, the Court should reduce the Plaintiffs' fee award
by twenty-five percent given that the USAO Laffey
Matrix applies to complex federal litigation, not IDEA
proceedings, and that this is the position taken by an
“overwhelming majority” of the courts in this
circuit. Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. at 10 & n.2, 12-14. The
Court agrees with the District.
plaintiffs succeed in their administrative IDEA actions, the
Court, “in its discretion, may award reasonable
attorneys' fees.” 20 U.S.C. §
1415(i)(3)(B)(i). Under the IDEA, the fee award “shall
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).
If the Court finds that the requested attorneys' fees
“unreasonably exceed the hourly rate prevailing in
the community for similar services by attorneys of reasonably
comparable skill, reputation, and experience, ” the
Court “shall reduce” any attorneys' fees
awarded accordingly. Id. § 1415(i)(3)(F)(ii).
Save Our Cumberland Mountains, Inc. v. Hodel
(“SOCM”), 857 F.2d 1516, 1517 (D.C. Cir.
1988), the D.C. Circuit developed a three-part test for
determining the appropriate amount of attorneys' fees to
award when statutes provide for such an award. First, the
Court must determine the “number of hours reasonably
expended in litigation.” Id.; see also
Eley v. District of Columbia, 793 F.3d 97, 100 (D.C.
Cir. 2015) (setting forth the SOCM test for
reasonable attorneys' fees as the appropriate test in
IDEA litigation). Second, the Court must set the
“reasonable hourly rate.” SOCM, 857 F.2d
at 1517. Third, the Court must determine whether the use of a
multiplier is warranted. Id.
District does not challenge the number of hours that
Plaintiffs' counsel expended litigating their IDEA case,
and the IDEA prohibits the use of any “bonus or
multiplier.” 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(C). Thus, the
Court addresses only the second prong in the SOCM
test-the reasonableness of Plaintiffs' counsel's
hourly rate. See Eley, 793 F.3d at 100 (analyzing
attorneys' fees similarly). The Court also addresses the
appropriateness of an award of fees for paralegal services.
argue that the attorneys' fees and costs they seek are
reasonable given the number of hours that Ms. Jester billed
and her hourly rate. Pls.' Mot. Summ. J. at 3. Ms.
Jester, they claim, should receive the full Laffey
rate because of her “modest and reasonable”
billing practices, her over thirty-five years' experience
and specialized knowledge of the practice area, and because
it represents the prevailing market rate in the IDEA
litigation community. Pls.' Mot. Summ. J. at 3-6. The
District does not dispute either the number of hours that
Plaintiffs' counsel billed or her billing practices.
See Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. However, the District
argues that Ms. Jester's hourly rate is unreasonable
because Plaintiffs have failed to demonstrate that full USAO
Laffey Matrix rates are the prevailing rates in the
IDEA community. Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. at 9- 11. The
District asserts that the underlying due process proceedings
were not sufficiently complex as to warrant an award of full
USAO Laffey Matrix rates and thus contends that
seventy-five percent of those rates is more appropriate.
Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. at 12-14. The Court agrees with the
District and reduces Plaintiffs' attorneys' fees by
determine the reasonableness of an hourly rate, the Court
must evaluate 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.” Covington v. District of Columbia,
57 F.3d 1101, 1107 (D.C. Cir. 1995). Because the District
argues only that Plaintiffs are incorrect in their assessment
of the prevailing rate in the community for IDEA litigation,
see generally Def.'s Mot. Summ J. at 5-11, the
Court only addresses that element.
must “fix the prevailing hourly rate in each
particular case with a fair degree of accuracy.”
Nat'l Ass'n of Concerned Veterans v. Sec'y of
Def., 675 F.2d 1319, 1325 (D.C. Cir. 1982); see also
Eley, 793 F.3d at 100. The plaintiff bears the burden of
“produc[ing] satisfactory evidence-in addition to the
attorney's own affidavits-that the requested rates are in
line with those prevailing in the community for similar
services by lawyers of reasonably comparable skill,
experience, and reputation.” Blum v. Stenson,
465 U.S. 886, 895 n.11 (1984); see Eley, 793 F.3d at
100; Taylor v. District of Columbia, 205 F.Supp.3d
75, 84 (D.D.C. 2016) (same); see also Natl'l
Ass'n of Concerned Veterans, 675 F.2d at 1325
(“An applicant is required to provide specific
evidence of the prevailing community rate for the type of
work for which he seeks an award.” (emphasis added)).
applicants may submit a relevant attorneys' fee matrix,
which serves as “‘a useful starting point' in
calculating the prevailing market rate.” Eley,
793 F.3d at 100 (quoting Covington, 57 F.3d at
1109). If IDEA plaintiffs wish to request rates based on the
Laffey Matrix, they must provide
“‘evidence that their ‘requested rates are
in line with those prevailing in the community for
similar services, ' i.e., IDEA
litigation.” Eley, 793 F.3d at 104 (quoting
Covington, 57 F.3d at 1109). Such evidence may be
found in “ surveys [that] update [the Matrix]; 
affidavits reciting the precise fees that attorneys with
similar qualifications have received from fee-paying
clients in comparable cases; and  evidence of recent fees
awarded by the courts or through settlement to attorneys with
comparable qualifications handling similar cases.”
Id. at 101 (emphasis added) (internal quotation
marks omitted) (quoting Covington, 57 F.3d at 1109).
As the D.C. Circuit has made clear, a district court may not
simply conclude that “some version of the
Laffey matrix is presumptively reasonable.”
Eley, 793 F.3d at 105 (internal quotation mark
omitted) (quoting Eley v. District of Columbia, 999
F.Supp.2d 137, 159 (D.D.C. 2013))); see also Snead v.
District of Columbia, 139 F.Supp.3d 375, 379 (D.D.C.
2015) (“Laffey should not be the default rate
for fees awarded pursuant to [the] IDEA.”).
provide five justifications for their request for the
Laffey Matrix rate. First, they produce affidavits
from other IDEA practitioners describing their hourly rates.
Pls.' Mot. Summ. J. at 7-8, ECF No. 7-2. Second,
Plaintiffs argue that this case is uniquely complex.
Id. at 9-15. Third, Plaintiffs cite cases-which they
contend are similar to this one-where attorneys have received
the rates they sought, including some awards at
Laffey Matrix rates. Pls.' Mot. Summ. J. at
9-15. Fourth, Plaintiffs provide the United States's
Statement of Interest filed in Eley, which discusses
the various Laffey matrices. Id. at 8-9;
Pls.' Mot. Summ. J., Ex. 12 (“Statement of
Interest”), ECF No. 7-15. Fifth, Plaintiffs urge the