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Fourth Circuit Finds PLRA Attorney Fee Cap Constitutional

Fourth Circuit Finds PLRA Attorney Fee Cap Constitutional

by David M. Reutter

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals held on November 1, 2013 that the attorney fee provision of the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) is constitutional. The ruling was in alignment with other appellate courts that have considered the issue.

North Carolina state prisoner Jamey Lamont Wilkins filed a federal civil rights complaint in 2008, alleging that a guard at the Lanesboro Correctional Institute had “maliciously and sadistically” assaulted him with “excessive force” in violation of the Eighth Amendment. The district court dismissed the lawsuit for failure to state a claim because Wilkins had alleged no more than de minimis injury.

The Fourth Circuit affirmed that ruling in Wilkins v. Gaddy, 308 Fed.Appx. 696 (4th Cir. 2009). The Supreme Court, however, granted certiorari and reversed, holding the “core judicial inquiry” in Eighth Amendment claims is not focused on the “extent of the injury” sustained but rather on the “nature of the force” used. See: Wilkins v. Gaddy, 559 U.S. 34 (2010) [PLN, Dec. 2010, p.49].

Following remand, Wilkins obtained representation from North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services and proceeded to trial. The jury found the guard, Alexander Gaddy, liable for assault, but declined to award compensatory or punitive damages. Instead, the jurors awarded nominal damages of $.99 and the district court rounded up to enter judgment for $1.00.

As the prevailing party, Wilkins filed a motion for $92,306.25 in attorney fees under the fee-shifting provisions of 42 U.S.C. § 1988. The district court awarded fees in the amount of $1.40 and rejected Wilkins’ argument that the PLRA’s cap on attorney fees, 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(d)(2), is unconstitutional because it “irrationally treat[s] prisoner and non-prisoner litigants differently.”

The challenged provision of the PLRA limits attorney fee awards that a successful prisoner litigant may recover in a civil rights action to a maximum of 150% of the monetary judgment. There is no similar limitation for non-incarcerated plaintiffs.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit noted that with the Civil Rights Attorney Fees Award Act of 1976, codified at 42 § U.S.C. 1988, Congress abrogated the “American Rule” which requires that a litigant typically must pay the costs of his or her own attorney. “But what Congress provides, Congress can adjust or take away,” the appellate court wrote.

In an effort to reduce the “ever-growing number of prison-condition lawsuits that were threatening to overwhelm the capacity of the federal judiciary,” Congress enacted the Prison Litigation Reform Act, which was signed into law by President Clinton in 1996. The Court of Appeals held that while § 1997e(d)(2) may not be the only or optimal way of stemming baseless prisoner lawsuits, Congress had acted rationally in adopting that provision of the PLRA.

The cap on attorney fee awards requires lawyers to carefully weigh the merits of prison-related lawsuits, and requires greater odds of success in such cases. This, Congress could have rationally concluded, would prevent the filing of at least some ultimately meritless claims.

Congress was also free to conclude that attorney fee awards such as the one sought in this case are so disproportionate to a monetary judgment that they are an unwise use of public funds. Based upon these rationales, the district court’s order awarding $1.40 in attorney fees was affirmed. See: Wilkens v. Gaddy, 734 F.3d 344 (4th Cir. 2013).

If prisoners wonder why attorneys are often reluctant to take prison-related civil rights cases, the paltry fee award in this case serves as an apt illustration. In other cases, attorneys have been awarded fees of $1.50 based on nominal damage awards; for example, in Bovin v. Black, 225 F.3d 36 (1st Cir. 2000) and Foulk v. Charrier, 262 F.3d 687 (8th Cir. 2002) [PLN, Nov. 2002, p.21].

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Related legal cases

Wilkins v. Gaddy


Wilkins v. Gaddy