United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit
March 19, 2019
from the United States District Court for the District of
Columbia (No. 1:05-cv-01437)
Carolyn Smith Pravlik argued the cause for appellants. With
her on the briefs were Todd A. Gluckman and Cyrus Mehri.
Margaret A. Kohn entered an appearance.
Michael T. Kirkpatrick and Allison M. Zieve were on the brief
for amici curiae Public Citizen, Inc., et al., in support of
E. Pittman, Assistant Attorney General, Office of the
Attorney General for the District of Columbia, argued the
cause for appellees. With her on the brief were Karl A.
Racine, Attorney General, and Loren L. AliKhan, Solicitor
General. Caroline S. Van Zile, Deputy Solicitor General,
entered an appearance.
Charles W. Scarborough, Attorney, U.S. Department of Justice,
argued the cause for amicus curiae United States of America
supporting appellees. With him on the brief was Jessie K.
Liu, U.S. Attorney.
Garland, Chief Judge, Tatel, Circuit Judge, and Sentelle,
Senior Circuit Judge.
plaintiffs prevail in a civil rights case, the law usually
entitles them to recover reasonable attorney's fees.
Federal district judges, whom Congress has tasked with
tabulating those fees, frequently find themselves whipsawed
between two seemingly discordant instructions: (1) ascertain
the hourly rate for lawyers performing similar work
"with a fair degree of accuracy" using
"specific evidence," National Association of
Concerned Veterans v. Secretary of Defense, 675 F.2d
1319, 1325 (D.C. Cir. 1982), but (2) do so without turning
fee calculations into "a second major litigation,"
Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 437 (1983). To
reconcile those directives, district courts often turn to a
fee matrix-that is, a chart averaging rates for attorneys at
different experience levels. For decades, courts in this
circuit have relied on some version of what is known as the
Laffey matrix. Created in the 1980s, that
matrix is based on a relatively small sample of rates charged
by sophisticated federal-court practitioners in the District
of Columbia. Litigants have updated the matrix for inflation
using an assortment of tools. Recently, however, the United
States Attorney's Office sought to replace this standby
with a new default matrix based on data for all types of
lawyersânot just those who litigate complex federal
casesâfrom the entire metropolitan areaânot just the District
case, after plaintiffs prevailed in a long-running
Individuals with Disabilities Education Act class action, the
district court accepted the District of Columbia's
invitation to rely on the USAO's new matrix in awarding
fees. But as we explain below, the new matrix departs from
the statutory requirement that reasonable fees be tethered to
"rates prevailing in the community" for the
"kind and quality of services furnished." 20 U.S.C.
§ 1415(i)(3)(C). We therefore vacate the award and
remand for the district court to recalculate the hourly rate
based on evidence that focuses on fees for attorneys
practicing complex federal litigation in the District of
begin by reviewing the elementary principles governing
fee-shifting rate calculations and the genealogy of fee
matrices in this circuit, and then turn to the history of
this particular case.
Congress enacted a growing number of laws securing civil
rights, it confronted a problem: "enforcement would
prove difficult" without private lawsuits, and would-be
plaintiffs needed skilled lawyers to guide them through the
obstacle course of complex litigation. Newman v. Piggie
Park Enterprises, Inc., 390 U.S. 400, 401 (1968). But
those plaintiffs often lacked financial resources
"indispensable" to attracting "competent
counsel" willing and able to take on defendants of
greater means. Save Our Cumberland Mountains, Inc. v.
Hodel, 857 F.2d 1516, 1521 (D.C. Cir. 1988) (en banc)
(internal quotation marks and emphasis omitted). So Congress
turned to fee-shifting provisions, simultaneously
"encourag[ing] plaintiffs to bring suit" and
allowing those who prevail to finance the cost of legal
assistance by recovering fees from the defendant. Mary
Frances Derfner & Arthur D. Wolf, 1 Court Awarded
Attorney Fees ¶ 5.03, § 7(a) (2018 ed.); accord
Piggie Park, 390 U.S. at 402 ("Congress therefore
enacted the provision for counsel fees . . . to encourage
individuals injured . . . to seek judicial relief . . .
."). "[O]ver 100 separate statutes" now
provide "for the award of attorney's fees."
In re Donovan, 877 F.2d 982, 991 (D.C. Cir. 1989)
(internal quotation marks omitted); see also
Congressional Research Service, Report 94-970, Awards of
Attorneys' Fees by Federal Courts and Federal
Agencies 57-117 (Oct. 22, 2009) (listing them).
basic formula for calculating an attorney fee award seems
straightforward: multiply "the number of hours
reasonably exp[e]nded in litigation" by "a
reasonable hourly rate or 'lodestar.'"
Cumberland Mountains, 857 F.2d at 1517. The Supreme
Court has offered guidance about how to perform that
calculation, explaining that "reasonable fees" are
those grounded in rates "prevailing in the community for
similar services by lawyers of reasonably comparable skill,
experience and reputation." Blum v. Stenson,
465 U.S. 886, 895 n.11 (1984). The statute at issue here, the
Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), codifies
that interpretation of "reasonable": "Fees
awarded under [IDEA] 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.
this relatively simple definition has proven vexing. See
Reed v. District of Columbia, 843 F.3d 517, 521 (D.C.
Cir. 2016) ("[D]etermining . . . the prevailing market
rate is 'inherently difficult.'" (quoting
Eley v. District of Columbia, 793 F.3d 97, 100 (D.C.
Cir. 2015))). We have operationalized it with a
burden-shifting framework: To begin, "a fee applicant
bears the burden of establishing entitlement to an award . .
. and justifying the reasonableness of the rates."
Covington v. District of Columbia, 57 F.3d 1101,
1107 (D.C. Cir. 1995). At that point, the claimed fee
"is presumed to be the reasonable fee contemplated
by" the statute, and the burden shifts to the defendant