August 11, 2020
A recent Law 360 story by Andrew Karpan, “DC Circ. Backs Atty Fee Cap in Civil Rights Row” reports that the D.C. Circuit rejected the efforts of attorneys representing hundreds of parents in a civil rights case to collect over $5 million in fees from Washington, D.C., and ruled that a congressional cap that strictly limited the amount they could collect in those cases was perfectly valid.
The opinion, authored by U.S. Circuit Judge Gregory Katsas, found that an appropriations rider Congress passed in 2009 did not violate the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment nor was it an illegal intervention into the court's power to award fees. The rider expressly forbade Washington from paying more than $4,000 in attorney fees in any single civil rights case filed under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which mandates special education services for kids.
Crucially, Judge Katsas wrote, Congress started limiting the city's ability to pay out legal fees in IDEA cases in 1999, which was before the parents in these cases filed suit. "The fee cap does not interfere with any reasonable expectations, for each of the awards at issue was entered at a time when Congress had already limited the District's ability to pay IDEA fee awards," the judge said. The ruling covered eleven separate IDEA cases, all of which preceded 2009 and all of which successfully alleged that Washington didn't provide a special needs education to students who qualified for one.
Back in 2015, a magistrate judge calculated the city's tab in those cases at about $3.7 million, along with another $1.3 million in interest, according to Tuesday's ruling. Two years later, a D.C. federal judge used the cap to trim the fee award to $220,000 but left the interest, which had notched up to $1.4 million by then. Both the parents and the city challenged that ruling.
Congress, which provides funding to public schools in Washington through the District of Columbia Appropriations Act, had every reason to be concerned about using that budget to pay lawyers in IDEA cases, Judge Katsas observed.
The city's "long struggle" to comply with IDEA was costing it $10 million a year by the time Congress began limiting how much of that funding could be spent on fee payments in those cases, the ruling noted. An appropriations rider passed in 2009 had instituted the permanent $4,000 cap on the awards.
The parents argued, in part, that the rider violated their rights to fees that a court had awarded them but the panel said shaving a fee award isn't "a per se taking." Deciding to trim an award that had already been issued didn't misappropriate the powers of Congress either, the panel added. Lawyers for the parents should also have known they wouldn't be able to collect more than $4,000 a case because the initial rider dated to 1999, Judge Katsas added.
But in addition to ruling that the cap was perfectly legal, the D.C. Circuit also scratched the $1.4 million in interest the parents had won. "This principle is as old as the Republic," Judge Katsas mused on this point, citing a ruling the Supreme Court made in 1789, in Hoare v. Allen, and in which the court similarly scratched the interest on debts owed to a British creditor during the Revolutionary War, as the Constitutional Congress had expressly banned paying debts to British subjects.
Similarly, Judge Katsas wrote, Congress had banned Washington from paying lawyers in IDEA cases fees above a certain amount: interest couldn't be collected on fees above that amount either. The panel sent the award back to a lower court to recalculate using the capped award instead. The D.C. Circuit ruled on an IDEA fee bid in a different case just last year, when a panel initially rejected a nearly $7 million fee award in a class action suit leveled under that law, ruling in that case that a lower court had used an invalid matrix for calculating fees.