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Ninth Circuit: PLRA Fee Cap Inapplicable to Fees on Appeal

Ninth Circuit: PLRA Fee Cap Inapplicable to Fees on Appeal

by Mark Wilson

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the attorney fee cap provision of the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) does not apply to fees incurred on appeal.

California prisoner Earnest Cassell Woods II obtained a federal jury verdict against Santos Cervantes, the Appeals Coordinator at CSP Solano. “The jury ... found that Cervantes violated Woods’ Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment by repeatedly screening out Woods’ medical grievances,” which caused him to experience pain and suffering due to his inability to obtain dental care to repair his broken partial dentures.

The jury awarded Woods $500 in compensatory damages and $1,000 in punitive damages in 2009. Since he had litigated the case pro se, attorney fees were not available. [See: PLN, June 2010, p.49].

Cervantes appealed the district court’s denial of qualified immunity; he also challenged the punitive damage award as being “unsupported by a showing of evil motive or intent.” The Ninth Circuit affirmed the jury verdict. See: Woods v. Carey, 488 Fed.Appx. 194 (9th Cir. 2012).

Woods was represented by counsel on appeal, and after the Ninth Circuit affirmed he moved for $16,800 in appellate attorney fees and $521.09 in costs.

Cervantes conceded that Woods was a prevailing party; he argued, however, that the PLRA’s attorney fee cap imposed by 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(d)(2) limited the fees to $2,250 – or 150% of the $1,500 jury award.

The Ninth Circuit disagreed, explaining that “the cap applies to attorney’s fees incurred in conjunction with obtaining the award of a monetary judgment.” The appellate court noted it had previously held in Dannenberg v. Valadez, 338 F.3d 1070 (9th Cir. 2003) [PLN, July 2004, p.20], that the cap “does not apply to attorney’s fees incurred in obtaining injunctive (or other non-monetary) relief.”

The Court of Appeals conducted a statutory construction analysis of § 1997e(d)(2) and ultimately followed Dannenberg in holding “that the cap in §(d)(2) does not apply to fees incurred on appeal by a prisoner who successfully defends a verdict that he obtained in the district court.” See: Woods v. Carey, 722 F.3d 1177 (9th Cir. 2013).

Following remand, on September 29, 2014 the district court issued an order granting in part and denying in part the defendants’ motion for summary judgment; the court also ordered Cervantes to pay the 2009 jury award. The case remains pending. See: Woods v. Carey, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Cal.), Case No. 2:04-cv-1225-MCE-AC-P.


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Woods v. Carey

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