The District of Columbia has agreed to settle several hundred lawsuits over attorney fees with a Washington firm that represents families of students with special needs. The settlement ends the litigation, but lawyers involved say it doesn't resolve ongoing concerns about how the city handles attorney fees in special education cases.
The D.C. Office of the Attorney General and public school system reached the settlement with James E. Brown & Associates on Friday. The agreement (PDF) covers upwards of 600 claims that the Brown firm had already filed or was preparing to file for unpaid fees in District of Columbia Superior Court.
According to the settlement, the school system agreed to pay the firm $1.18 million, less than approximately $3 million the firm had claimed in unpaid fees. "I don’t think we're all that happy about it. I'm not sure the city is super happy about it. At the end of the day, we decided this was the best for our firm and our clients," said Nicholas Ostrem, an attorney with the Brown firm.
A spokesman for the attorney general's office, Ted Gest, declined to comment.
Families that bring complaints against the school system over the quality and provision of special education services can recover legal fees if they prevail. Attorneys who represent families in these cases have long battled the city over how much they could recover and how long it took the city to process and pay those fees.
The city has argued in the past that lawyers overbilled, while lawyers have accused the city of withholding fees or delaying payments to discourage families from bringing complaints.
The Brown firm, which takes cases on a contingency basis, was among the largest local law firms when it came to special education litigation, in terms of headcount and number of cases and clients. In May, however, the firm laid off 21 of its 32 attorneys and support staff, blaming the city's failure to pay fees. The firm has also filed a number of still-pending claims in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia that are not covered by Friday's settlement.
In court filings, the city had challenged the Brown firm's claims and successfully argued the firm could only seek attorney fees based on the city's guidelines. In July, Judge Judith Bartnoff sent the city and the Brown firm to mediation to try and resolve the claims.
According to the settlement, the Brown firm will begin moving to voluntarily dismiss the pending cases in Superior Court within 10 days of the agreement going into effect. The city has agreed to pay the firm the $1.18 million within 30 days. The agreement notes that the city has not admitted to any wrongdoing.
Ostrem said he didn't think the settlement was a sign of improving relations between the city and attorneys who handle special education cases. He said the fee litigation has already had a "chilling" effect on the firm's ability and willingness to take new cases.
Ostrem said that a small group of special education lawyers have been meeting on a regular basis with school system lawyers, and "while it's beneficial for both parties, we haven't seen any of those discussions or any changes promised actually materialize."