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PLRA Limits Attorney Fee Award to $7,500; Prisoner Required to Pay Part of Fees

On December 17, 2007, U.S. District Court Judge James K. Singleton, Jr. awarded $7,500 in attorney fees following a jury verdict that found New York prison officials had violated the First Amendment in denying a prisoner his religious meals. The fee award was substantially lower than what was originally sought as a result of limits imposed by the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA). Additionally, the prisoner was required to pay a portion of the fees from the damages he was awarded.

Detroy Livingston, a New York state prisoner, sued several guards for denying him religious meals in violation of the First Amendment. The jury returned a verdict in Livingston’s favor, awarding him $3,000 in compensatory damages plus $2,000 in punitive damages. Based on his success in the action, Livingston sought $39,190.50 in attorney fees. The court granted the motion in part.

The PLRA, 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(d), places a cap on the amount of attorney fees that may be awarded in a prisoner’s lawsuit. For example, fees are limited to 150% of the amount of damages awarded and may not exceed the hourly rate for court-appointed counsel under the Criminal Justice Act, 18 U.S.C. § 3006A. Applying those provisions to Livingston’s case, the district court capped the attorney fees at $7,500 – 150% of the total $5,000 damage award. The court did not stop there, though.

Another provision of the PLRA requires the court to apply up to 25% of the damages awarded toward attorney fees. In this case, the court found an allocation of 25% of Livingston’s compensatory damages, or $750, was appropriate. The district court declined, however, to allocate any portion of the punitive damage award toward attorney fees, holding that would be “incongruous” with the “punitive effect of punitive damages.” Livingston was represented by the Cooper, Erving Law Firm. See: Livingston v. Griffin, U.S.D.C. (N.D. NY), Case No. 9:04-cv-00607-JKS-GHL.

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Related legal case

Livingston v. Griffin