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Prison Litigation Reform Act: Attorneys' Fees

     Monthly Law Journal Article: Attorneys' Fees in Prisoners' Civil Rights Lawsuits, 2016 (1) AELE Mo. L. J. 301.

     An inmate was awarded $307,733.82 on his federal and state claims that correctional officers hit him, causing a fracture to his eye socket, and then left him in his cell without medical attention. A federal appeals court upheld the liability award, rejecting an argument that sovereign immunity barred the state law claim. It reversed and remanded an attorneys’ fee award. Under 42 U.S.C. 1997e(d), the attorney fee award must first be satisfied from up to 25 percent of the damage award, and the trial court did not have discretion to reduce that maximum percentage to 10%. Murphy v. Smith, #15-3384, 844 F.3d 653 (7th Cir. 2017).

     A jury awarded damages of $409,751 on federal and state claims that correctional officers hit him, fracturing a portion of his eye socket, choked him, and then left him in his cell without medical attention. The trial court reduced the damages to $307,733.82 and also awarded attorneys’ fees with 10% of the damage award to be applied to the fees. Liability was upheld by a federal appeals court, rejecting arguments that Illinois sovereign immunity applied to state-law claims against a state employee who violates constitutional or statutory law. The court also ruled, however, that under 42 U.S.C. 1997e(d) of the Prison Litigation Reform Act, the attorney fee award must first be satisfied from up to 25 percent of the damage award, and the district court did not have discretion to reduce that maximum percentage. Murphy v. Smith, #15-3384, 2016 U.S. App. Lexis 22871 (7th Cir.).
     In Wilkins v. Gaddy, #08-10914, 559 U.S. 34 (2010), the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the argument that a prisoner, to impose liability on a correctional officer for excessive use of force, must show more than a "de minimus" (minimal) injury. On remand, the prisoner was awarded $0.99 in damages by the jury, which was rounded up to $1. The trial court awarded attorneys' fees limited to $1.40, based on the limit of attorneys' fees in the Prison Litigation Reform Act of no more than 150% of the money damages awarded, rather than the over $92,000 in attorneys' fees requested. A federal appeals court has rejected an argument that this limitation on attorneys' fees was unconstitutional. The court applied rational basis scrutiny and that Congress could have believed that this limit would help deter frivolous, marginal and trivial claims. Wilkins v. Gaddy, #12-8148, 2013 U.S. App. Lexis 22389 (4th Cir.).
     A prisoner was awarded $1,500 in compensatory and punitive damages against a prison employee in a lawsuit over alleged interference with his needed dental treatment. After the prisoner successfully defended the judgment on appeal, he moved for an award of $16,800 in attorneys' fees. The employee claimed that he only should have to pay, at most, attorneys' fees of up to 150% of the amount of damages awarded (or $2,250), because of a cap on attorneys' fees in the Prison Litigation Reform Act. A federal appeals court rejected this argument, holding that the cap only applies to fees awarded for obtaining the award in the trial court and did not limit the amount of fees that could be awarded after successfully defending such a judgment on appeal. Further proceedings will determine the exact amount of fees to be awarded, but the cap will not apply to the fees for work done on the appeal. Woods v. Carey, #09-16113, 2013 U.S. App. Lexis 14430 (9th Cir.).
     A pretrial detainee received a jury verdict against four deputy sheriffs on excessive force claims arising from separate incidents when he was in the county jail. The jury only awarded $1 in damages against one of the defendants. The other three deputies were liable, respectively, for $5,000 in compensatory and $10,000 in punitive damage, $50,000 in compensatory and $50,000 in punitive damages, and $100,000 in compensatory and $150,000 in punitive damages, for a total award of $365,001.
