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Third Circuit Affirms Nominal Damages, Reverses PLRA Fee Cap Order

Third Circuit Affirms Nominal Damages, Reverses PLRA Fee Cap Order

by Mark Wilson

On March 28, 2014, a New Jersey federal district court refused to reduce a prisoner’s attorney fee award to $1.50 (i.e., 150% of his $1.00 nominal damages award) pursuant to the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), in a case involving due process violations during a disciplinary hearing. The court further ordered a new disciplinary hearing that comported with due process requirements; however, the Third Circuit reversed as to the new hearing and the attorney fee award, reducing the fee award to $1.50.

In 2006, New Jersey prisoner Gary Harris sent money to another prisoner’s niece, and mailed two letters that allegedly used “code words” to refer to street gangs. He was segregated and charged with two disciplinary rule violations, including a “*.010” violation for participation in a security threat group-related activity.

The disciplinary hearing officer failed to conduct an independent review of the “code words” letters or allow Harris to review the letters before or during the hearing, which denied him a meaningful opportunity to prepare and present a defense.

Harris was found guilty and sanctioned with solitary confinement and loss of commutation credits. He then filed suit, alleging that the hearing officer had deprived him of due process by failing to independently examine the “code words” letters and by denying him an opportunity to review the letters. The district court granted summary judgment to Harris on the due process violation. However, since Harris had admitted to the other disciplinary charge and could have received the same sanction that was imposed, the court awarded only $1.00 in nominal damages for his “technical victory.”

The district court then directed the parties to brief an appropriate attorney fee award for Harris’ pro bono counsel, in light of Farrar v. Hobby, 506 U.S. 103 (1992) and Velius v. Twp of Hamilton, 466 Fed.Appx. 133 (3d Cir. 2012). Ultimately, the court awarded Harris $300 in attorney fees.

The defendants moved for reconsideration, arguing that the cap on attorney fees imposed by the PLRA, 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(d)(3), required reduction of the $300 attorney fee award to $1.50 – or 150% of the $1.00 nominal damages award.

The district court observed that the plain language of § 1997e(d)(2) applies only “If the award of attorney fees is not greater than 150 percent of the judgment.” Although “some courts found that this 150% cap should also apply to a ‘greater-than-150%’ scenario,” the district court noted that “those courts that meticulously examined this issue declined to adopt a cavalier approach and elected to tread carefully.”

The court held that the “expansion of this 150% cap to all cases would automatically render these words, i.e., ‘if’ and ‘not,’ wholly meaningless, offending the rules of statutory construction.”

The court also observed that “nothing in the statute or its legislative history suggests that Congress was encouraging the courts to insult those lawyers who generously give their time, wisdom and ardor to the noble cause of pro bono litigation by penalizing these attorneys for their clients’ Pyrrhic victories by awarding them a ‘buck and two bits’ fee insufficient to purchase even a box of cereal.”

The district court discounted the appellate rulings to the contrary cited by the defendants, stating they “cannot be harmonized with the statute itself and the rules of statutory construction.” The court denied the defendants’ motion for reconsideration and amended its prior order to include injunctive relief in the form of a “curative” disciplinary hearing that comported with due process. See: Harris v. Ricci, 8 F.Supp.3d 583 (D.N.J. 2014).

At the curative disciplinary hearing held on April 24, 2014, Harris was found not guilty of the “*.010” charge. He asked the district court to increase the damages award as a result of this development but the court declined, in part because it had lost jurisdiction after the parties cross appealed – with Harris seeking an increase in damages on appeal, and the defendants seeking to reduce the attorney fee award from $300 to $1.50.

The Third Circuit held on December 30, 2014 that the district court had properly awarded nominal damages to Harris on his procedural due process claim, as he did not establish that the due process violation had caused an actual injury. The appellate court also found that the PLRA clearly limited attorney fees to 150% of the judgment in prisoners’ cases, and therefore reduced the fee awarded to Harris’ attorney to $1.50. Further, although acknowledging the matter was “likely moot,” the Court of Appeals reversed the district court’s grant of injunctive relief in the form of a curative disciplinary hearing.

Thus, the damages award remained at $1.00 and the attorney fee award was reduced to $1.50. Harris had sought $1.9 million in his lawsuit. See: Harris v. Ricci, 2014 U.S. App. LEXIS 24582 (3d Cir. 2014).


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Related legal cases

Harris v. Ricci

Harris v. Ricci

Velius v. Twp of Hamilton

Farrar v. Hobby