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DL v. District of Columbia

United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit

May 21, 2019

DL, et al., Appellants
District of Columbia, A Municipal Corporation, et al., Appellees

          Argued March 19, 2019

          Appeal 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 appellants.

          Lucy 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.

          Before Garland, Chief Judge, Tatel, Circuit Judge, and Sentelle, Senior Circuit Judge.


          Tatel, Circuit Judge.

         When 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 lawyers—not just those who litigate complex federal cases—from the entire metropolitan area—not just the District of Columbia.

         In this 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 Columbia.


         We 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.


         As 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).

         The 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. § 1415(i)(3)(C).

         Implementing 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 ...

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