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Lee v. District of Columbia

United States District Court, District of Columbia

January 12, 2018

JUANISHIA LEE, Plaintiff,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Amit P. Mehta United States District Judge

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Plaintiff Juanishia Lee, acting on behalf of her minor child, J.K., seeks an award of attorneys' fees and costs under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”) for her counsel's successful representation of J.K. during administrative proceedings and in the instant litigation. Plaintiff contends that she is entitled to $103, 097.75 in fees and costs. Defendant District of Columbia does not contest Plaintiff's status as a prevailing party under the IDEA or the number of hours spent by her counsel to represent J.K., but does assert that the proposed hourly rates for Plaintiff's counsel are not supported by adequate evidence and therefore are unreasonable. Defendant asks the court to award Plaintiff no more than $77, 415.44 in fees and costs.

         After considering the parties' submissions and the relevant law, the court grants in part and denies in part Plaintiff's Motion for Attorney Fees. The court awards attorneys' fees and costs to Plaintiff, calculated at an hourly rate of 75% of the USAO Matrix, in the amount of $77, 616.50.

         II. BACKGROUND

         “The IDEA requires the District [of Columbia] to provide disabled children with a ‘free appropriate public education.'” Eley v. District of Columbia, 793 F.3d 97, 99 (D.C. Cir. 2015) (quoting 20 U.S.C. § 1400(d)(1)(A)). A free appropriate public education (“FAPE”) requires that each child with a disability receive “special education and related services that” are “provided at public expense” and “in conformity with the [child's] individualized education program.” 20 U.S.C. § 1401(9). If the District of Columbia fails to provide a FAPE, the child's parents can file a due process complaint with the District Office of the State Superintendent of Education and receive an administrative hearing. See Id. § 1415; Eley, 793 F.3d at 99. “And if the administrative-complaint route fails, the parents can sue the District [of Columbia] in district court.” Eley, 793 F.3d at 99 (citing 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2)-(3)).

         In this case, Plaintiff's minor child, J.K., became eligible for special services education under the IDEA as a result of severe injuries resulting from a shooting in June 2014. See Def.'s Cross-Mot. for Summ. J. & Opp'n to Pl.'s Mot. for Summ. J., ECF No. 12, at 4. On June 5, 2015, Plaintiff filed an administrative due process complaint with the State Superintendent of Education's Office of Dispute Resolution, claiming that the District of Columbia Public Schools (“DCPS”) had failed to provide J.K. a FAPE as required by the IDEA. See Pl.'s Mot. for Attorney Fees, ECF No. 22 [hereinafter Pl.'s Mot.], at 3;[1] Admin. R., Part I, ECF No. 9, Ex. 1, ECF No. 9-1 [hereinafter ECF No. 9-1], at 4.[2] See generally 20 U.S.C. § 1400(d)(1)(A). The Hearing Officer agreed, finding that DCPS had failed to develop an Individualized Education Plan, and provide an appropriate placement, for J.K. Pl.'s Mot. at 3; see also ECF No. 9-1 at 20-21. Accordingly, the Hearing Officer concluded that DCPS had denied J.K. a FAPE for the 2014-2015 school year. See Lee v. District of Columbia, No. 15-cv-1802, 2017 WL 44288, at *1 (D.D.C. Jan. 3, 2017) (citing ECF No. 9-1 at 18-21).

         Notwithstanding these findings, the Hearing Officer declined to award J.K. any compensatory education. The Hearing Officer so held because Plaintiff “did not offer any evidence at the due process hearing of ‘the type and quantum of compensatory education' needed to place [J.K.] ‘in the same position he would have occupied but for the [] violations of the IDEA.'” Id. at *1 (alterations in original) (quoting ECF No. 9-1 at 24-25). Plaintiff appealed the Hearing Officer's denial of compensatory education by filing the instant action. See Compl., ECF No. 1, ¶¶ 1-2.

         After briefing cross-motions for summary judgment, the parties agreed that the matter should be remanded to the Hearing Officer to fashion an appropriate award of compensatory education, but they disagreed as to how the Hearing Officer should proceed on remand. See Lee, 2017 WL 44288, at *1. Plaintiff argued that the burden to craft an appropriate award fell on the Hearing Officer, while Defendant maintained that Plaintiff was required to come forward with sufficient evidence to support an award. See Id. The court found that “a hearing officer cannot deny a compensatory education award simply because she is left wanting more evidence.” Id. Instead, the Hearing Officer has two options under such circumstances: (1) “[s]he can provide the parties additional time to supplement the record, ” or (2) “she can order additional assessments as needed.” See Id. at *2. Ultimately, the court granted Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment, denied Defendant's Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment, and remanded the matter to the Hearing Officer to develop an appropriate compensatory education award. See id.; Order, ECF No. 18. Following the court's order, Plaintiff and DCPS reached a settlement that resolved all issues except the attorneys' fees sought by Plaintiff. See Joint Proposed Briefing Schedule, ECF No. 21. The parties' fees dispute is now before the court.

