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Wright v. District of Columbia

United States District Court, District of Columbia

September 28, 2019

KEISHA WRIGHT Parent and Next Friend of J.J., et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA A municipal corporation, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          AMY BERMAN JACKSON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiffs Keisha Wright and her minor son, J.J., brought this suit against defendant, the District of Columbia, to recover attorneys' fees and costs incurred in an administrative action brought under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. § 1400, et seq. Compl. [Dkt # 1] ¶¶ 1-2. Plaintiffs moved to recover $103, 084.00 in attorneys' fees and costs on the basis that they prevailed in the underlying administrative action. Pls.' Mot. for Atty. Fees [Dkt. # 8]; Mem. of P. & A. Submitted in Supp. of Pls.' Mot. [Dkt. # 8] (“Pls.' Mem.”) at 3. Defendant opposed the motion, arguing that the amount sought is unreasonable and not supported by sufficient evidence, Def.'s Opp. to Pl.'s Mot. [Dkt. # 9] (“Def.'s Opp.”) at 7-25, and plaintiffs filed a reply. Pls.' Mem. of P. & A. in Reply to Def.'s Opp. [Dkt. # 10] (“Pls.' Reply”). Defendant does not dispute that plaintiffs prevailed in some respects, but it notes that some of their administrative claims were unsuccessful.

         For the reasons stated below, the Court will grant plaintiffs' motion for attorneys' fees in part. The Court will award $70, 051.52 in attorneys' fees for the underlying administrative proceeding, and $461.14 in costs.

         BACKGROUND

         On May 31, 2018, J.J., a minor-aged child, and his mother, Keisha Wright, brought an administrative action against the District of Columbia Public Schools (“DCPS”) alleging that J.J. had been denied a Free Appropriate Public Education (“FAPE”) in violation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”). Compl. ¶ 11; Ex. 1 to Pls.' Mot. [Dkt. # 8-1] (“Admin. Compl.”) at 3-29.[1] At the time, J.J. was enrolled in a D.C. public high school and he was eligible to receive special education services as a student with learning disabilities. Compl. ¶ 6; Admin. Compl. at 7. Plaintiffs alleged several violations of the IDEA based upon the school system's failure to comprehensively evaluate J.J., and to provide him with adequate Individualized Education Programs (“IEPs”) and an appropriate school placement. Compl. ¶ 11.; Admin. Compl. at 13-17. Plaintiff argued that as a result of the District's inaction, J.J. was failing all of his academic courses and his reading and math skills were at ¶ 5th grade level. Admin. Compl. at 9- 10.

         The D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education (“OSSE”) held a hearing with the parties on October 1 and 5, 2018. Ex. 2 to Pls.' Mot. [Dkt. # 8-1] (“Hearing Officer Determination”) at 32. On October 13, 2018, the Hearing Officer issued a final determination in which he partially ruled in plaintiffs' favor. Id. at 42-53. Defendants were ordered to fund 150 hours of academic tutoring and 30 hours of counseling from independent providers “in order to put [the] Student in the place [he] should have been, but for the denials of FAPE.” Id. at 51.[2]

         On December 3, 2018, plaintiffs filed this suit for attorneys' fees and costs related to the underlying IDEA administrative action. Compl. ¶ 1. Plaintiffs seek attorneys' fees and costs in the amount of $103, 084.00, Pls.' Mem. at 3, and in support of that request, they attach an invoice that lists the following rates and hours expended by their attorneys and professional staff in the administrative proceeding:

• Kiran Hassan, Attorney: 174.92 hours at $517.00 = $90, 433.64
• Robert Jones, Attorney: 3.70 hours at $397.00 = $1, 468.90
• Ebony Johnson, Attorney: .68 hours at $323.00 = $219.64
• Coreen Williams, Law Clerk: 2.67 hours at $156.00 = $416.52
• Kelly Escamilla, Paralegal: 1.50 hours at $156.00 = $234.00
• Lucy Hernandez, Paralegal: 24.68 hours at $156.00 = $3, 850.08
• Ashley Elliot, Expert Witness: 39.16 hours at $263.00 = $10, 299.08

         See Ex. 3 to Pls.' Mot. [Dkt. # 8-1] (“Time Records”) at 72. Plaintiffs argue that they are entitled to compensation based on a small discount to the United States Attorney's Office (“USAO”) Laffey Matrix rate. Pls.' Mem. at 6-10.[3]

         Defendant argues that plaintiffs' requested award is unreasonable because “(1) [p]laintiff[s] 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, and (2) [p]laintiff is, at most, a partially prevailing party, and any award should be reduced to reflect the issues on which she was not successful.” Def.'s Opp. at 1. Defendant insists that plaintiffs should not be awarded more than $38, 593.21. Id. at 25.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The IDEA provides that “[i]n any action or proceeding brought under this section, the court, in its discretion, may award reasonable attorneys' fees as part of the cost . . . to a prevailing party who is the parent of a child with a disability.” 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B)(i)(I). If a court determines that the plaintiff seeking attorneys' fees is a prevailing party, it must determine whether the requested attorneys' fees are reasonable. Reed v. District of Columbia, 843 F.3d 517, 520(D.C. Cir. 2016). Courts typically determine the reasonableness of attorneys' fees based on the “number of hours reasonably expended on the litigation multiplied by a reasonable hourly rate.” Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983).

         A plaintiff bears the burden of establishing both the reasonableness of the hourly rate and the reasonableness of the number of hours spent on a particular task. Eley v. District of Columbia, 793 F.3d 97, 100 (D.C. Cir. 2015), citing Covington v. District of Columbia, 57 F.3d 1101, 1107- 08 (D.C. Cir. 1995). To show the reasonableness of the hourly rates, a plaintiff must submit evidence related to: (1) “the attorneys' billing practices”; (2) “the attorneys' skill, experience, and reputation”; and (3) “the prevailing market rates in the relevant community.” Covington, 57 F.3d at 1107. To show the reasonableness of hours spent on a task, a plaintiff must submit a “sufficiently detailed [invoice] to permit the District Court to make an independent determination whether or not the hours claimed are justified.” Nat'l Ass'n of Concerned Veterans v. Sec'y of Def., 675 F.2d 1319, 1327 (D.C. Cir. 1982).

         After the moving party has met this burden, the number of hours and rate are presumed to be reasonable, and the non-moving party must rebut the moving party's showing with “equally specific countervailing evidence.” Covington, 57 F.3d at ...


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