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Alegria v. District of Columbia

December 3, 2004


Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia (No. 00cv02582)

Before: Rogers, Tatel and Garland, Circuit Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Rogers, Circuit Judge

Argued October 1, 2004

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq. (2000), provides for an award of attorneys' fees to a "prevailing party," id. § 1415(i)(3)(B), a term the Supreme Court has construed in the context of other fee-shifting statutes to require judicial imprimatur on an enforceable judgment or consent order. See Buckhannon Bd. & Care Home, Inc. v. W. Va. Dep't of Health & Human Res., 532 U.S. 598, 604-05 (2000). The district court denied appellants' requests for awards of attorneys' fees for private settlements reached prior to administrative hearings on special education placements. Appellants contend this was error because the purpose and substantive rights created by the IDEA inform the meaning of "prevailing party," and the statutory text, which carves out a specific exception to the grant of attorneys' fees after a settlement offer, indicates Congress intended to allow the recovery of attorneys' fees for private settlements as an incentive for the prompt resolution of disputes. We agree that appellants' interpretation of the IDEA's fee-shifting provisions is plausible and supported by text in the IDEA. However, appellants concede that the restrictions on attorneys' fees also can be plausibly interpreted as curtailing excessive fees, and as such does not expand the definition of "prevailing party" beyond that adopted in Buckhannon. In the absence of clear evidence that Congress intended the IDEA's fee eligibility to be treated differently than other feeshifting statutes, and specifically, to allow awards of attorneys' fees for private settlements, we hold that appellants fail to overcome the presumption that Buckhannon applies. Accordingly, we affirm.


Congress enacted the IDEA in 1975 to ensure that children with disabilities have available to them a "free appropriate public education." 20 U.S.C. § 1400(d)(1)(A). To enable parents to obtain special education services for their children with disabilities, the IDEA requires states and the District of Columbia to provide various "procedural safeguards." Id. § 1415(a). These safeguards include an opportunity for mediation, id. § 1415(b)(5); a complaint process, id. § 1415(b)(6), with the right to an "impartial due process hearing" before the state or local education agency regarding such complaints, id. § 1415(f)(1); and a right of review by the state agency of a local agency's determination, id. § 1415(g). During the course of "any administrative proceeding," parents have "the right to be accompanied and advised by counsel." Id. § 1415(h)(1). "Any party aggrieved" by the final outcome of the administrative process may seek judicial review in state or federal district court. Id. § 1415(i)(2)(A). "[T]he court, in its discretion, may award reasonable attorneys' fees as part of the costs to the parents of a child with a disability who is the prevailing party." Id. § 1415(i)(3)(B).

Underlying appellants' requests for an award of attorneys' fees are proceedings involving minor children who are students in the District of Columbia Public Schools eligible for special education under the IDEA. They or their parents, guardians, or court-appointed advocates sought provision by the District of Columbia Public Schools of special education placements. Their claims were resolved through a series of administrative hearings and settlement agreements. They then sued in court for an award of attorneys' fees at the prevailing rate in the community, experts' costs, and interest.

The district court denied their motion for summary judgment with respect to the claims resolved through preadministrative hearing settlement agreements ("private settlements"), ruling that the parties to such claims were not prevailing parties under Buckhannon and therefore were ineligible for an award of attorneys' fees under the IDEA. An appeal was noted from the district court's conditional order of September 9, 2002; it is procedurally proper because that order became final on November 8, 2002. See Sacks v. Rothberg, 845 F.2d 1098, 1099 (D.C. Cir. 1988). Our review of the district court's denial of summary judgment is de novo. Cicippio-Puleo v. Islamic Rep. of Iran, 353 F.3d 1024, 1031 (D.C. Cir. 2004).


