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K.P. v. District of Columbia

United States District Court, District of Columbia

November 27, 2018

K.P., et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          CHRISTOPHER R. COOPER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiffs Bridgette Palmer and her daughter Khadija[1] seek $375, 042.27 in attorneys' fees and costs after prevailing in a years-long effort for “stay-put” relief under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”), 20 U.S.C. § 1400, et seq. Defendant District of Columbia disputes several aspects of their motion: (1) the number of hours billed; (2) the hourly rates at which they were billed; (3) the use of current rates; and (4) the award of expert witness fees under D.C. law.

         The Court will grant the Palmers' motion in part. Specifically, it will award fees for all hours billed except for fifteen hours on remand; it will do so at 75% of the rates requested; it will apply current rates rather than historical ones; and it will award the Palmers expert witness costs under D.C. law, as well as other costs-undisputed by the District-under the IDEA. The total award comes to $277, 718.60.

         I. Background

         The IDEA guarantees developmentally disabled children a free appropriate public Education (“FAPE”). 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(1)(A). To effectuate this guarantee, the IDEA requires local school systems to develop an individualized education program (“IEP”) for each disabled student. Id. § 1412(a)(4).

         Khadija Palmer is autistic. Shortly after she began high school in October 2012, Khadija was placed in a specialized program for high-functioning autistic students at Cardozo High School within the District of Columbia Public School System (“DCPS”). See Compl. ¶ 11. In October 2014, DCPS eliminated Khadija's program and transferred her to a larger program that differed from her previous placement in several ways: larger class sizes; instruction by multiple teachers in multiple classrooms; a mix of students with a variety of different disabilities; and greater interaction with non-disabled peers. Id. ¶¶ 14-17.

         Khadija's parents objected to the change, leading to an administrative hearing in May 2015. A hearing officer concluded that the change in placement and DCPS's previous failure to include in Khadija's IEP information about appropriate classroom settings had denied her a FAPE. Id. ¶¶ 23-30. The hearing officer ordered DCPS to craft a new IEP for Khadija but denied the Palmers' request for an order requiring DCPS to fund Khadija's placement in a private-school program resembling the Cardozo program in which she had been previously enrolled.

         In July 2015, DCPS convened a “summer IEP team” that included no one who had interacted with Khadija during the school year. Id. ¶¶ 32-33. At that IEP meeting, it disclosed that Khadija would be placed in a similar setting to her post-October 2014 placement-with a larger class size than her pre-October 2014 placement, multiple teachers, and more interaction with non-disabled students. Id. ¶¶ 34-39.

         In August 2015, the Palmers filed suit in this Court, contesting the administrative hearing officer's denial of private-school placement, as well as DCPS's new IEP for purported failure to comply with the hearing officer's decision. They sought injunctive relief in the form of a “stay-put” order that would entitle Khadija, while IDEA proceedings pended, to a placement in a public- or private-school program with the same elements as her pre-October 2014 placement at Cardozo. See 20 U.S.C. § 1415(j) (“[D]uring the pendency of any proceedings conducted pursuant to [the IDEA] . . . the child shall remain in the then-current educational placement of the child”).

         This Court, adopting the recommendation of a magistrate judge, denied stay-put relief in September 2015, K.P. v. District of Columbia, No. 15-1365, 2015 WL 5542991 (D.D.C. Sept. 18, 2015), prompting the Palmers to file an appeal on October 16, 2015. Nearly four months later, on February 10, 2016, the D.C. Circuit stayed the case pending resolution of another matter. After it lifted the stay, the Circuit heard oral arguments in the case on December 9, 2016 and reversed this Court's denial of stay-put relief on March 31, 2017. K.P. v. District of Columbia, 690 Fed.Appx. 10 (D.C. Cir. 2017). All told, nearly 18 months had passed between the Palmers' appeal and its resolution.

         By the time the case returned to this Court on remand in April 2017, Khadija was nearing her high school graduation and had been accepted for admission to Trinity Washington University. DCPS explained that a stay-put order-i.e., moving Khadija to a program that resembled her pre-October 2014 placement-would jeopardize her ability to graduate on time and attend college. At a post-remand hearing, it became clear that this outcome was not in Khadija's best interests and went against her wishes. Consequently, while the Court granted the stay-put injunctive relief, see April 11, 2017 Order, ECF No. 33, it stayed the injunction to allow Khadija to graduate, see April 18, 2017 Order, ECF No. 38. Instead, it allowed the Palmers to amend their complaint to seek compensatory education that would remedy the harm caused by her inability to attend an appropriate program between October 2014 and her spring 2017 graduation. In December 2017, an administrative hearing officer granted Khadija that relief, ordering the District of Columbia to fund 170 hours of tutoring and 20 hours of mentoring services for her. See Mot. for Briefing Schedule, ECF No. 59, at 1.

         II. Analysis

         A. Attorneys' Fees

         The Palmers seek fees for the work of lawyers Alana Hecht, Charles Moran, Stevie Nabors, and Charles Sibert, as well as paralegal Joseph Golinker. Ms. Hecht's services focused on the Palmers' initial administrative action, while the others' work focused largely on subsequent proceedings in this Court and the D.C. Circuit. See Pls.' Mot. for Attorneys' Fees (“Pls.' Mot.”) Ex. 4, ECF No. 61-6 (“Hecht Statement of Account”); Pls.' Mot. Ex. 5, ECF No. 61-7 (“Moran DDC Statement of Account”); Pls.' Mot. Ex. ...


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