Eley v. Dist. of Columbia

Decision Date10 July 2015
Docket NumberNo. 13–7196.,13–7196.
Citation793 F.3d 97
PartiesWilma ELEY, Appellee v. DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, Appellant.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — District of Columbia Circuit

Richard S. Love, Senior Assistant Attorney General, Office of the Attorney General of the District of Columbia, argued the cause for the appellant. Irvin B. Nathan, Attorney General at the time the brief was filed, Todd S. Kim, Solicitor General, and Loren L. AliKhan, Deputy Solicitor General, were with him on brief.

Douglas W. Tyrka argued the cause and filed the brief for the appellee.

Bruce J. Terris, Carolyn Smith Pravlik, and Kathleen L. Millian were on brief for amici curiae The Class Members In Salazar v. District of Columbia in support of the appellee.

Before: HENDERSON and KAVANAUGH, Circuit Judges, and RANDOLPH, Senior Circuit Judge.


Opinion for the Court filed by Circuit Judge HENDERSON.

Concurring opinion filed by Circuit Judge KAVANAUGH.


After Wilma Eley prevailed in her lawsuit against the District of Columbia (District) alleging a violation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400 et seq., the district court awarded her $62,225 in attorneys' fees and costs for approximately one hundred hours of work. Although the District lodged a variety of challenges to the award in the district court, its sole objection on appeal is to the prevailing market rate that court used in its calculation. Specifically, the District argues that the district court abused its discretion when it adopted Eley's proposed fee matrix, setting the prevailing market rate for her lawyer's services well beyond the next highest hourly rate used by district courts in IDEA litigation. For the reasons set forth below, we vacate the district court's fee award and remand.


The IDEA requires the District to provide disabled children with a “free appropriate public education.” 20 U.S.C. § 1400(d)(1)(A) ; see also id. § 1412(a)(1) (free appropriate public education “available to all children with disabilities ... between the ages of 3 and 21, inclusive”). If the District fails to do so, the child's parents can file an administrative complaint with the District Office of the State Superintendent of Education (Superintendent's Office). Id. § 1415(b)(6).1 And if the administrative-complaint route fails, the parents can sue the District in district court. See id. § 1415(i)(2)-(3).

If the parents' lawsuit succeeds, the court, “in its discretion, may award reasonable attorneys' fees.” Id. § 1415(i)(3)(B)(i)(I). An IDEA fee award “shall be based on rates prevailing in the community in which the action or proceeding arose for the kind and quality of services furnished.” Id. § 1415(i)(3)(C) (emphases added). Thus, if the court finds that “the amount of the attorneys' fees otherwise authorized to be awarded unreasonably exceeds the hourly rate prevailing in the community for similar services by attorneys of reasonably comparable skill, reputation, and experience,” it “shall reduce ... the amount of the attorneys' fees awarded.” Id. § 1415(i)(3)(F)(ii) (emphasis added).

The IDEA provides no further guidance for determining an appropriate fee award. In Blum v. Stenson, 465 U.S. 886, 895 n. 11, 104 S.Ct. 1541, 79 L.Ed.2d 891 (1984), however, the United States Supreme Court laid the foundation for the three-part analysis that this Court has since developed. First, the court must determine the “number of hours reasonably expended in litigation.” Save Our Cumberland Mountains, Inc. v. Hodel (SOCM), 857 F.2d 1516, 1517 (D.C.Cir.1988) (en banc ).2 Second, it must set the “reasonable hourly rate.” Id. Finally, it must determine whether use of a multiplier is warranted. Id. The “fee applicant bears the burden of establishing entitlement to an award, documenting the appropriate hours, and justifying the reasonableness of the rates” and the opposing party remains “free to rebut a fee claim.” Covington v. Dist. of Columbia, 57 F.3d 1101, 1107–08 (D.C.Cir.1995).

Here, the District no longer challenges the hours Eley's lawyer spent litigating her IDEA case, and the IDEA prohibits application of any “bonus or multiplier,” 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(C). Accordingly, we move to the second prong of the SOCM analysis—the reasonable hourly rate. Whether an hourly rate is reasonable turns on three sub-elements: (1) “the attorney ['s] billing practices,” (2) “the attorney['s] skill, experience, and reputation” and (3) “the prevailing market rates in the relevant community.” Covington, 57 F.3d at 1107. Of these three sub-elements, the District contests only the prevailing market rate in the relevant community.