To demonstrate that they are eligible for awards of attorneys' fees under the IDEA, appellants must provide "some good reason" not to apply Buckhannon 's analysis of feeshifting statutes. Oil, Chem. & Atomic Workers Int'l Union v. Dep't of Energy, 288 F.3d 452, 455 (D.C. Cir. 2002); see also Doe v. Boston Pub. Sch., 358 F.3d 20, 25-26 (1st Cir. 2004); T.D. v. LaGrange Sch. Dist. No. 102, 349 F.3d 469, 475 (7th Cir. 2003). As the decisions of five other circuit courts of appeals demonstrate, this burden is not easily met.*fn1

In Buckhannon, the Supreme Court spoke broadly with regard to fee-shifting statutes. While the fee requests before the Court arose under provisions of the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 authorizing the award of attorneys' fees to a "prevailing party," 42 U.S.C. §§ 3613(c)(2), 12205 (2000), the Court observed that "[n]umerous federal statutes" similarly authorized fee awards and that it has "interpreted these fee-shifting provisions consistently." Buckhannon, 532 U.S. at 600, 603 n.4 (citing Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 n.7 (1983)). Viewing the term "prevailing party" to be "a legal term of art," id. at 603, the Court held it did not "include[ ] a party that has failed to secure a judgment on the merits or a court-ordered consent decree, but has nonetheless achieved the desired result because the lawsuit brought about a voluntary change in the defendant's conduct," id. at 600. The Court observed that it had never approved an award of attorneys' fees without formal judicial action. Id. at 606. "Private settlements," the Court noted, "do not entail the judicial approval and oversight involved in consent decrees," and "federal jurisdiction to enforce a private contractual settlement will often be lacking unless the terms of the agreement are incorporated into the order of dismissal." Id. at 604 n.7. Stating that its precedent "counsel[s] against holding that the term `prevailing party' authorizes an award of attorney's fees without a corresponding alteration in the legal relationship of the parties," id. at 605, the Court gave short shrift to ambiguous legislative history and to policy arguments unsupported by empirical evidence, "given the clear meaning of `prevailing party,' " id. at 607-08, 610.

This court thus has applied Buckhannon broadly. In Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers, the court treated the phrase "substantially prevailed" in the Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA"), 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(E) (2000), as "synonymous" with "prevailing party," in denying an award of attorneys' fees for a settlement agreement. 288 F.3d at 455. The court held that the settlement, in the form of a stipulation and order of dismissal signed by a judge, "did not meaningfully alter the legal relationship of the parties" because "[i]ts only effect was to dismiss the union's lawsuit with a court order when no court order was needed." Id. at 458. Therefore, the requestor of fees had not " `been awarded some relief by [a] court,' either in a judgment on the merits or in a court-ordered consent decree," and was ineligible for fees. Id. at 457 (quoting Buckhannon, 532 U.S. at 603); see also Thomas v. Nat'l Sci. Found., 330 F.3d 486, 493 (D.C. Cir. 2003). While acknowledging that "some good reason" could rebut the presumption that Buckhannon controlled, the court saw nothing in the statutory text or legislative history to suggest Congress intended FOIA fee awards to be treated differently than those interpreted in Buckhannon. Oil, Chem. & Atomic Workers, 288 F.3d at 455-56. To date, this court has declined to follow Buckhannon only where controlling Supreme Court precedent, which Buckhannon did not explicitly overrule, interpreted a fee-shifting provision allowing an award of attorneys' fees "whenever [the court] determines that such award is appropriate," 42 U.S.C. § 7607(f) (2000), to mean, in light of a clear statement in the legislative history, that Congress intended to authorize attorneys' fees for "legitimate" lawsuits that "forced defendants to abandon illegal conduct, although without a formal court order." Sierra Club v. EPA, 322 F.3d 718, 723 (D.C. Cir. 2003) (quoting Ruckelshaus v. Sierra Club, 463 U.S. 680, 686 n.8 (1983)).

Nevertheless, appellants contend they meet their burden. Although nothing in the plain text of the IDEA expressly indicates that Congress intended a "prevailing party" to include those parties who enter private settlements, appellants maintain that as a matter of statutory construction there is "some good reason," Oil, Chem. & Atomic Workers, 288 F.3d at 455, to conclude that eligibility for fees under the IDEA differs from the fee-shifting statutes in Buckhannon.

Appellants' purposive interpretation of the IDEA has been rejected by other circuits. E.g., Doe, 358 F.3d at 29; T.D., 349 F.3d at 477. Here, appellants rely in part on the IDEA's purpose to ensure a "free appropriate public education," 20 U.S.C. ยง 1400(d)(1)(A). Because parents can vindicate their substantive rights and those of their children through settlement, appellants contend that the IDEA cannot be read to exclude attorneys' fees when settlement occurs. However, although the "IDEA guarantees the right to a free education, [ ] `it does not explicitly guarantee the right to attorney's fees incurred in pursuit of that ...

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