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Massachusetts Prisoner Awarded $550,307 in Attorney Fees and Costs in Unsanitary Conditions Case

On December 30, 2008, a Massachusetts state court awarded a former prisoner $547,566 in attorney fees and $2,741 in costs and litigation expenses in a civil rights action in which the plaintiffs were awarded only nominal damages.

Stephen Doherty and ten other Massachusetts state prisoners filed a civil rights suit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in superior court alleging they were subjected to inhumane conditions for three weeks following a disturbance at MCI-Cedar Junction, in violation of the Eight Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

The jury found that they were deprived of “sanitary living conditions, including clean water, working toilets, healthy meals, and breathable air,” and that feces was smeared on the walls, floors and tables of the unit where they were held. Despite knowing that most of the plaintiffs were serving life sentences for serious crimes, the jury returned a verdict in their favor but only awarded nominal damages of $1.

Doherty, who was represented by Bonita Tenneriello and Peter Berkowitz of Boston-based Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services, Inc., filed for attorney fees and costs pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988 and Mass.R.Civ.P. 54, requesting $842,408.70 in fees for the three attorneys and one paralegal who worked on the case. The superior court found that Do-herty’s attorney fee request was not subject to the PLRA cap because he had been released from prison before the suit was filed. It also found that Doherty was the prevailing party and thus was entitled to attorney fees.

Furthermore, the court held that “Doherty’s victory was not merely technical or de minimus,” and because the attorneys did the same work for Doherty as for the other plaintiffs, the work they did on his case was not severable. Doherty did not prevail on all his claims, but the claims were interrelated and the attorneys would have had to do most of the same work had the unsuccessful claims not been raised. Also, the nominal damages award did not diminish “the value of a favorable verdict for the plaintiff,” as it “may simply reflect the unquantifiable nature of some harms.”

However, the court reduced the requested attorney fees by 35% due to the “gap between the damages sought and the damages awarded,” and granted a combined total of $550,307 in attorney fees and costs. See: Ashman v. Marshall, MA Superior Court-Suffolk, Civil Action No. 00-05618. The ruling is posted on PLN’s website.

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Related legal case

Ashman v. Marshall