Determining the prevailing market rate is “inherently difficult.” Blum, 465 U.S. at 895 n. 11, 104 S.Ct. 1541. Even so, [t]he complexity of the market for legal services does not ... reduce the importance of fixing the prevailing hourly rate in each particular case with a fair degree of accuracy.” Nat'l Ass'n of Concerned Veterans v. Sec'y of Def., 675 F.2d 1319, 1325 (D.C.Cir.1982). Thus, a fee applicant must “produce satisfactory evidence—in addition to the attorney's own affidavits—that the requested rates are in line with those prevailing in the community for similar services by lawyers of reasonably comparable skill, experience and reputation.” Blum, 465 U.S. at 895 n. 11, 104 S.Ct. 1541 (emphasis added); see also Nat'l Ass'n of Concerned Veterans, 675 F.2d at 1325 (“An applicant is required to provide specific evidence of the prevailing community rate for the type of work for which he seeks an award.” (emphasis added)).

We allow a fee applicant to submit attorneys' fee matrices as one type of evidence that “provide[s] a useful starting point” in calculating the prevailing market rate. Covington, 57 F.3d at 1109. The most commonly used fee matrix is the Laffey Matrix”—the schedule of prevailing rates compiled in Laffey v. Northwest Airlines, Inc. (Laffey I), 572 F.Supp. 354, 371 (D.D.C.1983), aff'd in part, rev'd in part on other grounds, Laffey v. Nw. Airlines, Inc. (Laffey II), 746 F.2d 4 (D.C.Cir.1984), overruled in part on other grounds, SOCM, 857 F.2d 1516. See Covington, 57 F.3d at 1109. Laffey I established (and Laffey II affirmed) the following schedule for lawyers who practice “complex federal litigation”:

—$175 an hour for very experienced federal court litigators, i.e., lawyers in their 20th year or more after graduation from law school;
—$150 an hour for experienced federal court litigators in their 11th through 19th years after law school graduation;
—$125 an hour for experienced federal court litigators in their 8th through 10th years after graduation from law school;
—$100 an hour for senior associates, i.e., 4 to 7 years after graduation from law school; and
—$75 an hour for junior associates, i.e., 1 to 3 years after law school graduation.

Laffey I, 572 F.Supp. at 371–72 ; Laffey II, 746 F.2d at 8 n. 14.

Fee matrices in general are “somewhat crude” and the Laffey Matrix in particular “lumps attorneys with four to seven years of experience in the same category” as well as “attorneys with eleven to nineteen [years].” Covington, 57 F.3d at 1109. For this reason, a fee applicant supplements fee matrices with other evidence such as “surveys to update the[m]; affidavits reciting the precise fees that attorneys with similar qualifications have received from fee-paying clients in comparable cases; and evidence of recent fees awarded by the courts or through settlement to attorneys with comparable qualifications handling similar cases.” Id. Additionally, because the original Laffey Matrix is now more than thirty years old, it must be updated to account for inflation. See SOCM, 857 F.2d at 1525. Competing updated Laffey Matrices have developed, two of which are at issue here. Both have their benefits and limitations.

The first Laffey Matrix is maintained and updated by the District United States Attorney's Office (USAO Laffey Matrix). See USAO Laffey Matrix—20142015, available at http://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/usao-dc/legacy/2014/07/14/Laffey Matrix_20142015.pdf. The USAO Laffey Matrix starts with [t]he hourly rates approved in Laffey ... for work done principally in 1981–82” as its baseline. Id. ¶ 3. It adjusts these rates to account for inflation by using the Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI–U) of the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics.Id. The CPI–U measures inflation across “100,000 commodities including food, fuel, and housing” for a given geographic area—here, the Washington, D.C. area. Amicus Br. 4. Yet, [l]ess than 0.325 percent of the data” in the CPI–U “involves legal services.” Id. And according to the district court, the CPI–U “shows that the cost of legal services nationally has far outstripped the increase in overall prices.” Eley v. Dist. of Columbia (Eley II), 999 F.Supp.2d 137, 153 (D.D.C.2013) ; see also id. (“The nationwide cost of legal services has jumped ninety-one percent, nearly twice as much as the general CPI”). During Eley's IDEA litigation, the USAO Laffey Matrix suggests that a litigator specializing in complex federal litigation with 11 to 19 years' experience should receive between $420 and $445 per hour.

Because the USAO Laffey Matrix relies on inflation in general rather than legal-services inflation specifically, its critics have advocated, to some degree of success,3 for a competing Laffey Matrix (LSI Laffey Matrix) that uses the Legal Services Index of the Bureau of Labor Statistics to adjust for inflation. Developed by Michael Kavanaugh, an economist from Hawaii, the LSI Laffey Matrix adjusts for the increases in costs for legal services only. It suffers, however, from its own imprecisions. Rather than tracking inflation levels specific to Washington, D.C., the LSI Laffey Matrix tracks the national rate of change in the cost of legal services. During Eley's IDEA litigation, the LSI Laffey Matrix suggests that a litigator...

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