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Ninth Circuit: PLRA Precludes Award of Attorney Fees Where Violation of Prisoner’s Rights is Not Affirmatively Established

The Ninth Circuit held that the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(d)(1), precludes an award of attorney fees in cases where a prisoner obtained relief but did not affirmatively establish a violation of protected rights.

Proceeding pro se, state prisoner Clark Allen Kimbrough filed a complaint in federal court alleging that a 1997 California Department of Corrections grooming regulation, codified at 15 Cal. Code Regs. § 3062(e), which required prisoners to maintain their hair no longer than three inches in length, violated his First Amendment right to free exercise of religion.

After the district court granted summary judgment to the state defendants, the Ninth Circuit enjoined enforcement of the grooming regulation. The appellate court then remanded the case to the district court to consider whether the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA), 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc, et seq., which was passed by Congress while Kimbrough’s appeal was pending, applied to his case.

On remand, Kimbrough filed a second amended complaint alleging violations of his rights under RLUIPA and successfully moved for several extensions of the preliminary injunction that enjoined enforcement of the challenged grooming regulation.

In November 2003, the U.C. Davis School of Law, King Hall Civil Rights Clinic, was appointed to represent Kimbrough; however, he was released on parole approximately seven months later, effectively mooting the case.

King Hall subsequently moved for an award of attorney fees in the amount of $47,497.18, which the district court ultimately granted. The state appealed the fee award, arguing that no actual violation of Kimbrough’s rights had been established.

Relying on several precedents, principally Siripongs v. Davis, 282 F.3d 755 (9th Cir. 2002) [PLN, June 2003, p.13], the Ninth Circuit held that the PLRA precluded the award of attorney fees because the statutory language of 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(d)(1)(A) restricts such awards to cases in which an “actual violation” of rights was proven.

In Kimbrough’s case, although he received temporary relief in the form of a preliminary injunction (indicating he was reasonably likely to succeed on the merits), he was paroled before the district court ruled on his motion for a permanent injunction. Thus, there was no affirmative finding that Kimbrough’s rights had been violated. See: Kimbrough v. CDCR, 609 F.3d 1027 (9th Cir. 2010).

PLN readers should note that the grooming regulation at issue in this case was subsequently changed to allow prisoners to maintain their hair at any length.

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Related legal case

Kimbrough v. CDCR