This is the accessible text file for GAO report number GAO-03-224R 
entitled 'DCPS: Limitation of Attorneys' Fees for Fiscal Years 1999 
through 2001' which was released on November 06, 2002.



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November 6, 2002:



The Honorable Kay Bailey Hutchison:



United States Senate:



Subject: DCPS: Limitation of Attorneys’ Fees for Fiscal Years 1999 

through 2001:



Dear Senator Hutchinson:



The District of Columbia appropriations acts for fiscal years 1999, 

2000, and 2001 limited the amount of appropriated funds that could be 

paid to an attorney representing a prevailing party in an action 

brought against the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) under 

the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act[Footnote 1] (IDEA). The 

appropriations act for fiscal year 2002 lifted the caps on attorneys’ 

fees and directed DCPS and GAO to report on judgments awarding 

attorneys’ fees in excess of the limitations imposed in fiscal years 

1999, 2000, and 2001. In May 2002, we reported[Footnote 2] that, for 

fiscal years 1999, 2000, and 2001, the appropriations acts’ limitations 

had little if any impact on the total amount of attorneys’ fees awarded 

to prevailing parties in judgments entered by the courts in judicial 

proceedings brought against DCPS under IDEA. This is because court 

decisions made it clear that the appropriations acts’ limitations 

applied only to the amount that the District could pay to a prevailing 

party under IDEA and not to the amount that the court could award. The 

decisions also made it clear that where there was an independent legal 

basis for awarding attorneys’ fees, such as the Civil Rights 

Act,[Footnote 3] the court could do so without regard to the 

appropriations acts’ limitations.



Our May 22, 2002, report focused exclusively on the District’s payments 

and court awards for attorneys’ fee payments resulting from judicial 

proceedings as required by section 141 of the District of Columbia 

Appropriation Act for fiscal year 2002. However, attorneys’ fees may 

also be awarded in administrative proceedings.[Footnote 4] IDEA 

provides that in administrative proceedings[Footnote 5] students and 

their parents have the right to be accompanied and advised by counsel. 

These proceedings occur when parents of students with disabilities file 

complaints against DCPS for any matters related to the identification, 

evaluation, or educational placement of the students or the provision 

of free, appropriate public education for the students.



In a March 29, 2002, report[Footnote 6] to the Congress, the District 

stated that it had paid $12.7 million[Footnote 7] from its 

appropriations for fiscal years 1999 through 2001 for attorneys’ fees 

and related litigation costs resulting from judicial and administrative 

proceedings brought against DCPS and the District under IDEA. Because 

the District incurs the majority of its IDEA legal expenses as a result 

of administrative proceedings, you requested that we (1) report on the 

amount of attorneys’ fees paid to prevailing plaintiffs for fiscal 

years 1999 through 2001, including fees from administrative proceedings 

brought against DCPS under IDEA, and (2) review the District’s estimate 

of total legal fees requested for administrative proceedings as an 

indication of the amount that might have been paid without the mandated 

caps on attorneys’ fees.



Results in Brief:



The District’s March 29, 2002, report showed that of the $12.7 million 

paid for attorneys’ fees from its appropriations for fiscal years 1999 

through 2001, $10 million was related to administrative proceedings and 

$2.7 million was related to judicial proceedings. This report also 

contained DCPS’s estimate of the fees that might have been paid to 

attorneys resulting from administrative proceedings using 1999, 2000, 

and 2001 appropriations had the limitation not been in place. DCPS 

reported that the estimated total amount of fees that might have been 

paid as a result of administrative proceedings was $27.4 million over 

the 3-year period, as compared to $10 million it actually paid. Because 

this estimate was not based on statistical methods, its precision was 

uncertain. After we brought this to the attention of DCPS officials, 

DCPS recalculated the estimate using an appropriate statistical 

methodology. The resulting revised estimate for the amount of 

attorneys’ fees that might have been requested is $27.7 million (+ $1.9 

million at a 95 percent confidence level) over the 3-year period. We 

reviewed DCPS’s statistical calculations and concluded that the 

methodology and results of DCPS’s revised recalculation of the estimate 

and related confidence interval are reasonable. On September 13, 2002, 

DCPS reported to the chairmen of the Senate and House committees on 

appropriations the recalculated estimate and confidence interval by 

year and in total. In commenting on a draft of this report, the DCPS 

Superintendent stated that the statistical information in our report 

was consistent with the data that DCPS had provided in its September 

2002 report to the Congress.



