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McNeil v. District of Columbia

United States District Court, District of Columbia

September 28, 2018

JUDIE MCNEIL, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Amit P Mehta United States District Judge.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Plaintiff Judie McNeil and her son, J.M., now an adult and co-plaintiff, seek to collect $198, 653.43 in attorneys' fees and other costs associated with a successful action under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq., against Defendant District of Columbia.[1] Defendant does not contest Plaintiffs' status as a prevailing party under the IDEA, but does assert that the proposed hourly rates for Plaintiffs' counsel are not supported by adequate evidence and therefore are unreasonable. Moreover, Defendant asserts that attorneys' fees incurred before May 2013 are too attenuated to be compensated and that Plaintiffs cannot recover costs expended for experts. Defendant asks the court to award no more than $110, 311.54.

         After considering the parties' submissions and the relevant law, the court grants in part and denies in part Plaintiffs' Motion for Attorney Fees.[2] The court awards attorneys' fees and costs to Plaintiffs calculated at an hourly rate of 75% of the United States Attorney's Office Matrix, in the total amount of $140, 238.97.

         II. BACKGROUND

         The court described the factual and procedural background of this case in its previous opinion, which resolved the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment and remanded for further administrative proceedings. See generally McNeil v. District of Columbia, 217 F.Supp.3d 107 (D.D.C. 2016). Thus, the court need not repeat those details here. On remand, the Hearing Officer made several additional factual findings and determinations in Plaintiffs' favor and held that J.M. was entitled to compensatory education. Pl.'s Mot. for Fees & Costs, ECF No. 30 [hereinafter Pl.'s Mot.], at 3; Def.'s Mem. in Opp'n to Pl.'s Mot. for Fees & Costs, ECF No. 31 [hereinafter Def.'s Opp'n], at 3; see also Pl.'s Mot., Ex. 1, ECF No. 30-1, at 10-11. Thus, Plaintiffs succeeded in securing the relief they sought for J.M. See generally Compl., ECF No. 1, at 3.

         III. LEGAL STANDARD

         The IDEA provides “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). 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)(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 v. District of Columbia, 793 F.3d 97, 99 (D.C. Cir. 2015) (alteration in original) (emphasis omitted) (quoting 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(F)(ii)).

         Because the IDEA “provides no further guidance for determining an appropriate fee award, ” id. at 100, the D.C. Circuit applies a “two-part framework” to determine whether an award of attorneys' fees is “reasonable” under the statute's fee-shifting provision, see Reed v. District of Columbia, 843 F.3d 517, 520 (D.C. Cir. 2016). This framework takes into account “(1) the ‘number of hours reasonably expended in litigation'; and (2) the ‘reasonable hourly rate' for the services provided.” Reed, 843 F.3d at 520 (quoting Eley, 793 F.3d at 100).

         The burden of establishing entitlement to a fee award under the IDEA rests with the fee applicant. See Id. 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. See Id. at 520-21; cf. Covington v. District of Columbia, 57 F.3d 1101, 1107 (D.C. Cir. 1995) (explaining burden-shifting in the context of a fees petition under 42 U.S.C. § 1988). 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 contrary evidence tending to show that a lower rate would be appropriate.” Flood v. District of Columbia, 172 F.Supp.3d 197, 203 (D.D.C. 2016) (quoting Covington, 57 F.3d at 1109-10).

         The IDEA also allows “[p]arties who prevail at the administrative level [to] recover fees-on-fees . . . for time reasonably devoted to obtaining attorney's fees.” McNeil v. District of Columbia, 233 F.Supp.3d 150, 153 (D.D.C. 2017) (alterations in original) (quoting Kaseman v. District of Columbia, 444 F.3d 637, 640 (D.C. Cir. 2006)); see also Jones v. District of Columbia, 153 F.Supp.3d 114, 118 (D.D.C. 2015) (“The availability of reasonable attorneys' fees applies to fees incurred in IDEA litigation both before administrative agencies and in federal court, as well as to fees incurred to vindicate a plaintiff's right to fees.”). In a previous decision, this court outlined the relevant legal standards governing motions for attorneys' fees brought pursuant to the IDEA's fee-shifting provision, see James v. District of Columbia, 302 F.Supp.3d 213, 216-218 (D.D.C. 2018), and the court adopts and applies those standards here.

         IV. DISCUSSION

         A. Reasonableness of Rates

         Plaintiffs seek an award of fees for the services of two lawyers: Douglas Tyrka and Alana Hecht. See Pl.'s Mot., Ex. 2, ECF No. 30-2 [hereinafter Billing Itemization]; Pl.'s Mot., Ex. 3, ECF No. 30-3 [hereinafter Hecht Decl.]; Pl.'s Mot., Ex. 4, ECF No. 30-4 [hereinafter Tyrka Decl.]. Hecht is a solo practitioner and represented Plaintiffs in the administrative proceedings underlying this case. Hecht Decl. ¶ 2. Tyrka is the sole owner of the law firm Tyrka & Associates, LLC, and functions primarily as a solo practitioner. Tyrka Decl. ¶¶ 2, 42. From his billing records, it appears that Tyrka represented Plaintiffs only in the federal court litigation. See Billing Itemization at 37- 39. Plaintiffs seek an hourly rate of $483 for Hecht and $536 for Tyrka. See Billing Itemization. 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 for 2017-2018 (“the USAO Matrix”). See Pl.'s Mot., Ex. 12, ECF No. 30-12 [hereinafter USAO Matrix]; Def.'s Opp'n, Ex. 6, ECF No. 31-6, at 3. The USAO Matrix is a schedule of hourly billing rates for attorneys and paralegals/law clerks maintained by the Civil Division of the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia. See USAO Matrix at 1 n.1. The rates in the USAO Matrix “were calculated from average hourly rates reported in 2011 survey data for the D.C. metropolitan area, which rates were adjusted for inflation with the Producer Price Index-Office of Lawyers (PPI-OL) index.” Id. at 1 n.2. Defendant argues that Plaintiffs have provided “insufficient evidence that the hourly rate in the USAO Matrix is the ‘prevailing market rate' for attorneys practicing IDEA law in the District.” Def.'s Opp'n at 2.

         This court has comprehensively discussed the question of the prevailing market rate in IDEA litigation in this jurisdiction in two prior decisions. See generally James, 302 F.Supp.3d at 219-26; Lee v. District of Columbia, 298 F.Supp.3d 4, 12-15 (D.D.C. 2018). Those cases address the exact same evidence and arguments offered in support of Plaintiffs' fees petition in this case. Plaintiffs here present the same affidavits, the same survey of rates charged by IDEA attorneys in the District of Columbia, the same USAO Matrix, and cite the same authorities-all in an effort to show that the USAO Matrix rates reflect the prevailing hourly rate for IDEA litigation. Compare Pl.'s Mot. at 6-12, and Pl.'s Mot., Exs. 4-16, ECF Nos. 30-4-30-16, with James, 302 F.Supp.3d at 219-26. Additionally, the parties proffer the exact same evidence as the court considered in James on the related question of whether 75% of the ...


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