Thursday, August 12, 2004

Big Day in the DC District Court II

Judge Friedman's second decision of August 5, 2004 also involved the case of Blackman v. District of Columbia. This decision gave more of the background of the case. The case is a consolidation of two class action cases. The first class consisted of persons whose requests for due process hearings were overdue. The second class consisted of children who were entitled to a free appropriate public education (FAPE) and had been denied it because the school district either failed to fully and timely implement agreements concerning a child's identification, evaluation, educational placement or provision or provision of FAPE that the school district had negotiated with the child's parent or educational advocate or had failed to fully and timely implement the determination of hearing officers.

On June 3, 1998, the Court granted plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment on liability. It did not issue a classwide injunction, assuming that the school district would act appropriately. Wrong! By 1999, it was clear that the school district was not meeting its responsibilities to the classes. The Court appointed a special master for the limited purpose of assisting the Court in resolving the requests for immediate injunctive relief.

Three plaintiffs moved for preliminary injunctive relief, seeking to enforce settlement agreements. The Special Master, in each case, recommended that the relief be denied, because, subsequent to the making of each motion, the school district complied with the terms of the settlement, and the Court followed the recommendations. Each of the plaintiffs moved for attorneys' fees.

The question faced by the Court was whether the plaintiffs were prevailing parties under Buckhannon Board & Care Home, Inc. v. West Virginia Dep't of Health and Human Resources. The school district argued that the plaintiffs were not prevailing parties under Buckhannon because the relief that they obtained was pursuant to private settlements. The plaintiffs argued that they were entitled to attorneys' fees because they were class members and were prevailing parties because of the Court's order granting summary judgment. This decision altered the legal relationship between the parties and had the imprimitur of the Court. The plaintiffs argued that unless fees are awarded in situations such as this, plaintiffs will be unable to utilize the one method available to them to ensure compliance with the settlement agreement reached with the school district.

The Court, however, noted that the mere fact that they were part of a successful class did not, by itself, give the plaintiffs "prevailing party" status for the purpose of an award of attorneys' fees. Work done after summary judgment was granted is only compensable if the later work is inextricably intertwined with the summary judgment. The plaintiffs must have acheived substantial success in the litigation as a whole. And the plaintiffs cannot obtain fees if the work done was redundant, inefficient, or simply unnecessary.

Under this standard, the Court awarded attorneys' fees to each of the plaintiffs. The decision can be found here.


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