« "The Use and Abuse of Mutual-Support Programs in Drug Courts" | Main | Helpful new Sentencing Project fact sheet on "Private Prisons in the United States" »

August 27, 2017

SCOTUS fills out Fall docket with little prisoner lawsuit fee-award case

As reported here by Amy Howe via SCOTUSblog, the Supreme Court this past Friday issued an unusual mid-summer cert grant a full month before their usual late September "long conference."  Here are the basics:

[I]n a relatively unusual summer order, the justices [on August 25] added a new case, involving the interpretation of a federal law governing the award of attorney’s fees to prisoners who prevail in civil rights cases, to their docket for the fall.   [This] grant came in a case filed by an Illinois prisoner, Charles Murphy, who was awarded over $300,000 after he prevailed in a lawsuit alleging that corrections officers had badly beaten him, causing permanent damage to his eye.  A provision in the Prison Litigation Reform Act indicates that, when a prisoner like Murphy is awarded money in a civil rights lawsuit, “a portion of the judgment (not to exceed 25 percent) shall be applied to satisfy the amount of attorney’s fees awarded against the defendants.”  The dispute now before the Supreme Court centers on exactly what the phrase “not to exceed 25 percent” means: Does 25 percent of the money awarded to the prisoner have to go toward his attorney’s fees, before the defendants must also contribute to the fees, or can the district court require a smaller portion of the attorney’s fees to come out of the prisoner’s award?

In Murphy’s case, the district court awarded attorney’s fees of approximately $108,000. It ordered Murphy to pay 10 percent of his award — approximately $30,000 — to his attorney, with the roughly $78,000 remaining to come from the corrections officers. But on appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit reversed the district court’s ruling on the attorney’s fees award.  It interpreted the phrase “not to exceed 25 percent” to mean that 25 percent of the prisoner’s award was required to go to attorney’s fees; under this construction, the corrections officials would have to pitch in only if the prisoners’ attorneys were still owed money after that.  The court of appeals therefore ordered Murphy to contribute approximately $77,000 (rather than roughly $30,000) of his award to his attorneys; this left corrections officials on the hook for only approximately $31,000 (rather than the $78,000 that they owed under the district court’s order).

Murphy took his case to the Supreme Court, where he urged the justices to step in and resolve a conflict between the 7th Circuit’s interpretation and those of several other circuits that would give district courts discretion to decide how much of a prisoner’s award should go to his attorneys.  The 7th Circuit’s rule, he argued, “leaves prisoners whose constitutional rights have been violated with smaller net recoveries than Congress intended them to receive.”

Opposing review, the corrections officers ... effectively conceded that the courts of appeals are divided on how to interpret the phrase “not to exceed 25 percent.”  But, they emphasized, the conflict is not as widespread as Murphy suggests, because only two courts of appeals “have squarely held that the PLRA gives district courts discretion to choose any portion of the judgment up to 25% to apply to a fee award.”  And in any event, they added, the issue arises relatively rarely, because virtually no prisoners in PLRA cases are even represented by attorneys, much less prevail and receive money damages....

The [SCOTUS] calendar for October arguments is full, bolstered by two cases in which the justices are hearing oral arguments for the second time and two other cases — involving the Trump administration’s “travel ban” and a challenge to Wisconsin’s redistricting maps — that are being argued earlier than they might normally have been. But the court still has 12 days of arguments (for a total of up to 24 arguments) to fill in the November and December sittings, with only 17 hours’ worth of arguments before today’s grant.  [This] grant should allow Murphy’s case to be briefed in time for oral argument in December, bringing the total of November and December arguments to 18.

Though I suppose it is useful for SCOTUS to settle a circuit split on this little fee issue, I find it more than a bit intriguing and ultimately frustrating that a rare dispute over how much a prisoner must pay his lawyer is now going to get more SCOTUS attention than far-more-common disputes over, say, how much time a juve offender can gets under Graham and Miller Eighth Amendment precedents or whether and how guideline enhancements based on acquitted conduct may be problematic in some cases given Apprendi/Booker Sixth Amendment jurisprudence.  It seems a clear circuit split on a little issue that impacts a handful of prisoners still has a better chance of garnering SCOTUS review than challenging sentencing issues that can impact thousands of cases every year.

