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Muskelly v. District of Columbia

United States District Court, District of Columbia

February 5, 2019




         Plaintiff Ashley Muskelly filed an administrative action against the District of Columbia Public Schools, alleging that her son T.E. had been denied a free and appropriate public education (FA P E) in violation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Before her claim was adjudicated, the parties settled. Muskelly then brought this action demanding $70, 729.40 in attorney fees. Concluding that she is entitled to most, but not all, of the award she seeks, the Court will grant in part and deny in part her Motion for fees.

         I. Background

         A brief sketch of the background is all that is required here. The purpose of IDEA is “to ensure that all children with disabilities have available to them a [ FA P E] that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs.” 20 U.S.C. § 1400(d)(1)(A). On October 16, 2017, Muskelly filed an administrative due-process complaint against DCPS, alleging that T.E. had received an inappropriate individualized education program and been denied a FA P E. See ECF 1 (Complaint), ¶ 8. The parties subsequently reached a settlement before the claim proceeded to administrative adjudication, let alone court. They so informed a hearing officer on December 20, 2017, and the settlement was incorporated into a Hearing Officer Determination one week later. Id., ¶¶ 9-10.

         In seeking fees here, Plaintiff believes herself entitled to $70, 729.40. Id., ¶ 16. The District agrees she should collect some fees but suggests the award should be about $15, 000 less. See ECF No. 8 (Defendant's Opposition) at 17-18.

         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 any fees at all. 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 Plaintiff is a prevailing party entitled to some attorney[] fees and costs.” Opp. at 5. The only issue therefore is whether the amount of the award Plaintiff requests 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). Next, the Court sets “the reasonable hourly rate.” Id. (quoting Eley, 793 F.3d at 100). The Court last 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 Muskelly's request for fees under only the second step of the D.C. Circuit's framework. In other words, it does not contest the reasonableness of the number of hours expended by Muskelly's attorneys, and neither party contends that a multiplier is warranted at the third step. The Court will therefore address just the second step - viz., the appropriate rate. Afterwards, it will examine the only other remaining dispute: whether Plaintiff is entitled to the approximately $4, 800 in expert fees she seeks.

         A. Reasonable Rate

         As is the case in so many of these challenges, the parties dispute what constitutes a reasonable hourly rate by which the Court should calculate fee awards for IDEA matters in the District. The statute states that “[f]ees awarded under this paragraph shall be based on rates prevailing in the community in which the action or proceeding arose for the kind and quality of services furnished.” 20 U.S.C. §1415(i)(3)(C). “Fee applicants in IDEA cases have relied on two separate, but inter-related, approaches to providing evidence of prevailing market rate.” Reed v. District of Columbia, 843 F.3d 517, 521 (D.C. Cir. 2016). They can demonstrate that IDEA litigation qualifies as “complex federal litigation, ” or they can “provid[e] evidence of the fees charged, and received, by IDEA litigators.” Id.; see also Flood v. District of Columbia, 172 F.Supp.3d 197, 210 (D.D.C. 2016). As Plaintiff pursues both approaches here, the Court will address each in turn.

         1. Complex Federal Litigation

         Plaintiff first contends that IDEA litigation is complex federal litigation to which the rates enumerated in the USAO Attorney's Fees Matrix presumptively apply. See ECF No. 7 (Motion) at 4 (citing Reed, 843 F.3d at 526). She offers two declarations - one from Michael T. Kirkpatrick and one from Gary E. Mason - in support. See ECF Nos. 7-5 (Declaration of Michael T. Kirkpatrick), 7-6 (Declaration of Gary E. Mason). The District rejoins that IDEA litigation is not within the category of complex federal litigation as determined by an overwhelming number of decisions in this district. See Opp. at 7-9 & n.2. As an initial matter, the Court notes that neither party argues that the current Matrix - following its overhaul in 2015 - reflects rates beyond those for complex federal litigation and so might cover a broader category of cases. The Court, consequently, will limit its analysis to the question of whether IDEA litigation qualifies as complex federal litigation. If so, it will award USAO Matrix fees.

         IDEA cases, the Court believes, do not so qualify. This conclusion accords with the weight of authority in this district. See, e.g., Lee v. District of Columbia, 298 F.Supp.3d 4, 13 (D.D.C. 2018); Dobbins v. District of Columbia, 2017 WL 7510879, at *6 (D.D.C. Oct. 24, 2017) (“Accordingly, following the lead of other courts in this jurisdiction . . . the undersigned finds that Plaintiff has failed to demonstrate that IDEA litigation in general is sufficiently complex to justify the presumptive application of [Matrix] rates.”); Snead v. District of Columbia, 139 F.Supp.3d 375, 379 (D.D.C. 2015) (collecting cases and noting that courts in this jurisdiction have interpreted Circuit law “as strongly suggesting that IDEA matters are infrequently comparable to complex federal litigation, and therefore, full [Matrix] rates should not be awarded in such cases”); Rooths v. District of Columbia, 802 F.Supp.2d 56, 62-63 (D.D.C. 2011) (finding that IDEA case did “not much resemble the sort of complicated cases in which a ...

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