DC Circuit Agrees With Defense that Attorney Fee Awards in Section 1983 Class Action to Enforce IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) are Capped by IDEA, but Holds that Federal District Court Failed to Properly Certify Two Attorney Fee Orders for Appeal
Following substantial litigation in multiple consolidated class action lawsuits against the District of Columbia, the federal district court rejected defense arguments and entered three separate attorney fees awards against the District. Defense attorneys sought interlocutory review of the attorney fee orders; the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals held (1) it did not have jurisdiction over two of the orders because the district court failed to properly certify them for appeal, and (2) the district court erred in concluding that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) did not limit the amount of fees that could be awarded in section 1983 actions to enforce the IDEA. Blackman v. District of Columbia, 456 F.3d 167 (D.C. Cir. 2006).
Congress enacted legislation limiting the amount of attorney fees that could be awarded to prevailing parties in IDEA cases against the District of Columbia to stem “‘the growth in legal expenses and litigation associated with special education in the District of Columbia and the usurping of resources from education to pay attorney fees.’” Blackman, at 170 (quoting H.R.Rep No. 195-670, at 50 (1998)). Four separate class action lawsuits were filed against the District under section 1983 seeking to enforce the IDEA, two of which were consolidated as a single lawsuit leaving three distinct albeit consolidated class actions pending. Id., at 171-72. The district court ordered injunctive relief in two of the cases, but not the third. Eventually the plaintiffs in all three actions sought attorney fees. The District argued that IDEA capped any attorney fee award against it, and that attorney fees were not warranted in the action in which the district court failed to order injunctive relief because the plaintiffs therein were not “prevailing parties.” The district court rejected both arguments and awarded attorney fees in all three actions. Id., at 173-74.
On appeal, the Circuit Court raised sua sponte whether it had jurisdiction to consider the appeal. Blackman, at 174. Specifically, because the district court orders were not final, appellate court jurisdiction “turns on whether the district court properly certified these orders for appeal under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 54(b).” Id., at 174-75. This requires “(1) ‘an express determination that there is no just reason for delay’ and (2) ‘an express direction for the entry of judgment.’” Id. (quoting Rule 54(b)). The Court held that “[t]he mandate of Rule 54(b) is plain and without exception” and concluded that two of the orders “are facially deficient,” id., at 175.
The D.C. Circuit next addressed the issue of whether the IDEA caps the attorney fees that can be awarded in the one case over which it had jurisdiction. Blackman, at 176. Plaintiffs argued that IDEA limits attorney fees “only if the DIEA is the explicit statutory basis of the plaintiff’s cause of action.” Id., at 177 (italics in original). The Circuit Court disagreed: “Section 1983 is not the source of substantive rights but rather ‘a method for vindicating federal rights elsewhere conferred.’” Id. (citation omitted). Accordingly, the district court erred in failing to apply the attorney fees limitation in IDEA. Id., at 177-78.