     The trial court awarded $505,671.40 in attorneys' fees and $24,549.94 in costs, ordering the plaintiff to pay $5,000 of the fee award. The court ordered that all four defendants bee jointly and severally liable for the remaining $500,671.40, to ensure that the attorneys' fees were paid. This action was taken, in part, because the county indicated that it might not indemnify the defendant against whom the largest award was made because he was in prison and thought to be judgment-proof. An appeal of the judgment on liability was affirmed, Jimenez v. Franklin, #07-56149, 333 Fed. Appx. 299, 2009 U.S. App. Lexis 21564 (Unpub. 9th Cir.) but that appeal did not raise the issue of joint and several liability for the attorneys' fees. An additional $41,830.10 in fees were awarded for that appeal, bringing the fee award to $547,501.50, or 150% of the total damage award, the fee limit under the Prison Litigation Reform Act, 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1997e(d)(2). The county did not pay $225,000 of the attorneys' fee award.  A federal appeals court rejected an argument by the deputy found liable for $1 that he could not be held jointly and severally liable for the unpaid fees because of the statute's attorneys' fee cap of 150% of damages, as he had not raised the issue in the earlier appeal.  Jimenez v. Franklin, #10-56199, 2012 U.S. App. Lexis 10260 (9th Cir.).
     A Rastafarian prisoner claimed that a corrections officer violated his religious rights by touching his dreadlock hair without permission. While the jury held in favor of the prisoner, they only awarded nominal damages of $1. Under 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1997e(d)(2) of the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), the court's award of attorney's fees to the prevailing plaintiff were limited to 150% of the damage award, or $1.50. The appeals court noted that Congress, in granting a statutory right for prevailing plaintiffs in federal civil rights lawsuits to be granted attorneys' fees, departed from the normal rule in U.S. courts that litigants all pay their own attorneys' fees. It was accordingly also free to put a cap on such fees in cases brought by prisoners. Shepherd v. Goord, #10-4821, 2011 U.S. App. Lexis 22928 (2nd Cir.).
     Prisoners who prevailed in a settlement of a lawsuit over prison conditions, specifically dental care, were entitled to an award of attorneys' fees and paralegal fees under 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1988, and they were limited by the Prison Litigation Reform Act to 150% of the hourly rate established for court appointed counsel under 18 U.S.C. Sec. 3006A. The court held that the same cap applicable to attorneys' fees applies to separately billed paralegal fees. It therefore upheld a trial court order requiring the defendants to pay the plaintiffs' paralegal expenses at a rate of $169.50 per hour, rather than the $82.50 per hour prison officials had argued they should pay. Perez v. Cate, #09-17185, 2011 U.S. App. Lexis 643 (9th Cir.).
     A Nebraska prisoner attempted to send drawings of a marijuana leaf and a bare-breasted woman to his mother and to a communist group, the "Maoist Internationalist Movement." When prison officials prevented him from doing so, he sued, claiming a violation of his First Amendment rights. The trial court directed a verdict in the prisoner's favor, awarded him nominal damages of $1, and ordered two defendants to pay approximately $25,000 in attorneys' fees. The appeals court rejected the defendants' defenses of failure to exhaust available administrative remedies and mootness as not properly preserved for appeal.  It also upheld a determination that the prisoner, since he was awarded nominal damages, was a prevailing plaintiff, entitled to an award of attorneys' fees. But the appeals court also held that 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1997e(d)(2) of the Prison Litigation Reform Act limited the award of attorneys fees to 150% of the damages awarded, or $1.50, since no injunctive or declaratory relief was awarded. Keup v. Hopkins, #09-1079, 2010 U.S. App. Lexis 4538 (8th Cir.).
     Muslim inmates complained that they were only provided with Halal meat, produced in accordance with the requirements of their religion, twice a year, while Jewish prisoners received kosher meat four to five times a week. Prison officials agreed to provide Halal meat with the same frequency in exchange for the dismissal of the lawsuit, which the trial court approved. A federal appeals court ruled that the prisoners were prevailing parties, entitled to an award of attorneys' fees under 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1988, since they accomplished a "material alteration" on the complained of issue, and that the caps on attorneys' fees in the Prison Litigation Reform Act, 42 U.S.C. 1997e(d), applied to the case despite the fact that some of the plaintiffs were released from prison after they filed the lawsuit, but before it was settled. Fees of $99,658.48 were awarded. On remand, the trial court was instructed to determine a reasonable attorneys' fee award for the time spent on the appeal. Perez v. Westchester Cty. Dep't of Corr., #08-4245, 2009 U.S. App. Lexis 25396 (2nd Cir.).