         III. LEGAL STANDARD

         To protect the right to a FAPE, “Congress enacted a fee-shifting provision entitling a prevailing party . . . to reasonable attorneys' fees.” Price v. District of Columbia, 792 F.3d 112, 113 (D.C. Cir. 2015) (internal quotation marks omitted). Under the IDEA, a “court, in its discretion, may award reasonable attorneys' fees as part of the costs . . . to a prevailing party who is the parent of a child with a disability.” 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B)(i). An IDEA 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, however, “that ‘the amount of the attorneys' fees otherwise authorized to be awarded unreasonably exceeds the hourly rate prevailing in the community for similar services by attorneys of reasonably comparable skill, reputation, and experience, ' it ‘shall reduce . . . the amount of the attorneys' fees awarded.'” Eley, 793 F.3d at 99 (emphasis and alterations in original) (quoting 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(F)(ii)).

         The burden of establishing entitlement to a fee award under the IDEA rests with the fee applicant. See Reed v. District of Columbia, 843 F.3d 517, 520 (D.C. Cir. 2016). The applicant must establish that she qualifies as a prevailing party, document the appropriate hours spent by counsel, and justify the reasonableness of the rate requested. Cf. Covington v. District of Columbia, 57 F.3d 1101, 1107 (D.C. Cir. 1995) (explaining burden-shifting in context of a fees petition under 42 U.S.C. § 1988); Reed, 843 F.3d at 520-21. Once the applicant has shown that the claimed rate and hours are reasonable, the resulting sum is presumed to be a reasonable fee. See Covington, 57 F.3d at 1109. At that point, the defendant can challenge the request for attorneys' fees, but it must do so with specific countervailing evidence. See Id. at 1109-10.

         As noted above, Defendant does not challenge Plaintiff's status as a prevailing party or the hours spent by Plaintiff's lawyers to represent her son. See Def.'s Opp'n to Pl.'s Mot. for Attorney Fees, ECF No. 24 [hereinafter Def.'s Opp'n]. Accordingly, the court's discussion focuses only on the parties' dispute as to the reasonableness of Plaintiff's requested hourly rate.

         IV. DISCUSSION

         Plaintiff in this case seeks an award of fees for the services of three lawyers: Carolyn Houck, Charles Moran, and Stevie Nabors. Pl.'s Mot. at 5. Houck is a solo practitioner in St. Michaels, Maryland, and Moran and Nabors are with the law firm of Moran & Associates located in Washington, D.C. Pl.'s. Mot., Ex. 4, Decl. of Charles A. Moran, ECF No. 22-6 [hereinafter Moran Decl.]; Pl.'s Mot., Ex. 5, Decl. of Carolyn Houck, ECF No. 22-7 [hereinafter Houck Decl.], ¶ 2; Pl.'s Mot., Ex. 6, Decl. of Stevie Nabors, ECF No. 22-8 [hereinafter Nabors Decl.]. From the lawyers' billing records, it appears that Houck primarily represented J.K. in the administrative proceedings and that Moran and Nabors represented J.K. only in the federal court litigation. See Pl.'s Mot., Ex. 2, ECF No. 22-4 [hereinafter Houck Billing Invoice]; Pl.'s Mot., Ex. 3, ECF No. 22-5 [hereinafter Moran Billing Invoice]. Plaintiff seeks an hourly rate of $504 for Houck, $568 for Moran, and $315 for Nabors. See Id. These rates align with the rates for lawyers of comparable years of experience as reflected in the United States Attorney's Office (“USAO”) Attorney's Fees Matrix [hereinafter “the USAO Matrix”]. See Pl.'s Mot., Ex. 7, ECF No. 22-9 [hereinafter USAO Matrix].[3]

         Defendant makes two basic objections to the fees sought by Plaintiff, although the two merge into one. First, Defendant argues that “the proposed hourly rates for Plaintiff's attorney are unreasonable and Plaintiff offers an insufficient factual basis to support these rates.” Def.'s Opp'n at 3.[4] Defendant proposes that Plaintiff's attorneys' hourly rates should not exceed 75% of the USAO Matrix rates. Id. at 10. Second, Defendant asserts that “Plaintiff's invoice has a number of [travel] entries which are not reimbursable under the IDEA.” Id. at 3. But that contention actually is no more than a plea that the court apply the 75% hourly rate to the allowable fees for counsel's travel time. Id. at 12-13. So, the court considers the two issues in tandem.

         To be reasonable, an IDEA fee award must be based on “rates prevailing in the community in which the action or proceeding arose for the kind and quality of services furnished.” See 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(C). “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 (quoting Covington, 57 F.3d at 1107). With respect to the last, and perhaps most important, element-the prevailing market rate in the relevant community-the applicant must “produce satisfactory evidence-in addition to [her] attorney's own affidavits-that [her] requested rates are in line with those prevailing in the community for similar ...


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