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Cox v. District of Columbia

United States District Court, District of Columbia

August 31, 2017

THOMAS COX, SR., et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, Defendant. Re Document Nos. 7, 8

          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 SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          RUDOLPH CONTRERAS, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Plaintiffs, 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 part.

         II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         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.

         An 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.

         In 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. ¶ 5.

         In 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. ¶ 13.

         III. LEGAL BACKGROUND

         Under 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)).

         The IEP 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.

         When 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).

         Under 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 for D.C., https://www.justice.gov/usao-dc/file/889176/download (last visited July 23, 2017); USAO Attorney's Fees Matrix-2015-2016 (“2015-2016 Laffey Matrix”), Civil Div. of the U.S. Attorney's Office for D.C., https://www.justice.gov/usao-dc/file/796471/download (last visited July 23, 2017); USAO Attorney's Fees Matrix-2014-2015 (“2014-15 Laffey Matrix”), Civil Div. of the U.S. Attorney's Office for D.C., https://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/usao-dc/legacy/2014/07/14/Laffey%20Matrix2014-2015.pdf (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).

         IV. LEGAL STANDARD

         Summary 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. 2014).

         V. ANALYSIS

         The 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.[1] 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.

         Under 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.

         A. Prevailing Party

         Plaintiffs 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.

         In 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)).

         Here, 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.

         B. Appropriate Fee Award

         As the 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.

         When 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).

         In 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.

         The 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.

         1. Attorneys' Fees

         Plaintiffs 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 twenty-five percent.

         To 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.

         Courts 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)).

         Fee 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 “[1] surveys [that] update [the Matrix]; [2] affidavits reciting the precise fees that attorneys with similar qualifications have received from fee-paying clients in comparable cases; and [3] 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.”).

         Plaintiffs 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 Court ...


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