Cox v. Dist. of Columbia, Civil Action No.: 16–1788 (RC)

CourtUnited States District Courts. United States District Court (Columbia)
Citation264 F.Supp.3d 131
Docket NumberCivil Action No.: 16–1788 (RC)
Parties Thomas COX, Sr., et al., Plaintiffs, v. DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, Defendant.
Decision Date31 August 2017

Elizabeth T. Jester, Jester & Williams, Great Falls, VA, for Plaintiffs.

Tasha Monique Hardy, Office of Attorney General, Washington, DC, for Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART PLAINTIFFS' MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT; GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART DEFENDANT'S CROSS–MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

RUDOLPH CONTRERAS, United States District Judge

I. INTRODUCTION

Plaintiffs, the parents of T.C., a minor child with special needs, seek to recover from Defendant, the District of Columbia ("the District"), the attorneys' fees and costs incurred during their administrative proceeding against the District of Columbia Public Schools ("DCPS") under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004 ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. § 1415 et. seq. Plaintiffs seek over $50,000 in attorneys' fees and costs billed by their attorney, Elizabeth Jester, over the course of almost two years. The parties agree that Plaintiffs were the prevailing parties in the administrative proceedings, but the District disputes the reasonableness of their requested fees and argues that the Court should apply a reduced hourly rate. The Court holds that Plaintiffs have failed to demonstrate either that the full USAO Laffey Matrix rates sought by Plaintiffs are the prevailing market rates for IDEA litigation, or that the underlying due process proceedings were sufficiently complex to warrant the award of full USAO Laffey Matrix rates. The Court therefore concludes that only some of Plaintiffs' requested fees are reasonable and reduces Plaintiffs' attorneys' fees accordingly. The Court grants Plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment in part and denies it in part, and grants Defendant's cross-motion for summary judgment in part and denies it in part.

II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

In February 2015, Plaintiffs Thomas Cox, Sr. and Delores Lewis, filed an administrative due process complaint against DCPS under the IDEA, because they felt DCPS was not meeting the special education needs of their son, T.C. Compl. ¶¶ 2, 4, ECF No. 1. Plaintiffs alleged that DCPS denied T.C. the free and appropriate public education he was entitled to under the IDEA. See Pls.' Mot. Summ. J., Ex. 1 ("Hearing Officer Determination") at 3–4, ECF No. 7–4 (listing the issues to be determined in the proceedings). In support of their administrative complaint, Plaintiffs contended that DCPS failed to meet T.C.'s specified needs during the 20142015 academic year in three respects. First, Plaintiffs argued that DCPS did not obtain and implement the Individualized Education Program (the "IEP") from T.C.'s prior school and failed to implement its own IEP, thus denying T.C. a Free Appropriate Public Education ("FAPE") for the 2014–15 school year. Hearing Officer Determination at 3. Second, they contended that DCPS's IEP—which it eventually created for T.C. in October 2014—provided T.C. with "an inadequate amount of special education hours, insufficient occupational therapy, insufficient assistive technology, and inappropriate and insufficient goals and objectives," therefore denying him a FAPE. Hearing Officer Determination at 3. Third, Plaintiffs claimed that in preparing the October 2014 IEP, DCPS failed to consider T.C.'s most recent evaluations, disregarded Plaintiffs' concerns, and improperly convened an IEP team "without the presence of a general education teacher." Hearing Officer Determination at 4.

An administrative due process hearing was set for April 2015, but had to be rescheduled to the next month, because Plaintiffs had a personal emergency. Compl. ¶ 4; Hearing Officer Determination at 2. After the hearing, Hearing Officer Michael Lazan ("the Hearing Officer"), awarded Plaintiffs most of the relief they sought. The Hearing Officer ordered DCPS to modify T.C.'s IEP to include specialized instruction, provide a psychoeducational assessment, and convene an IEP team to review the assessment and "formulate an appropriate program" for T.C. Hearing Officer Determination at 18.

In February 2016, Plaintiffs' counsel, Elizabeth Jester, submitted an application for payment of attorneys' fees to DCPS under the fee-shifting provision of the IDEA. Compl. ¶ 5; Pls.' Mot. Summ. J., Ex. 2, ECF No. 7–5. As of the filing of the complaint on September 7, 2016, Plaintiffs had not received any payment from the District. Compl. ¶ 5.

