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New Hampshire Prisoner's Due Process Suit Nets $54,000 in Fees and Damages

A New Hampshire federal district court has awarded a prisoner $20,503 in nominal and punitive damages in a civil rights action alleging Fourteenth Amendment violations. The Court further awarded $31,000 in attorney's fees and $3,900 in costs to the prisoner's attorney.

While imprisoned at New Hampshire's Hillsborough County Department of Corrections, prisoner Jason Surprenant filed a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action alleging he was falsely accused of committing a disciplinary infraction by guard Cesar Rivas. In addition to this claim, Surprenant alleged guard Theresa Pendleton violated his due process rights during the disciplinary hearing. Finally, Surprenant sued Superintendent James O'Mara, Jr., alleging the conditions of the jail's restrictive housing units were unconstitutional.

The matter proceeded to jury trial. The jury concluded the defendants violated Surprenant's Fourteenth Amendment rights and awarded Surprenant nominal and punitive damages against Rivas, Pendleton and O'Mara in the amount of $20,503. The jury rejected two claims that alleged guards Ryan LaVierge and John LeBlanc used excessive force and that O'Mara failed to give Surprenant credit for the time spent in the restricted housing unit.

Following the judgment, defendants moved for judgment as a matter of law, which the Court denied. Surprenant filed under 42 U.S.C. § 1988 seeking an award of $46,850.50 in attorney's fees and $3,897.72 in costs. Surprenant further sought $1,404 for work done by his counsel in objecting to the defendant's judgment as a matter of law.

The Court held that an hourly rate of $135 is appropriate under 42 U.S.C. § 1997e. Using a revised hourly total of 333.10 hours, counsel could receive up to $44,960.50 in fees.

The Court then had to determine if the fact that Surprenant prevailed on only three of the five claims he raised in his complaint required reduction of the attorney's fees to be awarded. The Court said the prevailing claims were highly significant and far from frivolous. Society expects prisoners to be treated humanely, to be provided with a fair disciplinary process when charges are brought against them arising out of the alleged misconduct while incarcerated, and to be free from false accusations by prison staff." The Court held in reducing the request by only $10,000, which it said was sufficient to reflect Surprenant's limited success.

The Court said the reduced fee of $35,000, still exceeded the cap requirements under § 1997e(d)(2). The Court held the attorney's fees award must be capped at 150 percent of the monetary judgment of $20,503. As such, Surprenant's request for fees must be capped at $30,754.50.

The Court then concluded that it has discretion to determine what percent, up to 25 percent, of the monetary judgment it must apply to an award of fees. The Court could apply to satisfy the PLRA. Under this discretion, the Court held that $1,000 was an appropriate amount for Surprenant to pay toward the attorney's fees award. Thus, reducing the defendant's required payment of attorney's fees to $29,754.50.

Additionally, the Court held the $3,897.72 in costs, sought by Surprenant for reimbursement of the fees he paid the Hillsborough County Sheriff to transport witnesses, which were incurred in the course of representation, may be reimbursed as costs under §1988. The decision is unpublished. See: Surprenant v. Rivas, 2004 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 16311.

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Related legal case

Surprenant v. Rivas