Background:



IDEA and its predecessor statutes since 1977 have included a 

requirement that states and local school systems receiving federal 

funds make available procedures for impartial due process hearings in 

which the parents of students with disabilities may challenge school 

district actions or inaction. By 1998, DCPS was experiencing serious 

problems in the timely conducting of hearings requested by parents 

under the act and in issuing final decisions within the required 

timelines. The delays resulted in an increasingly large number of 

parental complaints and legal suits filed against DCPS to obtain access 

to the educational opportunities called for under the act. As a result, 

paying attorneys’ fees awarded to parties who prevailed in IDEA cases 

became costly to the District of Columbia.



Attorneys’ fee provisions under IDEA provide the courts with the 

discretion to award reasonable attorneys’ fees to prevailing parties in 

actions brought under IDEA. However, the District’s appropriations acts 

for fiscal years 1999, 2000, and 2001 imposed limits on the amounts 

payable for attorneys’ fees on a per hour and per case basis for cases 

in which the plaintiffs prevailed. (See table 1.) Accordingly, payments 

to prevailing parties in administrative proceedings using 

appropriations for fiscal years 1999 through 2001 were subject to the 

applicable attorneys’ fee limitations for those years.



Table 1: Limitations on Attorneys’ Fees for Prevailing Parties for IDEA 

Cases:



[See PDF for image]



[End of table]



For clarity, DCPS’s March 29, 2002, report noted that attorneys’ fee 

payments awarded to a prevailing plaintiff resulting from 

administrative proceedings, which are subject to the limitations, often 

include not only compensation for the hours spent by an attorney in 

litigating a matter, but also hourly compensation for paralegal and 

other attorney assistants. Standard expenses of litigation--such as 

copying, messenger, and filing costs--are often requested along with 

the attorneys’ fees, as are fees for expert witnesses. However, these 

expenses are not subject to the limitation and are therefore usually 

reimbursable (if reasonable) to the prevailing plaintiff. Section 

140(b) of the District of Columbia Appropriations Act[Footnote 8] for 

fiscal year 2002 directed the Superintendent of DCPS to report to the 

House and Senate appropriations committees an itemized list of 

judgments for attorneys’ fees awarded to plaintiffs who had prevailed 

in proceedings against the District of Columbia or DCPS under section 

615(i)(3) of IDEA.[Footnote 9] DCPS provided its final report covering 

awards and payments for attorneys’ fees for judicial proceedings to the 

House and Senate appropriations committees on February 28, 2002. 

Section 141 of the District of Columbia Appropriation Act for fiscal 

year 2002 directed that we also report on this matter. In May 2002, we 

issued our report.[Footnote 10] The District issued a supplemental 

report, dated March 29, 2002, which identified all payments of 

attorneys’ fees and costs, including those that did not result from 

court judgments. Its report included those payments resulting from 

administrative proceedings and settlement of suits.



Legal Fees Paid for Administrative and Judicial Proceedings Using 

Appropriations from Fiscal Years 1999 through 2001:



In its March 29, 2002, supplemental report,[Footnote 11] the District 

identified $12.7 million in attorneys’ fees and related litigation 

costs paid during fiscal years 1999 through 2001[Footnote 12] to 

prevailing plaintiffs in judicial and administrative proceedings 

brought against DCPS and the District under IDEA. The District reported 

that the largest portion of the reported attorneys’ fee payments, 

totaling approximately $10 million for the 3-year period, resulted from 

administrative proceedings. During the same period, the District 

reported payments for judicial proceedings totaling $2.7 million. The 

$12.7 million paid in attorneys’ fees for both judicial and 

administrative proceedings represented 1.6 percent of the total special 

education expenses reported for fiscal year 2000 and 2.8 percent for 

fiscal year 2001 based on amounts shown in the Statement of Revenues 

and Expenses - Budget vs. Actual (General Fund) included in DCPS’s 

Consolidated Annual Financial Reports. (See table 2.):