     After a jury awarded a prisoner $17,500 in damages on a federal civil rights claim against a prison guard, the trial court awarded him $26,250 in attorneys' fees. The appeals court upheld the attorneys' fee caps in the Prison Litigation Reform Act, 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1997e(d), rejecting an argument that they denied prisoners equal protection of the law as compared to non-incarcerated persons. Parker v. Conway, #08-2764, 2009 U.S. App. Lexis 20723 (3rd Cir.).
     Limitations on attorneys' fee awards contained in 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1997e of the Prison Litigation Reform Act are constitutional because they are based on legitimate governmental objectives, including achieving uniformity in such awards. Parker v. Conway, #08-2764, 2009 U.S. App. Lexis 20723 (3rd Cir.).
     The cap on attorneys' fees imposed by the Prison Litigation Reform Act applied both to the time the plaintiffs' attorney spent in any underlying lawsuit and in monitoring whether a county was in compliance with consent degrees entered into during the litigation. The court reduced a total attorneys' fee request of $363,000 to $138,213.83. Batchelder v. Geary, No. C-71-02017, 2007 U.S. Dist. Lexis 64893 (N.D. Cal.).
     Federal appeals court rules that statute restricting attorneys' fees awards in prisoner lawsuits to 150% of the damage award applies to lawsuits filed by prisoners over incidents that occurred before their incarceration. Plaintiff prisoner awarded $1 in nominal damages in excessive force case was therefore only entitled to $1.50 in attorneys' fees, rather than the $9,680 awarded by the trial judge. Court rejects the argument that this result, following the "plain language" of the statute, caused an "absurd" result. Robbins v. Chronister, No. 02-3115, 435 F.3d 1238 (10th Cir. 2006) [2006 JB Jun]
     Prisoner who was awarded $1 in nominal damages in federal civil rights lawsuit against off-duty police officer who allegedly violated his Fourth Amendment rights by using excessive force in smashing the window of his car with a baton during confrontation prior to his incarceration was properly also awarded $9,680 in attorneys' fees and $915.16 in expenses by trial court. Federal appeals court rules that provision of the Prison Litigation Reform Act's which limits attorneys' fee awards in prisoner suits to 150% of the money judgment, 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1997e(d), did not apply to civil rights claims that arose before the prisoner was incarcerated. Robbins v. Chronister, No. 02-3115, 402 F.3d 1047 (10th Cir. 2005). [N/R]
     Federal appeals court rules that maximum allowable attorneys' fees, under the Prison Litigation Reform Act, should be based on 150% of the hourly rate authorized by the Judicial Conference of the United States, not on 150% of the lower hourly rate actually paid to court-appointed counsel under the Criminal Justice Act, which is based on the amount actually appropriated by Congress. Hadix v. Johnson, No. 03-1068 2005 U.S. App. Lexis 3275 (6th Cir.). [2005 JB Apr]
     Prisoner who prevailed on his claim that his right of access to the courts was unconstitutionally interfered with by denial of physical access to the prison's law library (allowing him only to request particular materials be brought to him in his cell by providing their precise citation) was entitled to an award of $99,981.43 in attorneys' fees and costs. Amount of attorneys' fees award in case were not limited by the Prison Litigation Reform Act, 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1997e(d)(1)(A) when a settlement agreement provided that fees would be awarded under 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1988. LaPlante v. Pepe, #01-10186-NG, 307 F. Supp. 2d 219 (D. Mass. 2004). [N/R]
     Plaintiff who obtained injunctive and declaratory relief in class action lawsuit claiming that correctional officials failed to adequately train and supervise its employees, thereby subjecting prisoners to a risk of assaults by other inmates, but who received no monetary relief was entitled to an award of $427,158.73 in attorneys' fees and expenses. The maximum hourly rate for the attorneys' in the case was limited, under the Prison Litigation Reform Act, 1997e(d)(3) to 150% of the hourly fee for appointed lawyers paid in the federal circuit where the lawsuit was brought, rather than 150% of the rate established by the Judicial Conference. This resulted in a maximum hourly fee of $135 per hour, rather than $169.50 per hour, in this case. Court also rules that plaintiff's attorney was entitled to a fee multiplier in the case because of "excellent work" enabling case to be resolved through summary judgment and settlement, avoiding a costly trial and saving defendant officials higher attorneys' fees and costs. Skinner v. Uphoff, 324 F. Supp. 2d 1278 (D. Wyoming. 2004). [N/R]
