D.C. Circuit Rejects USAO-ALM Attorneys’ Fees Matrix in DL v. District of Columbia
DL v. District of Columbia is a class action seeking to remedy the District of Columbia’s failure to provide and timely provide special education services to preschoolers with disabilities. After years of litigation, in 2016, the District Court found the District of Columbia liable and ordered sweeping injunctive relief, which the Court of Appeals subsequently affirmed. Plaintiffs’ counsel are working to ensure that the District of Columbia makes the improvements needed to comply with the injunction and appropriately serve the District’s children.
The parties to this case have also been involved in a lengthy dispute regarding the amount of attorneys’ fees that must be paid by the District of Columbia to plaintiffs’ counsel for their work to effectuate this change. The District argued that plaintiffs’ fee award should be based on hourly rates from the USAO-ALM Matrix, which is a new matrix of attorneys’ hourly rates developed by the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia. That matrix provides hourly rates that are substantially below market rates for complex federal litigation in the District of Columbia.
In the most recent development in that dispute, on May 21, 2019, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit rejected the USAO-ALM Matrix because it is “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.” The Court explained that “[t]he USAO’s matrix is helpful only if it canvasses the relevant type of lawyer, which it does not.” It also stated that the USAO-ALM Matrix is based on data for the wrong geographic area, explaining that its geographic area “stretches well beyond the District to cover thousands of square miles over three states, from rural Madison County, Virginia, to the eastern shore of Maryland, back to the foothills of Jefferson County, West Virginia.”
This decision should result in the ultimate award of attorneys’ fees in this case at market rates for complex federal litigation in the District of Columbia. Congress used fee-shifting provisions in civil rights and other laws to improve access to justice for those that cannot afford counsel. This decision furthers that purpose because it takes plaintiffs’ counsel one step closer to being compensated at market rates.