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Merrick v. District of Columbia

United States District Court, District of Columbia

July 13, 2018

TAMECKA MERRICK, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          AMY BERMAN JACKSON, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiffs Tamecka Merrick and her adult son, Ronald Washington, brought this action against defendant, the District of Columbia, seeking to collect attorneys' fees incurred while bringing a successful administrative action under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. § 1400, et seq. Now pending before the Court is plaintiffs' motion for attorneys' fees and costs.[1] Pls.' Mot. for Att'ys' Fees [Dkt. # 7] ("Pls.' Mot."); Pls.' Mem. of P. & A. in Supp. of Pls.' Mot. [Dkt. # 7] ("Pls.' Mem") at 2.

         Plaintiffs are seeking $37, 682.80 in attorneys' fees and $73.50 in costs related to the underlying administrative action, Compl. [Dkt. # 1] ¶ 21; Statement of Account, Ex. 12 to Pls.' Mem. [Dkt. # 7-12] ("Statement of Account I") at 12, in addition to $21, 013.40 in attorneys' fees and $492.40 in costs for pursing this action in federal court. See Pls.' Mem. at 13; Statement of Account, Ex. 1 to Pls.' Suppl. Filing. [Dkt. # 11-1] ("Statement of Account II") at 5.

         For the following reasons, the motion will be granted in part. The Court will award $36, 583.20 in attorneys' fees and $73.50 in costs for pursuing the underlying administrative proceeding, and $12, 000.00 in attorneys' fees and $492.40 in costs for litigating the fee petition in this Court.

         BACKGROUND

         Ronald Washington is a deaf adult student who requires instruction to be provided in American Sign Language ("ASL"). Hearing Officer Determination, Ex. 1 to Pls.' Mem. [Dkt. # 7-1] ("HOD") at 2; see also Id. ¶ 2. He also suffers from impulsive and anger-based behavioral outbursts. Id. ¶ 6. He has attended more than a dozen public, non-public, and residential placements in the last seven years. Id. ¶ 4; Pls.' Mem. at 2-3.

         At the end of November 2016, Mr. Washington was released from a D.C. Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services ("DYRS") school and was placed in a foster home in Maryland. HOD at 1-2; see also Id. ¶ 1. Prior to his release, Stevie Nabors, Mr. Washington's court-appointed special education advocate, emailed the District of Columbia Public Schools' Director of Special Education and requested an Individualized Education Program ("IEP") meeting for Mr. Washington. Pls.' Mem. at 3; see also Ex. 2 to Pls.' Mem. [Dkt. # 7-2]. Mr. Nabors had a conference call with several employees at District of Columbia Public Schools ("DCPS"), but DCPS did not adopt the program he proposed, and it did not offer to convene an IEP meeting. Pls.' Mem. at 3.

         Following DCPS' refusal to provide services or convene an IEP meeting, Ms. Merrick filed an administrative due process complaint on her son's behalf. Compl. ¶ 9. She alleged that DCPS denied her son a free appropriate public education ("FAPE") when it failed to provide him with special education services such as ASL tutoring. Id. ¶ 11; Pls.' Mem. at 3; HOD at 2-3. Further, she requested the following forms of relief: (1) an order compelling DCPS to provide Mr. Washington with special education services by an ALS certified instructor through DCPS' Home and Hospital Instruction Program ("HHIP"); (2) a compensatory education award in the form of 150 hours of instruction in ASL; and (3) an independent evaluation to determine appropriate compensatory education for Mr. Washington. HOD at 3; 12-14.

         The Hearing Officer concluded that DCPS did indeed deny Mr. Washington a FAPE when it failed to implement his IEP after he was placed in a foster home in late November 2016. HOD at 12. And on April 6, 2017, the Hearing Officer ordered that Mr. Washington receive 120 hours of individual tutoring in ASL either through DCPS or through an independent tutor funded by DCPS at market rates. HOD at 15; Compl. ¶¶ 11-12; Pls.' Mem. at 4.

         On October 16, 2017, plaintiffs filed a complaint in this Court seeking to collect fees and costs incurred as part of the administrative hearing. See generally Compl. Plaintiffs filed a motion for attorneys' fees on January 12, 2018, see Pls.' Mot., and the motion is fully briefed.[2]

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Under the IDEA, the Court has the discretion to "award reasonable attorneys' fees as part of the costs ... to a prevailing party" in an administrative proceeding "who is the parent of a child with a disability." 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B)(i)(I). If a court determines that the plaintiff seeking attorneys' fees is a prevailing party, it must determine whether the requested attorneys' fees are reasonable. Reed v. District of Columbia, 843 F.3d 517, 520 (D.C. Cir. 2016). Courts typically determine the reasonableness of attorneys' fees based on the "number of hours reasonably expended on the litigation multiplied by a reasonable hourly rate." Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983).

         A plaintiff bears the burden of establishing both the reasonableness of the hourly rate and the reasonableness of the number of hours spent on a particular task. Eley v. District of Columbia, 793 F.3d 97, 100 (D.C. Cir. 2015), citing Covington v. District of Columbia, 57 F.3d 1101, 1107- 08 (D.C. Cir. 1995); see also In re North, 59 F.3d 184, 189 (D.C. Cir. 1995). To show the reasonableness of the hourly rates, a plaintiff must submit evidence related to: (1) "the attorneys' billing practices"; (2) "the attorneys' skill, experience, and reputation"; and (3) "the prevailing market rates in the relevant community." Covington, 57 F.3d at 1107. To show the reasonableness of hours spent on a task, a plaintiff must submit a "sufficiently detailed [invoice] to permit the District Court to make an independent determination whether or not the hours claimed are justified." Nat'l Ass'n of Concerned Veterans v. Sec'y of Def, 675 F.2d 1319, 1327 (D.C. Cir. 1982).