Table 2: Reported Special Education Expenses for Fiscal Years 1999 

through 2001:



[See PDF for image]



[End of table]



DCPS’s March 29, 2002, supplemental report identified 5,804 payments 

from fiscal years 1999 through 2001 to attorneys as a result of 

administrative and judicial proceedings. The average payment resulting 

from an administrative proceeding during the 3-year period in which the 

limitations were in effect was $1,715. (See table 3.):



Table 3: Reported Number of Administrative and Judicial Payments and 

the Average Attorneys’ Fee Payments for Fiscal Years 1999 through 2001:



[See PDF for image]



[End of table]



DCPS’s Estimated Difference between Requested and Actual Attorneys’ 

Fees for Administrative Proceedings:



The DCPS March 29, 2002, supplemental report also contained DCPS’s 

estimate of the fees that might have been paid had the statutory fee 

cap limitations not been in place for fiscal years 1999 through 2001. 

DCPS estimated that the total requested amount of legal fees for 

administrative proceedings was approximately $27.4 million as compared 

to the $10 million reported as actually paid over the 3-year period. 

However, we determined that DCPS used a calculation to approximate an 

estimate but did not analyze its sample data using statistical methods 

to arrive at the estimate in its March 29, 2002, report, and therefore, 

the precision of the estimate was uncertain.



DCPS subsequently recalculated the estimates using an appropriate 

methodology and reported the results of the recalculated estimate and 

related confidence interval to the chairmen of the Senate and House 

committees on appropriations. The revised estimate for the amount of 

attorneys’ fees that might have been requested is $27.7 million (+ $1.9 

million at a 95 percent confidence level). The District reported that 

this total indicates a potential savings of almost $18 million over the 

3-year period based on the difference between the estimated amounts 

requested ($27.7 million) and the amount actually paid in attorneys’ 

fees ($10 million). The District’s analysis also showed that the 

difference between the amount of legal fees requested and the amount 

paid increased from $3.2 million in fiscal year 1999 to $9.2 million in 

fiscal year 2001. (See table 4.) The amount that DCPS reported as 

potential savings assumes that the full amount requested would have 

been paid. However, DCPS noted that it would not necessarily have paid 

the full range of fees requested if adjustments were needed for 

unreasonably high hours or hourly fees. We reviewed DCPS’s statistical 

calculations and concluded that the methodology and results of DCPS’s 

statistical recalculation were statistically valid and reasonable.



Table 4: Estimate of the Difference between Attorneys’ Fees Requested 

and the Amount Paid for Administrative IDEA Proceedings for Fiscal 

Years 1999 through 2001:



[See PDF for image]



[End of table]



District of Columbia Comments:



In commenting on a draft of this report, the DCPS Superintendent stated 

that the statistical information in our report was consistent with the 

data that DCPS had provided in its September 2002 report to the 

Congress.



Scope and Methodology:



To report on the amount of attorneys’ fees paid as a result of both 

administrative and judicial proceedings filed against DCPS under IDEA 

for fiscal years 1999 through 2001, we reviewed DCPS’s March 29, 2002, 

supplemental report and DCPS’s methodology for compiling the underlying 

data. However, we did not independently verify or audit the 

completeness, accuracy, or validity of the compiled data. To review the 

District’s estimate of total legal fees requested for administrative 

proceedings as an indication of the amount that might have been paid 

without the mandated limits on attorneys’ fees, we reviewed the 

District’s sampling methodology and its methodology for calculating its 

estimate of the amount that would have been paid without the mandated 

limitations. We also discussed the District’s estimate with DCPS and 

District officials responsible for compiling the March report and 

developing and implementing the District’s sampling methodology used in 

the report. We also reviewed and analyzed the District’s revised 

recalculation of attorneys’ fees requested and the underlying 

statistical projection that was intended to determine the difference 

between the amount requested and the amount paid. We also reviewed and 

analyzed the methodology used to select the sample cases included in 

the report. We conducted our work from July 2002 through September 2002 

in accordance with U.S. generally accepted government auditing 

standards.



We provided our draft report to the DCPS Superintendent for review and 

comment. The Superintendent provided written comments, which we have 

reprinted in the enclosure. DCPS also provided suggested technical and 

clarifying comments on this report, which we incorporated as 

appropriate.



