A Washington federal judge ruled yesterday that District of Columbia Public School officials cannot place a blanket cap on attorneys’ fees that conflicts with other accepted fee schedules in administrative actions brought under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
U.S. District Court Judge Gladys Kessler, in a written opinion (PDF), said that the city failed to show why DCPS’ fee cap of $300 per hour for attorneys working on IDEA cases should trump the Laffey Matrix, a fee schedule used in courts throughout the country.
DCPS “cites no justification for imposing a $300 per hour cap on all IDEA attorneys’ fees, or for rejecting the Laffey Matrix, which has been so widely accepted,” Kessler wrote, also noting that there is no “evidence that these Guidelines went through any kind of process for the issuance of administrative regulations, where public comment could be submitted and considered.”
The case stems from an administrative action brought by the family of a boy with learning disabilities and behavioral problems. According to the complaint filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, after school officials declined the family’s request to evaluate the boy’s eligibility for special education programs, the family filed a complaint with DCPS. Following a four-day hearing, the hearing officer determined that DCPS had denied the boy an appropriate education under the law.
The family, represented by Washington solo practitioner Karen Alvarez, filed a petition with DCPS for reimbursement of about $50,000 in attorney’s fees and other costs. The city approved part of the request, but claimed Alvarez’s hourly rates exceeded DCPS guidelines.
Kessler – noting that Alvarez was actually charging less than what the Laffey Matrix would allow for an attorney with her experience – ruled that given the complexity of the case and the amount of legal work required, the majority of the request was appropriate. Alvarez’s fees ranged from $300 and $350; under the Laffey Matrix, she could be entitled to an hourly rate of as much as $465.
Fred Lewis, a DCPS spokesman, said in a written statement that “while we respect the court’s position, DCPS still believes that the Laffey Matrix is not an appropriate measure for reasonable attorney fees in administrative due process hearings and the rate for such work in the DC area is much lower.”
Alvarez and the city attorney general’s office were not immediately available for comment this morning.