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Davis v. District of Columbia

United States District Court, District of Columbia

November 27, 2018

LOUISE DAVIS, et al., Plaintiffs,



         This litigation began over three years ago when Louise Davis - by herself and on behalf of her daughter, N.D. - filed suit against the District of Columbia, alleging that it had violated the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and denied N.D. a free and appropriate public education. The Court ultimately sided with Plaintiffs on some issues, but not on others. The parties now return for one final matter. Davis has moved for approximately $65, 000 in attorney fees. Concluding that Plaintiffs are entitled to some, but not all, of the award they seek, the Court will grant in part and deny in part the Motion.

         I. Background

         Davis filed this IDEA suit in July 2015. See Davis v. District of Columbia, 244 F.Supp.3d 27, 37 (D.D.C. 2017). The background of that dispute, which stretches over many years, is thoroughly rendered in the Court's previous Opinion. Id. at 31-37. For now, a brief sketch will do.

         The purpose of IDEA is “to ensure that all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs.” 20 U.S.C. § 1400(d)(1)(A). Davis alleged that the District violated the statute by (1) failing to develop an appropriate Individualized Education Program (IEP) in November 2013; (2) impermissibly exiting N.D. from special-education services in May 2014; and (3) neglecting to order additional occupational-therapy and auditory-processing evaluations. See ECF No. 1 (Complaint), ¶¶ 36-44, 46-51, 54-57. As relief, Plaintiffs requested that the Court “conclude that Defendant denied N.D. a free appropriate public education, reinstate her special education services, order occupational-therapy and auditory-processing testing, and award some amount of compensatory education.” Davis, 244 F.Supp.3d at 37.

         On March 23, 2017, the Court granted in part and denied in part each party's motion for summary judgment. The District prevailed on the first issue because the Court determined that the reductions in services accompanying the November 2013 IEP modification were appropriate based on N.D.'s needs. See Davis, 244 F.Supp.3d at 39-42. On the second issue, results were mixed: Plaintiffs did not obtain the declaration they sought that N.D. had been inappropriately exited from special education, but the Court remanded to the administrative hearing officer with instructions to clarify and apply the correct legal standard to determine whether N.D. was properly deemed ineligible. Id. at 45-47, 51-52. On remand, the hearing officer found that Plaintiffs “did not meet [their] burden of persuasion” on N.D.'s eligibility and accordingly denied relief. See ECF No. 28 (Plaintiffs' Motion for Attorney Fees), Exh. 7 (Hearing Officer Decision on Remand) at 16. Finally, on the third issue, Davis succeeded, and the Court ordered the District “to conduct . . . or . . . fund” the additional evaluations. See Davis, 244 F.Supp.3d at 52.

         In seeking fees here, Plaintiffs believe themselves entitled to $65, 448.54. See Pl. Mot. at 6. The District agrees they should collect some fees but suggests the award should be considerably less: $20, 782.64. See ECF No. 30 (Defendant's Opposition) at 2.

         II. Analysis

         IDEA confers on the Court discretion to “award reasonable attorneys' fees as part of the costs to a prevailing party who is the parent of a child with a disability” in an action under the Act. See 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B)(i)(I). In determining what amount, if any, is appropriate under the statute, the Court makes two inquiries. First, it decides whether the party seeking fees is “the prevailing party” and is thus eligible to receive fees. See Jackson v. District of Columbia, 696 F.Supp.2d 97, 101 (D.D.C. 2010). If so, the next question is whether the fee sought is reasonable. A “reasonable” fee is one that is “sufficient to induce a capable attorney to undertake the representation of a meritorious civil rights case, ” Perdue v. Kenny A., 559 U.S. 542, 552 (2010), “but [that does] not produce windfalls to attorneys.” Blum v. Stenson, 465 U.S. 886, 897 (1984). The plaintiff has the burden of establishing reasonableness. See In re North, 59 F.3d 184, 189 (D.C. Cir. 1995).

         The District “does not dispute that Plaintiffs are partial prevailing parties . . . and . . . [so] are entitled to recover some attorney's fees.” Def. Opp. at 1. The only issue therefore is whether the amount of the award Plaintiffs request is reasonable. On that issue, the D.C. Circuit has set forth a “three-part analysis.” See Eley v. District of Columbia, 793 F.3d 97, 100 (D.C. Cir. 2015) (evaluating fees under IDEA); Salazar v. District of Columbia, 809 F.3d 58, 61 (D.C. Cir. 2015) (applying framework to § 1983 fee request). The first step is to “determine the ‘number of hours reasonably expended in litigation.'” Salazar, 809 F.3d at 61 (quoting Eley, 793 F.3d at 100). As part of that inquiry, the Court considers whether to adjust the award based on “the degree of success obtained.” Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 436 (1983). Next, the Court sets “the reasonable hourly rate.” Salazar, 809 F.3d at 61 (quoting Eley, 793 F.3d at 100). The Court lastly applies “multipliers as ‘warranted.'” Id.; see also George Hyman Const. Co. v. Brooks, 963 F.2d 1532, 1535-36 (D.C. Cir. 1992).

         Defendant challenges Davis's request for fees under the first and second steps of the D.C. Circuit's framework. In other words, neither party contends that a multiplier is warranted at the third step. The Court will therefore address the first two steps in turn.

         A. Hours Reasonably Expended

         The District contends principally that Plaintiffs' fee award should be reduced by 66% because they prevailed on only one of their three claims. See Def. Opp. at 8-9. Davis concedes that some reduction is appropriate but maintains that slashing the amount by two thirds is excessive. See ECF No. 31 (Plaintiffs' Reply) at 5. Rather, Plaintiffs urge that a 10-20% trim is all that is warranted. Id. Analyzing the extent of their success, the Court arrives somewhere in the middle and concludes a 50% reduction makes sense.

         As an initial matter, the Court rejects Defendant's mechanical formulation that success on one of three claims should result in a 66% cut. This Court “has discretion in determining the amount of a fee award, ” and “[g]iven the interrelated nature of the facts and legal theories in this case, ” it need not “apportion the fee award mechanically on the basis of [Plaintiffs'] success or failure on particular issues.” Hensley, 461 U.S. at 437-38. Rather, courts in this district examine the relative importance of issues on which plaintiffs succeeded in weighing what reduction, if any, is appropriate. See, e.g., Platt v. District of Columbia, 168 F.Supp.3d 253, 263-64 (D.D.C. 2016) (cutting award by 15% where plaintiff prevailed on three of eight issues); Taylor v. District of Columbia, 187 F.Supp.3d 46, 55-56 (D.D.C. 2016) (reducing fees by 10% ...

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