Muskelly v. Dist. of Columbia, Civil Action No. 18-740 (JEB)

Decision Date05 February 2019
Docket NumberCivil Action No. 18-740 (JEB)
PartiesASHLEY MUSKELLY, Plaintiff, v. DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, Defendant.
CourtUnited States District Courts. United States District Court (Columbia)

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 (FAPE) 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 [FAPE] 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 FAPE. 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 hoursreasonably 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 inwhich a plaintiff's counsel is appropriately awarded fees as the maximum allowable rate" because "[l]ike most IDEA cases, the claim on which the plaintiff prevailed . . . involved very simple facts, little evidence, and no novel or complicated questions of law").

Muskelly in rejoinder relies on a Circuit concurrence reasoning that IDEA litigation is complex because — like Title VII litigation, which qualifies as complex — IDEA cases require familiarity with non-legal subjects like child psychology, necessitate the retention of experts, and involve a complex organization in the public-school system. See Motion at 4-5 (citing Reed, 843 F.3d at 528-29 (Tatel, J., concurring)). The Circuit, however, has already declined to adopt the proposition that these features necessarily render it complex federal litigation. See Reed, 843 F.3d at 524-25. It elaborated that, while "attorneys who litigate IDEA cases may have 'specialized non-legal knowledge[,]' . . . this is true in a number of specialized fields" that are not considered complex. Id. at 525. It also addressed the plaintiffs' contention that "limited discovery and pretrial exchange . . . makes preparing for and litigating IDEA cases more complicated, especially because hearing officers typically allow respondents to spontaneously adjust defenses." Id. (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). The Circuit reasoned, however, that the lack of discovery may in fact "suggest that IDEA cases are not as complex as cases in which discovery is extensive." Id. The Circuit concluded that future fee applicants may be able to "divine a unifying thread that will bring IDEA cases under the umbrella of 'complex federal litigation,'" but found nothing before it in that case so demonstrated. Id. at 526.

Likewise, Muskelly has offered no evidence here that would clear that bar. She contends that the Kirkpatrick and Mason declarations show that IDEA litigation is complex, see Motion at 5-7, but they do not bear the weight she places on them. The Kirkpatrick declaration, for one,addresses IDEA litigation in the Supreme Court, see Kirkpatrick Decl., ¶ 7, which says little about whether IDEA cases at this level are generally complex. Mason, by contrast, is not even an IDEA litigator and has offered no specific experience with IDEA litigation. See Mason Decl., ¶ 14. Instead, he suggests that these cases are complex because they involve inter-disciplinary work with non-legal fields, a lack of discovery, the use of experts to make difficult determinations regarding remedies and a student's progression, and the interplay of federal and state standards. Id., ¶¶ 15-19. The Circuit has already dismissed the proposition that either of the first two features renders IDEA litigation complex. See Reed, 843...

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