August 27, 2017 at 02:26 PM | Permalink


If it were only "a portion not to exceed 25%" I would agree with the district court, but the addition of "shall" changes that and I have to agree with the circuit court.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Aug 27, 2017 3:44:27 PM

It's easier for them to agree to settle a non-controversial dispute.

You know this, obviously, but so it goes. They are dealing with some controversial matters early in the term. Those things will likely be covered eventually. But, with the future of the Court in dispute past the upcoming term, they also might not want to take cases with short shelf lives either. Unless there is a way for them to decided 6-3 or something.

Posted by: Joe | Aug 28, 2017 11:25:23 AM

Looking at the textual language, it can be read in both ways: a) as granting the district court discretion in determining the share of the judgment that can be used to satisfy the plaintiff's attorney's fees (with the rest to be paid by the defendant); and b) creating a presumption that the attorney's fees will be paid from the judgment with a non-discretionary cap on the share of the judgment that will go to attorney's fees (with any excess to be paid by the defendant). Neither reading is particular compelled by the statutory language nor an unreasonable interpretation of the statutory language.

It will be interesting to see whether the parties and the justices turn to legislative history to resolve this ambiguity or turn to one of the default "tie-breaker" canons of construction.

Posted by: tmm | Aug 28, 2017 12:13:17 PM

This is a poorly drafted statute--and I am just asking, but shouldn't the prisoner lose? Wasn't it the responsibility of his attorneys to ensure that the form of verdict had an adequate breakdown of damages/fees? Seems to me that, if possible, that's the way to cut the Gordian KNot.

Curious everyone's thoughts on that.

Posted by: federalist | Aug 28, 2017 4:08:07 PM

Federalist, in most civil rights cases, the trial court may award attorney's fees to the prevailing party under 42 USC 1988(b). This award is separate from the award of damages. Under current practice, this award is made by the trial court after the trial is over (since it may include post-trial work as well) not by the jury. The award of attorney's fees is separate from the award for damages.

In this specific case, based on the judgment in the appendix to the petition for certiorari, the jury's verdict apparently itemized the damages awarded to the plaintiff's. After the verdict, plaintiffs then filed their motion for attorney's fees which was awarded by the trial court. In theory, I guess the law could be re-written to have the jury award the attorney's fees although I shudder to think of the complexity of an instruction on what time is compensable. It would not solve the problem, however, because in this case, the calculation of attorney's fees is clearly separate from the calculation of damages.

Posted by: tmm | Aug 29, 2017 11:18:18 AM

thanks tmm--seems to me, though, that the attorneys were incented to deal with this on the front end, rather than the back end . . . .

So, to put the question in reverse, if you were taking a PLRA case to trial, how would you ensure that attorneys fees were added to the base damages? Isn't this statute somewhat like the typical limitation found in private bills which often limit the amount an attorney can get from the award to 10%? That would be taken from the total award.

The statute is weird. It looks like, as drafted, it could be read to interfere with the fee agreement. That doesn't make a lot of sense either.

I think if the issue is just not to exceed 25%, then the district judge is probably within his/her rights--the statute seems to contemplate that the amount is capped at 25%, but that doesn't necessarily mean that the court is required to pick that percentage--10% is a portion of the award. Even 1% is a portion of the award and it is being applied. The Seventh Circuit appears to be interpreting the statute to say: "All attorneys fees awarded by the court to the prisoner shall be satisfied out of the judgment against the defendant, but if such amount exceeds 25% of such award, then the excess will be payable by the defendants."

I think the backdrop is that if discretion isn't controlled, the court is presumed to have it. So since tit isn't clear that the court cannot pick less than 25%, then it can.

Posted by: federalist | Aug 29, 2017 4:46:31 PM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB