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Missouri Prisoner Wins $25,000 in Police Excessive Force Case; Attorney Fees Limited to $37,500 by PLRA

Missouri Prisoner Wins $25,000 in Police Excessive Force Case; Attorney Fees Limited to $37,500 by PLRA

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, following the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), limited the attorney fees awarded in a prisoner’s 42 U.S.C. § 1983 lawsuit to 150% of the damage award. The court further limited the offset of “up to 25% of the damage award” applied to the defendants’ payment of attorney fees to only 1%.

Craig Boesing suffered injuries from excessive force by police officers prior to entering state prison. After a foot chase, he claimed police then handcuffed him face down on the ground, pepper sprayed him and beat him with a baton. He sued and won a jury award of $5,000 in compensatory damages plus $20,000 in punitive damages. His appointed attorney, Robert Rosenthal, applied for attorney fees since his client was the prevailing party. The court followed 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(d)(2) in limiting Rosenthal’s fee request to 150% of the $25,000 damage award, or $37,500 – less than half the requested attorney fees.

The court first reduced Rosenthal’s billing rate from $250 per hour to the PLRA limit of $135 per hour, which decreased the fees to $56,781. However, that still exceeded the PLRA cap, so the court further reduced the fee award to the cap of $37,500 – which it found “reasonable” for the results achieved. Significantly, the court invoked the PLRA because Boesing was incarcerated. Had he already been released, the PLRA would not have applied and the fees would not have been capped.

The district court then addressed a punitive provision of the PLRA that requires a successful prisoner plaintiff to pay “up to 25% of the damage award” to offset attorney fees awarded against the defendants who unlawfully injured him. Varying courts have interpreted this to mean from as little as $1 to as much as the full 25% (which in this case would have been $6,250). The court followed precedent in Lawrence v. Bowersox, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Mo.), Case No. 97-cv-1135 CEJ (2002), and exercised its discretion to award only 1% ($250) to offset the attorney fee award. See: Boesing v. Hunter, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 36549.

Accordingly, Rosenthal received $37,500 in attorney fees and Boesing received $24,750 of his damage award. The district court’s ruling was upheld by the Eighth Circuit on appeal. The court held that the PLRA applied even though the defendants were not jail or prison employees and the suit was not related to incarceration because the suit was filed while Boesing was in prison. See: Boesing v. Hunter, 540 F.3d 886 (8th Cir. 2008).

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Related legal case

Boesing v. Hunter