If you have any questions, please contact me at (202) 512-9406 or by E-

mail at franzelj@gao.gov. We are sending copies of this report to the 

Chief Financial Officer of the District of Columbia, the Superintendent 

of the District of Columbia Public Schools, and other interested 

parties. This report will be available at no charge on GAO’s home page 

at http://www.gao.gov. Key contributors to this report were Keith A. 

Thompson, Deborah R. Peay, and Sharon O. Byrd.



Sincerely yours,



Jeanette M. Franzel:



Director, Financial Management and Assurance:



Signed by Jeanette M. Franzel:



Enclosure:



[End of Section]



Comments from the District of Columbia Public Schools:



Children First:



DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA PUBLIC SCHOOLS:



OFFICE OF THE SUPERINTENDENT

825 North Capitol Street, NE, 9TH Floor 

Washington, D.C., 20002-1994:



(202) 442-5885 - fax: (202) 442-5026 

www.k12.dc.us:



VIA FACSIMILE:



Attention: Keith Thompson, Senior Project Manager:



October 24, 2002:



Ms. Jeanette M. Franzel, Director:



Financial Management and Assurance

United States General Accounting Office 

Washington, D.C. 20548:



Dear Ms. Franzel:



Thank you for the opportunity to comment on the General Accounting 

Office (GAO) draft report, “Public Schools: Limitation of Attorneys’ 

Fees for Fiscal Years 1999-2001:’:



Our review of the GAO draft shows the statistical information contained 

in this document to be consistent with the statistical content of the 

DC Public Schools’ September 13, 2002 report on this subject, which we 

addressed to Senator Mary Landrieu and Congressman Knollenberg, the 

respective Chairman of the Senate and House Appropriations 

Subcommittees on the District of Columbia.



Should you have any questions or require additional information 

regarding this matter, please do not hesitate to contact me.



Respectfully,



Paul L. Vance, Superintendent



Signed by Paul L. Vance



[End of section]



(194152):



FOOTNOTES



[1] 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq.



[2] See U.S. General Accounting Office, DCPS: Attorneys’ Fees for 

Access to Special Education Opportunities, GAO-02-559R (Washington, 

D.C.: May 22, 2002).



[3] In the District of Columbia, attorneys’ fee awards and payments 

under the Civil Rights Act may cover not only attorneys’ fees for the 

hours spent by attorneys in litigating matters, but also hourly 

compensation for paralegals and other attorney assistants as well as 

the standard expenses of litigation, such as copying, messenger, and 

filling costs. Fee requests also may include expert witness fees.



[4] A court decision makes it clear that attorneys’ fees can be awarded 

to prevailing plaintiffs in administrative proceedings under IDEA. 



[5] 20 U.S.C. 1415 (h).



[6] Office of the Superintendent of the District of Columbia Public 

Schools, Supplemental Report of the District of Columbia Public Schools 

Regarding Attorneys’ Fee Payments in Fiscal Years 1999-2001 Related to 

Judicial and Administrative Proceedings Under the Individuals with 

Disabilities Education Act (Washington, D.C.: Mar. 29, 2002). 



[7] The amounts paid include payments awarded to a special master 

appointed by the court, totaling $806,513 for fiscal years 1999, 2000, 

and 2001. However, we excluded amounts paid by the District for outside 

defense counsel representation.



[8] Public Law No. 107-96, 115 Stat. 923, 958 (2001).



[9] 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3). 



[10] See GAO-02-559R.



[11] See Office of the Superintendent of the District of Columbia 

Public Schools, Supplemental Report on Attorneys’ Fee Payments. This 

report supplements DCPS’s February 28, 2002, report issued in 

accordance with section 140 (b) of the District of Columbia 

Appropriations Act for fiscal year 2002.



[12] The District does not maintain any single source that identifies 

all IDEA attorneys’ fees awarded. Therefore, DCPS determined that the 

most accurate means of identifying IDEA attorneys’ fees resulting from 

judicial and administrative proceedings was to rely on and compile 

information based on payment entries in the accounting systems 

maintained by the Office of the Chief Financial Officer (CFO), the CFO 

for DCPS, and the CFO for the Office of Corporation Counsel. 



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