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PLRA Not Retroactively Applicable to Special Masters

A federal district court in California held that the Prison Litigation Reform Act's (PLRA) provisions limiting the source and amount of payment to special masters appointed to monitor compliance with court orders did not apply to special masters appointed prior to the PLRA's enactment on April 26, 1996.

In the May, 1996, issue of PLN we reported Coleman v. Wilson, 912 P. Supp. 1282 (ED CA 1995), which found the California Department of Corrections' (CDC) mental health care system to be in violation of the eighth amendment. The court ordered extensive injunctive relief to rectify the constitutional violations and appointed J. Michael Keating to serve as a special master to oversee the implementation of the court's injunction. Keating was to be paid $150 an hour for his work in the case and $75 an hour for travel time. His fees were to be paid by the defendants pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 53(a).

With the passage of the PLRA, special masters were to be paid with funds appropriated to the federal judiciary and their fees were to be capped at $75 an hour. See 18 U.S.C. § 3626(f)(4). As a result, Keating ceased work on the case. The parties then briefed the matter so the court could clarify it.

The court analyzed the PLRA's use of the term "prospective relief" to determine if it applied to the appointment and compensation of special masters. The court noted that while ordinarily this should be a simple matter of statutory construction, the PLRA itself was less than helpful. "Unfortunately, the statutory definition of 'relief' violates the first rule of a meaningful definition, which is that it should not appear in the definition .... The reason for this rule is plainly demonstrated by the instant case. The statutory definition sheds no light on the disputed term's meaning since 'relief' is in essence defined as all relief. Thus, while the definition teaches that it encompasses all instances of the term, it does not tell us what demarks and distinguishes those instances from others."

The court held that appointment of a special master was not "relief" for PLRA purposes because Black's Law Dictionary defines "relief" as the benefit a complainant seeks from the court. "This definition, focusing on the ultimate legal form of remedy rather than the means of achieving the remedy, appears to favor plaintiff's position." The court relied on the fact that the plaintiffs did not seek appointment of a special master in their complaint.

The court concluded that while "§ 3626 may apply to 'future prospective relief,' that term does not apply to the compensation of a previously appointed special master. The court concludes that the amendments to § 3626 effectuated by the PLRA are inapplicable to the court's appointment of Michael Keating, Jr. in the matter at bar." Keating was directed to resume his duties and the state of California was ordered to compensate him at $150 an hour. See: Coleman v. Wilson, 931 F. Supp. 154 (ED CA 1996).

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Related legal case

Coleman v. Wilson

[24] All the above leads the court to conclude that, although § 3626 may apply to "future prospective relief," that term does not apply to the compensation of a previously appointed special master. *fn7" The court concludes that the amendments to § 3626 effectuated by the PLRA are inapplicable to the court's appointment of Michael Keating, Jr. in the matter at bar.

[25] Accordingly, Mr. Keating is DIRECTED to resume his duties and the state is ORDERED to continue to compensate him under the court's original order. *fn8"


[27] DATED: July 11, 1996.




Opinion Footnotes

[31] *fn1 Compensation was fixed at one hundred fifty dollars per hour except for travel time which was allowed at seventy five dollars an hour.

[32] *fn2 Relative to compensation, the PLRA provides: The compensation to be allowed to a special master under this section shall be based on an hourly rate established under section 3006A for payment of court-appointed counsel, plus costs reasonably incurred by the special master. Such compensation and costs shall be paid with funds appropriate to the Judiciary. 18 U.S.C. § 3626(f)(4). By virtue of the Act, compensation for special masters appointed in this district will be limited to seventy five dollars per hour.

[33] *fn3 Subsequent to the hearing, the court requested input from the special master concerning the effects of the application of the PLRA on his ability to perform his duties. Mr. Keating submitted an affidavit which explained, inter alia, his overhead, the background and compensation for his staff, and expressing his concern that "the proposed fee reduction demeans my experience, reputation and ability and the dignity and value of the office of the special master," he avers that " I will not continue to serve in the role at that rate." Declaration of J. Michael Keating Jr., filed June 24, 1996, at 7.

[34] *fn4 The constitutionality of this statute is under question in a number of courts across the country. One district court has already entered an order declaring the automatic stay provision of the PLRA as unconstitutional. See Hadix v. Johnson, 933 F. Supp. 1362 (W.D. Mich. 1996).