     While prisoner successfully proved that prison security director improperly put him in segregation in retaliation for filing "too many" complaints and grievances, in violation of his First Amendment rights, under the Prison Litigation Reform Act, he was not entitled to an award of compensatory damages in the absence of physical injury, but only $1 in nominal damages. Appeals court also upholds the decision not to award punitive damages, since the defendant acted out of "frustration," rather than with an "evil motive," and upholds application of PLRA section to limit attorneys' fee award in the case to $1.50. Royal v. Kautzky, No. 02-3446, 375 F.3d 720 (8th Cir. 2004). [2004 JB Oct]
     Prison Litigation Reform Act's cap on attorneys' fees at 150% of damage award does not apply in cases where the parties privately settle the lawsuit, and subsequently enter a stipulation of dismissal of the claim in the trial court. Torres v. Walker, No. 03-102, 356 F.3d 238 (2nd Cir. 2004). [2004 JB Aug]
     Prisoner awarded $1,000 against one of two defendant correctional officers on his claim for excessive use of force against him was also entitled to $1,500 in attorneys' fees as a prevailing party under 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1997e(d) (2) limiting awards against defendants for attorneys' fees to 150% of award for damages. Farella v. Hockaday, 304 F. Supp. 2d 1076 (C.D. Ill. 2004). [N/R]
     Prisoner who was awarded compensatory damages of $15,000 and punitive damages of $30,000 for alleged excessive force and inadequate medical care must use 25% of his damage award to pay his lawyer attorneys' fees, reducing the amount to be paid by the defendants from $40,654.75 to $29,404.75. Jackson v. Austin, 267 F. Supp. 2d 1059 (D. Kan. 2003). [2004 JB Jan]
     Federal appeals court, by 6-5 vote, upholds constitutionality of attorneys' fees limits in prisoner lawsuits imposed by the Prison Litigation Reform Act. Trial judge's finding of an equal protection violation overturned in case where prisoner was awarded damages for alleged deliberate indifference to his need to be evaluated for a liver transplant. Johnson v. Daley, #00-3981, 339 F.3d 582 (7th Cir. 2003).[2003 JB Oct]
     Attorneys' fee restrictions imposed by the Prison Litigation Reform Act apply to all lawsuits filed by a prisoner, not just those that challenge prison conditions. Federal appeals court rules that they also apply to a civil rights lawsuit challenging the denial of parole or otherwise challenging the length of confinement. Court also rejects equal protection challenge to the statute, and rules that it allows for the awarding of attorneys' fees on work done litigating attorneys' fees issues (so-called "fees on fees"). Jackson v. State Board of Pardons and Paroles, No. 02-15545, 331 F.3d 790 (11th Cir. 2003). [2003 JB Sep]
     Federal appeals court holds that limits on attorneys' fees awards established by the Prison Litigation Reform Act applied to prisoner's successful challenge to retroactive change in rules concerning the date of his eligibility for parole hearing. These limits apply to all lawsuits brought by prisoners, not just those concerning "prison conditions," but also those challenging the length of confinement. Jackson v. State Board of Pardons and Paroles, #02-15545, 2003 U.S. App. Lexis 9773 (11th Cir.). [2003 JB Jul]
     Attorneys' fee award limitations contained in Prison Litigation Reform Act did not apply to a fee award to prevailing plaintiff prisoners under the attorneys' fee sections of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Rehabilitation Act. Prevailing plaintiffs in disability discrimination lawsuit against California correctional officials were also entitled to fees for work their lawyers did in separate litigation defending a judgment on a similar issue from another federal appeals court on review before the U.S. Supreme Court. Armstrong v. Davis, #01-15779, 318 F.3d 965 (9th Cir. 2003). [2003 JB May]
     A state training school for juveniles constituted a "correctional facility" under provisions of the Prison Litigation Reform Act, 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1997e(d)(1)(A), limiting the awards of attorneys' fees in cases challenging prison conditions of confinement to those directly and reasonably incurred in "proving an actual violation" of protected rights. Class of juvenile inmates was not a "prevailing party" entitled to $376,637.48 award of attorneys' fees and costs under 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1988 when the court order approving a settlement of the claims incorporated none of the specific terms and conditions agreed upon by the parties. Christina A. v. Bloomberg, #01-3698, 315 F. 3d 990 (8th Cir. 2003). [N/R]
     A prisoner who was only awarded $1 in nominal damages in his excessive force lawsuit against a correctional officer was limited by the Prison Litigation Reform Act to a maximum award of attorneys' fees of $1.50; federal appeals court upholds statutory limit against equal protection argument. Foulk v. Charrier, #00-1132, 262 F.3d 687 (8th Cir. 2001).[2002 JB Apr]
     294:87 Prisoner awarded a total of $83,250 in lawsuit asserting excessive use of force by correctional officer was not entitled to $30,550.90 in attorneys' fees; such fees must be recalculated, based on cap on hourly fees in Prison Litigation Reform Act after federal appeals court rejects trial court's ruling that the cap violated prisoner's right to equal protection. Wolff v. Moore, No. 00-3959, 00- 3995, 2000 U.S. App. LEXIS 28054 (6th Cir.).