In support of their claim for attorneys' fees, Plaintiffs filed the affidavits of four attorneys who frequently represent clients involved in IDEA litigation. See Verified Statement of Douglas Tyrka ("Tyrka Aff."), ECF No. 7–11; Verified Statement of Diana M. Savit ("Savit Aff."), ECF No. 7–12; Verified Statement of Domiento C.R. Hill ("Hill Aff."), ECF No. 7–13; Verified Statement of Alana Hecht ("Hecht Aff."), ECF No. 7–14. These affidavits provide information on the practitioners' IDEA litigation experience, their perceived complexity of the proceedings, and their hourly rates charged. Plaintiffs' first affiant, Douglas Tyrka, states that his firm has billed DCPS for hundreds of cases, and each bill has requested the full rate in the USAO Laffey matrix. Tyrka Aff. ¶ 13. The second affiant states that she bills the same amount for IDEA cases and non-IDEA cases, and that IDEA cases are "at least as complex as employment discrimination and commercial dispute work." Savit Aff. ¶¶ 5–6. The third affiant states that he has "restricted [him]self" to charging seventy-five percent of the USAO Laffey matrix rates, because his firm values speedy recovery of fees over the prospect of full Laffey rates. Hill Aff. ¶ 14. The final affiant cited by Plaintiffs states that she is "typically awarded at least $270.00 per hour for [her] IDEA work." Hecht Aff. ¶ 13.

III. LEGAL BACKGROUND

Under the IDEA, "every child with a disability in this country is entitled to a ‘free appropriate public education,’ or FAPE." Leggett v. District of Columbia , 793 F.3d 59, 62 (D.C. Cir. 2015) (quoting 20 U.S.C. § 1400(d)(1)(A) ). The "primary purpose" of the IDEA is "to ensure that all children with disabilities have available to them a[n] ... education that emphasizes special education and related services designed to ... prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living." Id. at 63 (quoting 20 U.S.C. § 1400(d)(1)(A) ) (alteration in original). "A free appropriate public education entitles ‘each child with a disability’ to an ‘individualized education program’ that is tailored to meet his or her unique needs." Henry v. District of Columbia , 750 F.Supp.2d 94, 96 (D.D.C. 2010) (quoting 20 U.S.C. §§ 1414(d)(1)(A)-(2)(A) ).

The IEP is the "primary vehicle" for implementing the IDEA. Lesesne ex rel. B.F. v. District of Columbia , 447 F.3d 828, 830 (D.C. Cir. 2006). IEPs are "[p]repared at meetings between a representative of the local school district, the child's teacher, the parents or guardians, and, whenever appropriate, the disabled child." Id. (alteration in original). It "sets out the child's present educational performance, establishes annual and short-term objectives for improvements in that performance, and describes the specially designed instruction and services that will enable the child to meet those objectives." Id.

When the parents of a student with a disability are dissatisfied with a school district or agency's "identification, evaluation, or educational placement of the child, or the provision of a free appropriate public education to such child," 20 U.S.C. § 1415(b)(6), the IDEA entitles them to an "impartial due process hearing," id. § 1415(f). If a hearing officer finds that a school district or agency denied a child a FAPE, he may award, among other remedies, compensatory education, which is "educational services ... to be provided prospectively to compensate for a past deficient program." Reid ex rel. Reid v. District of Columbia , 401 F.3d 516, 522 (D.C. Cir. 2005) (quoting G. ex rel. RG v. Fort Bragg Dependent Schs. , 343 F.3d 295, 308 (4th Cir. 2003) ). Any party aggrieved by the hearing officer's determination may bring a civil action in state or federal court. See 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2).

Under the IDEA, prevailing parties in the administrative proceedings are entitled to an award of reasonable attorneys' fees and costs. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B). The Laffey Matrix is a fee schedule used in some cases to determine reasonable hourly rates for legal work. See generally Laffey v. Nw. Airlines, Inc. , 572 F.Supp. 354, 371–75 (D.D.C. 1983), aff'd in part, rev'd in part on other grounds , 746 F.2d 4 (D.C. Cir. 1984), overruled in part on other grounds ; Save Our Cumberland Mountains, Inc. v. Hodel , 857 F.2d 1516 (D.C. Cir. 1988) (establishing the first Laffey fee matrix, in the context of a longstanding employment discrimination class action). It is not unique to the IDEA. See, e.g. , Laffey , 572 F.Supp. 354. The United States Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia prepares the matrix for use in federal litigation cases in which a "fee-shifting" statute allows prevailing plaintiffs to recover their attorneys' fees. See Eley v. District of Columbia , 793 F.3d 97, 101 (D.C. Cir. 2015) ; see also USAO Attorney's Fees Matrix—20162017 ("20162017 Laffey Matrix"), Civil Div. of the U.S. Attorney's Office for D.C., https://www.justice.gov/usao-dc/file/889176/download (last visited July 23, 2017); USAO Attorney's Fees Matrix—20152016 ("20152016 Laffey Matrix"), Civil Div. of the U.S. Attorney's Office for D.C., https://www.justice.gov/usao-dc/file/796471/download (last visited July 23, 2017); USAO Attorney's Fees Matrix—20142015 ("2014–15 Laffey Matrix"), Civil Div. of the U.S. Attorney's Office for D.C., https://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/usao-dc/legacy/2014/07/14/Laffey% 20Matrix_20142015.pdf (last visited July 23, 2017). Updated Laffey...

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