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Ninth Circuit Holds PLRA Fee Cap for Court-Appointed Counsel Also Applies to Paralegal Fees

In a January 13, 2011 ruling, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals determined that the cap on attorney’s fees established by the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) also applies to separately billed paralegal fees, notwithstanding the anomaly that this results in awarding payments for paralegals at the same rate as for attorneys.

Carlos Perez filed suit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 on behalf of himself and a class of all current and future California prisoners, alleging constitutionally inadequate dental care in violation of the Eighth Amendment. His lawsuit settled with a remedial plan, under the terms of which the prisoners’ attorneys would monitor prison officials’ implementation of the plan and be compensated at rates limited by the PLRA’s fee cap. [See: PLN, April 2007, p.16].

In 2007, prison officials did not dispute the attorney’s fees, including the rates charged for paralegal services. In 2008, however, they balked when they were asked to reimburse paralegal services at a rate of $169.50 per hour – the same rate applicable to attorney’s fees. After a hearing, the district court determined that the proposed billing rate was permissible under the PLRA, was reasonable for the work performed and was below the market rate for paralegals in the Bay Area. The Ninth Circuit affirmed on appeal.

The PLRA includes limitations on attorney’s fees awarded to prevailing parties in cases “with respect to prison conditions.” 42 U.S.C. § 1997e. Consistent with those limits, the district court has the authority to award attorney’s fees up to 150 percent of the maximum hourly rate established by the Criminal Justice Act, 18 U.S.C. § 3006A, a statute which sets forth the terms under which a federal court may appoint counsel for indigent plaintiffs. Effective in 2002, that maximum hourly rate was $113 (in fiscal year 2010 it increased to $142). Accordingly, at the time of the fee dispute in Perez’s case, the PLRA in conjunction with the Criminal Justice Act permitted an award of attorney’s fees up to 150 percent of $113 – i.e., $169.50 per hour.

The Ninth Circuit determined that the same hourly fee cap also applies to paralegal fees. The appellate court noted that although the PLRA does not directly address paralegal fees, the Supreme Court had provided guidance on that issue. In Missouri v. Jenkins, 491 U.S. 274, 285 (1989), the Supreme Court found that the phrase “reasonable attorney’s fee” in 42 U.S.C. § 1988 (the statute referenced in the PLRA) could not have been “meant to compensate only work performed personally by members of the bar,” but also included the work of paralegals, secretaries and others who contribute to an attorney’s work product.

The Supreme Court held that an attorney could thus either charge a higher rate to cover the value of a paralegal’s services, or alternatively could bill separately for those services so long as the fees charged were consistent with market rates and practices. Based on this precedent, the Ninth Circuit held that the PLRA allows paralegal fees to be awarded up to the rate established under the attorney’s fee cap. See: Perez v. Cate, 632 F.3d 553 (9th Cir. 2011).

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Related legal case

Perez v. Cate