     EDITOR'S NOTE: See also the prior decision in Hadix v. Johnson, Nos. 96-2387, 96-2397, 230 F.3d 840 (6th Cir. 2000). ("Sec. 803(d)(3) of the PLRA, 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1997e(d)(3), does not violate plaintiff's rights under the implied equal protection provision of the Fifth Amendment.").
     292:52 Prisoner who was awarded only $1 in nominal damages in his lawsuit over his loss of consciousness while in restraint was only entitled to $1.50 in attorneys' fees, not the $3,892.50 awarded by the trial court; cap on attorneys' fees in Prison Litigation Reform Act applies to awards of nominal damages and does not violate prisoner's rights. Voivin v. Black, No. 99-2085, 225 F.3d 36 (1st Cir. 2000).
     290:19 Federal trial judge rules that attorneys' fees limits of Prison Litigation Reform Act violate equal protection; plaintiff who was awarded $40,000 in damages for inadequate medical care is awarded $88,578.81 in attorneys' fees and costs. Johnson v. Daley, 117 F. Supp. 2d 889 (W.D. Wis. 2000).
     265:3 Prisoner who was awarded $17,500 in damages for correctional officer's failure to protect him from being stabbed by his cellmate was not only entitled to $10,131.64 in attorneys' fees, but also to attorneys' fees for the time his lawyer spent preparing a fee petition seeking the attorneys' fee award; Prison Litigation Reform Act did not bar an award of "fees on fees." Hernandez v. Kalinowski, #97-1734, 146 F.3d 196 (3rd Cir. 1998).
     267:36 Federal appeals court rules that attorneys' fees limits in Prison Litigation Reform Act do not apply in cases pending prior to Act's passage; U.S. Supreme Court grants review. Hadix v. Johnson, # 96-2567, 143 F.3d 246 (6th Cir.), cert. granted, Johnson v. Hadix, No. 98-262, 119 S. Ct. 508 (1998).
     270:87 State of Alabama found to have avoided any good faith attempt to comply with federal overcrowding lawsuit consent decree; while consent decree was properly dissolved at this point pursuant to provisions of the Prison Litigation Reform Act, attorneys' for plaintiff inmates and for county were entitled to attorneys' fees for attempting enforcement of decree while it was in effect. Chairs v. Burgess, 25 F.Supp.2d 1333 (N.D. Ala. 1998). 272:115 Attorneys' fee cap in Prison Litigation Reform Act applied to work done after law's effective date, even in cases which were pending prior to the law's enactment. Martin v. Hadix, #98-262, 119 S. Ct. 1998 (1999).
     238:147 Federal Prison Litigation Reform Act becomes law, makes numerous changes in prison litigation, including scope of injunctive orders, standards for termination of injunctive orders, amount of attorneys' fees, standard for prisoner release orders in overcrowding cases, prisoner payment of filing fees and court costs, barring inmates who repetitively file frivolous suits from further filings, no awards for mental/emotional distress in the absence of physical injury, and revocation of federal prisoner's good time credits if they file malicious lawsuits or testify falsely, among other highlights.

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