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Harris v. Friendship Public Charter School

United States District Court, District of Columbia

February 27, 2019

JAMES HARRIS, Plaintiff,



         This action marks yet another chapter in a long line of attorneys' fees cases over the prevailing market rate in the District of Columbia for litigation under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Specifically, this Court is again asked to determine, based on the evidence put forth, whether Mr. Harris is entitled to 100% or 75% recovery of the so-called USAO Laffey Matrix. Ultimately, for the reasons set forth below, this Court ADOPTS the Report and Recommendation of Magistrate Judge Harvey [ECF No. 15]. The Court will GRANT IN PART and DENY IN PART plaintiffs Motion for Summary Judgment [ECF No. 8]; GRANT IN PART and DENY IN PART defendant's Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment [ECF No. 10]; and award plaintiff a total of $66, 379.35 in fees and costs.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Little in the way of background is all that is required here. Prior litigation between the parties under the IDEA took place both before an Administrative Hearing Officer and briefly in district court before Judge Moss. Complaint, ECF No. 1. Defendant Friendship Public Charter School ("Friendship") filed an administrative due process complaint against plaintiff James Hams, seeking placement of plaintiffs child J.H. in a more restrictive special school setting. R&R 2, ECF No. 15. The Hearing Officer denied Friendship's request and Friendship sought review of the Hearing Officer's decision in district court. Friendship PCS v. Harris, No. 16-cv-2228 (RDM). The parties settled that dispute but "agree[d] that the attorney fees requested by [Mr. Harris] for the underlying Due Process Hearing remain in dispute and [Mr. Harris] will file a Petition for Attorney fees should the parties be unable to reach an agreement on the amount of attorney fees." Friendship PCS v. Harris, No. 16-cv-2228 (RDM), ECF No. 15 at 2.


         When the parties failed to reach an agreement, Mr. Hams filed the present action seeking a finding that he was a prevailing party in the underlying IDEA due process proceedings, $97, 226.40 in fees and costs incurred in connection with the administrative case, and an award of reasonable fees-on-fees for the present fee litigation. Complaint, ECF No. 1 at 4-5. This Court referred the matter to a magistrate judge for a report and recommendation, Order, ECF No. 6, and the case was randomly assigned to Magistrate Judge Harvey. The parties then filed cross-motions for summary judgment. See Motion for Summary Judgment, ECF No. 8; Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment, ECF No. 10.

         Magistrate Judge Harvey held a hearing on the cross-motions and ultimately issued his Report and Recommendation on the matter. See R&R, ECF No. 15. Magistrate Judge Harvey found that Mr. Hams was a prevailing party in the underlying due process proceedings and therefore entitled to an award of fees under the IDEA'S fee-shifting provision. Id. at 7-11. He found that the reasonable hourly rates for Mr. Harris's attorneys are the equivalent of 75% of the applicable USAO Matrix rates in effect at the time the work was performed, id. at 20, and ruled on Friendship's various challenges to entries on plaintiffs invoice. Id. at 21-28. Lastly, he determined that Mr. Hams abandoned his claim to reimbursement of costs other than attorneys' fees.[1] Id. at 29. In total. Magistrate Judge Harvey recommended an award of $66, 379.35 in fees. The only objection to Magistrate Judge Harvey's Report and Recommendation comes from Mr. Harris and to the finding that Mr. Harris is entitled to an award of 75% of the applicable USAO Matrix rates. The remainder of the opinion resolves that objection.


         Once a magistrate judge issues a report and recommendation, any party may file written objections within fourteen days. LCvR 72.2(b). Importantly, "[t]he objections shall specifically designate the order or part thereof to which objection is made, and the basis for the objection." Id., If a timely objection is made, then this Court is required to "make a de novo determination of those portions of the report or specified proposed finding or recommendations to which objection is made." 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). In other words, the Court's analysis with respect to such issues is "equivalent to a decision in the first instance on the merits" of the cross-motions for summary judgment. Rooths v. District of Columbia, 802 F.Supp.2d 56, 60. In contrast, 28 U.S.C. § 636, which confers power and jurisdiction to magistrate judges, does not "require any review at all, by either the district court or the court of appeals, of any issue that is not the subject of an objection." Thomas v. Am, 474 U.S. 140, 149 (1985).

         IV. ANALYSIS

         The IDEA allows a court to award "reasonable attorneys' fees ... to a prevailing party who is the parent of a child with a disability." 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B). To determine whether fees are reasonable, courts must consider "(1) the 'numbers of hours reasonably expended in litigation'; and (2) the 'reasonable hourly rate' for the services provided." Reed v. District of Columbia, 843 F.3d 517, 520 (D.C. 2016) (quoting Eley v. District of Columbia, 793 F.3d 97, 100 (D.C. Cir. 2015)). Mr. Hams objects only to Magistrate Judge Harvey's determination of the hourly rate for the legal work performed by his attorneys and asks for $88, 505.80, as opposed to the $66, 379.35 recommended. The Court thus adopts in full Magistrate Judge Harvey's determinations that Mr. Hams is a prevailing party and his determinations as to the number of hours reasonably expended. Mr. Harris makes two principal arguments that the rate assigned by Magistrate Judge Harvey is too low: (1) that he has carried his evidentiary burden to show that he is entitled to a higher rate because litigation under the IDEA is "complex federal litigation;" and (2) that Magistrate Judge Harvey impermissibly reduced the rate under the language in the statute. The Court addresses both in turn.

         A. Mr. Harris fails to show the IDEA is" complex federal litigation.

         " Determining whether an attorney's "hourly rate is reasonable turns on three sub-elements: (1) 'the attomey['s] billing practices,' (2) 'the attorney['s] skill, experience, and reputation' and (3) 'the prevailing market rates in the relevant community.'" Eley, 793 F.3d at 100 (alteration in original) (quoting Covington v. District of Columbia, 57 F.3d 1101, 1107 (D.C. Cir. 1995)). Here, Friendship makes no objection to Mr. Harris's attorneys' billing practices and does not contest their skills, experience, or education. The fight in this case, then, is over the prevailing market rate for attorneys of their experience performing IDEA litigation.

         In Reed, the D.C. Circuit outlined the "two separate, but inter-related, approaches to providing evidence of prevailing market rate." 843 F.3d at 521. For one, fee applicants may try "to establish the prevailing market rate by providing evidence of the fees charged, and received, by IDEA litigators." Id. Alternatively, prevailing parties can show that IDEA litigation is "complex federal litigation" to ...

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