Thursday, August 12, 2004

Big Day in the DC District Court III

Case number three of five is Armstrong v. Vance. This case is about what seems to be the most important principle of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act -- attorneys' fees.(Wait! That's not right.) The plaintiffs filed an action for attorneys' fees incurred at the administrative stage in enforcing their due process rights under IDEA. The plaintiffs moved for summary judgment and the defendants cross-moved to dismiss.

The defendants claimed that the claim was barred by the statute of limitations. The defendants asserted that the 30-day time period for appealing the decision of an administrative law judge in due process hearing under IDEA should apply for fee applications as well. The Court disagreed, holding that the 3-year statute of limitations under D.C. Code 12-301(8) for actions for which a limitation is not otherwise specifically prescribed was applicable. The Court stated that "a longer limitations period will promote greater attorney representation of parents and their children in IDEA proceedings and also will provide more time for settlement discussions with respect to attorneys' fee petitions, thereby making civil litigation over attorneys' fees less likely and conserving judicial resources."

The next issue addressed was that of whether the plaintiffs were prevailing parties under Buckhannon Board & Care Home, Inc. v. West Virginia Dep't of Health and Human Resources. The Court held that Buckhannon precludes a party from obtaining attorneys' fees if its settles during the administrative proceeding and does not obtain a subsequent court order enforcing the settlement agreement. The Court stated, in a footnote, that it "also joins the concern expressed by other members of the Court that Buckhannon's preclusion of fees in these circumstances 'will have potentially deleterious effect on the ability of parents to challenge the District's IEP determinations and may lead parties to forego settlement at the administrative level.'" (quoting Heintz v. District of Columbia, Civil Action No. 01-1124(CKK), Memorandum Opinion at 8). The Court's holding on this issue mandated the dismissal of many, although not all, of the claims.

The final issue determined by the Court related to the fee cap contained in the DC appropriation acts. The 2002 Act did not contain such a cap, however, it made clear that plaintiffs seeking fees in 2002 or later could not seek retroactive reimbursement for fees incurred in the years where the cap existed. To the extent that the application sought such retroactive reimbursement that exceeded the caps, the claims were dismissed.

All in all, a pretty sad day for the attorneys in this case. The decision can be found here.


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