         After the moving party has met this burden, the number of hours and rate are presumed reasonable, and the non-moving party must rebut the moving party's showing with "equally specific countervailing evidence." Covington, 57 F.3d at 1109-10, quoting Nat'l Ass'n of Concerned Veterans, 675 F.2d at 1326.

         ANALYSIS

         Defendant does not dispute that plaintiffs were the prevailing parties in the underlying administrative action within the meaning of the IDEA and that they are therefore entitled to some amount of attorneys' fees. See Def's Opp. at 2. The only question before the Court is whether the attorneys' fees sought by plaintiffs are reasonable.

         I. The hours expended by plaintiffs' counsel were reasonable.

         Plaintiffs ask for $37, 682.80 for 96.5 hours of work performed to litigate the underlying administrative proceeding. Defendant does not take issue with the documentation provided in support of this request, or with any specific hours billed.[3] However, it argues that a" 15% reduction is appropriate because much of the relief sought was not obtained." Def.'s Opp. at 19.[4] At a minimum, defendant asks the Court to "reduce the invoice by the hours devoted exclusively to the placement sought but not obtained," and it points to an entry for 1.5 hours of work that related exclusively to the HHIP placement request. Id.; see Statement of Account I at 1 ("Legal research: requirements for Home/Hospital Instruction Program ("HHIP") and whether RW would qualify.").

         Plaintiffs have the burden of demonstrating that the number of hours expended on particular tasks by their attorneys were reasonable. Nat'l Ass'n of Concerned Veterans, 675 F.2d at 1327. Attorneys must "maintain contemporaneous, complete and standardized time records which accurately reflect the work done by each attorney." Id. "Where the documentation of hours is inadequate, the district court may reduce the award accordingly." Hensley, 461 U.S. at 433.

         Courts also have the discretion to reduce attorneys' fees awards to account for partial or limited success on the merits by either eliminating specific hours or reducing the award as a whole. Hensley, 461 U.S. at 436-37. For purposes of reducing the award amount based on the lack of success, a court should consider whether "the plaintiff achieve[d] a level of success that makes the hours reasonably expended a satisfactory basis for making a fee award." Id. at 434. This is a results-oriented inquiry: "it is the degree of the plaintiffs success that is the critical factor to the determination of the size of a reasonable fee." AS. v. District of Columbia, 842 F.Supp.2d 40, 47 (D.D.C. 2012), citing Tex. State Teachers Ass'n v. Garland Indep. Sch. Dist., 489 U.S. 782, 786(1989).

         Here, the student's parent brought an administrative complaint in order to litigate one issue: whether Mr. Washington was denied a FAPE when DCPS failed to implement his IEP when he moved into a foster home. The complaint sought three forms of relief for the alleged violation of the IDEA: (1) an order compelling DCPS to provide Mr. Washington with a certified ASL tutor through the Home and Hospital Instruction Program; (2) 150 hours of compensatory education; and (3) an independent education evaluation. HOD at 3; 12-14.

         For the reasons set out in the Hearing Officer's decision, the relief awarded was 120 hours of compensatory education in AS. See HOD at 15. But the Court does not find it to be appropriate to reduce the attorneys' fees award by fifteen percent. "A reduced fee award is appropriate if the relief... is limited in comparison to the scope of the litigation as a whole." Hensley, 461 U.S. at 440; see, e.g., Young v. District of Columbia, 139 F.Supp.3d 15, 23-24 (D.D.C. 2015) (reducing the fee award by twenty-five percent because the plaintiff only prevailed on one of the three issues presented, and the hearing officer denied all relief sought except for compensatory education). That is not the case here. Ultimately, Ms. Merrick was successful on the fundamental issue that was litigated before the administrative board, and Mr. Washington received the primary form of relief requested: continued instruction by a qualified ASL tutor to make up for the hours of education he had been denied. See HOD at 15. Generally, an attorney "should recover a fully compensatory fee" where "a plaintiff has obtained excellent results." Hensley, 461 U.S. at 435.

         Moreover, it seems as if the 120 hours of compensatory education was awarded in place of an independent education evaluation because awarding both would have been duplicative. See Def's Opp. at 19 ("The award lacked an [independent education evaluation], but did provide compensatory education, which was the purpose behind seeking an [independent education evaluation]"). And, the Hearing Officer rejected Ms. Merrick's request for services through the HHIP because that would have marked a significant change in the student's educational placement. HOD at 12. Since his IEP team was scheduled to meet soon, the Hearing Officer concluded that "it would not be appropriate ... to dictate [Mr. Washington's] ongoing placement." Id. at 12-13.

         Finally, the administrative hearing involved one claim based on one set of facts and legal theories, and the expenditure of attorney time would not have changed dramatically if the hearing officer had awarded the other forms of requested relief. See Hensley, 461 U.S. at 435 ("[T]he district court should focus on the significance of the overall relief obtained by the plaintiff in relation to the hours reasonably expended on the litigation"). However, the Court does recognize that Mr. Washington was not awarded special education services through the HHIP, so it will reduce the total hours expended by the 1.5 hour time entry identified by defendant. See Statement of Account I at 1.

         Therefore, the Court finds that plaintiffs' counsel reasonably expended 96.5 hours of work, but it will reduce the award by $483.00, which reflects the 1.5 hours charged by Mr. Nabors on October 3, 2016 ...


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