[35] *fn5 At least two other questions are potentially also tendered by the statute's locution: Are the orders concerning a master's renumeration "compensatory monetary damages," and does the compensation provision apply if Mr. Keating was not appointed under this section? Both questions are less straight forward then they first appear. Thus the statute provides for "the compensation to be allowed to a special master under this section . . . ." § 3626(f)(4). If this phrase is understood to mean masters appointed under the amended § 3626, the subsection does not apply to Mr. Keating because he was appointed before the section existed. On the other hand, if it was intended that (f)(4) apply to any master whether appointed "before, on or after" adoption of the statute, then under the statute Mr. Keating's compensation has been reduced from $ 150 per hour to $ 75 per hour, despite his having agreed to accept the position based on the higher rate. A proper resolution of this issue may turn on whether Congress has specified the retroactive effect of (f)(4), or whether there is an ambiguity; See Landgraf v. USI Film Products, 511 U.S. 244, 128 L. Ed. 2d 229, 114 S. Ct. 1483 (1994). Moreover, given that Mr. Keating has undertaken the discharge of his duties pursuant to the court's previous order, and changed his position in reliance thereon, there is a question as whether as to him there is a final order relative to compensation which Congress may not now alter. See Plaut v. Spendthrift Farm, Inc., 514 U.S. , 131 L. Ed. 2d 328, 115 S. Ct. 1447 (1995). Given the disposition of the question of the meaning of "relief" in the text, I need not address these difficult questions which implicate issues of a constitutional dimension.

[36] *fn6 Remarkably, defendants do not respond to the argument, apparently taking the position that if the statute applies at all, it self-evidently applies to the future compensation due the master. In sum, their position appears to be that because the statute specifies application to relief granted prior to the effective date of the statute, and the overall purpose of the statute is regulation of prison conditions litigation, the term "relief" as used in the statute should include the compensation of previously appointed masters. Such a generic approach is inappropriate. While it is true that intent is gleaned from reading the statute as a whole, Conroy v. Aniskoff, 507 U.S. 511, 514, 123 L. Ed. 2d 229, 236, 113 S. Ct. 1562 (1993), Congress expresses its intent through the language it uses, and it is analysis of that language which determines its intent. Connecticut Nat'l Bank v. Germain, 503 U.S. 249, 253, 117 L. Ed. 2d 391, 397, 112 S. Ct. 1146 (1992) ("courts must presume that a legislature says in a statute what it means and means in a statute what it says").

[37] *fn7 While the court believes that the issue is resolved by virtue of the meaning of the word "relief," viewed as a term of art, even if there is an ambiguity, the resolution of the question adopted in the text would be appropriate because it avoids the constitutional question noted in n.5 supra, which might otherwise have to be addressed. See St. Martin Lutheran Church v. South Dakota, 451 U.S. 772, 780, 68 L. Ed. 2d 612, 101 S. Ct. 2142 (1981); DeBartolo Corp. v. Florida Gulf Trades Council, 485 U.S. 568, 575, 99 L. Ed. 2d 645, 108 S. Ct. 1392 (1988). The court also believes that since construction can be resolved as a matter of plain legal meaning, it need not examine the legislative history. If called upon to do so, the court notes that the history at least suggests that Congress, having been warned of the possible constitutional issue, revised the statute's language from its originally introduced language to its present form. See S. 400, 104th Cong., 1st Sess. (February 14, 1995); S. 866 104th Cong., 1st Sess. (May 25, 1995); S. 1279, 104th Cong. 1st Sess. (September 27, 1995); 141 Cong. Rec. § 14408-10, § 14418 (September 27, 1995); 1995 WL 496910 (F.D.C.H.) at 13.

[38] *fn8 Mr. Keating has also expressed concern that 18 U.S.C. § 3626(f)(6)(B), restricting ex parte communication by the special master "negates the traditional mediating role [of] masters". The court had read the section as relating solely to formal fact-finding and thus having no effect on the master's mediation role. Given the master's reading, the court now directs the defendants, if they share the master's view, to bring on a motion to modify the Order of Reference in this regard within fifteen (15) days. If defendants fail to do so, the issue will be deemed waived.