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PLRA Attorney Fee Limits Inapplicable to Discovery Violation Awards

PLRA Attorney Fee Limits Inapplicable to Discovery Violation Awards

In April 2014, a Virginia federal district court awarded $15,980 in attorney fees for a discovery violation in a class-action prisoner civil rights suit. The court’s award came after it found the PLRA does not apply when granting attorney fees for violations of discovery rules.

The plaintiffs moved to compel discovery from the Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC), which the district court granted after it held VDOC officials had improperly refused to produce documents in a case that involved the adequacy of medical care at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women. The court also granted the plaintiffs’ motion to recover costs and attorney fees incurred in the preparation and filing of the motion to compel.

The fee petition requested $20,339, including $510/hour for Theodore Howard, a partner with the law firm of Wiley Rein LLP, and $295/hour for Lori Lombard, an associate with the firm. Of the 45.90 hours expended on researching, briefing and arguing the motion to compel, Howard performed 31.90 hours of work and Lombard performed 14 hours.

The VDOC argued the case was governed by the PLRA, which limits the rates for attorney fees. If that were the case, Howard’s hourly rate would be capped at $187.50 and Lombard’s at $123.50. The district court, however, disagreed that the PLRA applied.

“[A] straightforward reading of the provisions of the PLRA cited by the defendants establishes that the PLRA fee limitations have no applicability to the fees awarded here as sanctions for Defendants’ misconduct regarding discovery,” the court wrote. It found the PLRA’s fee restriction applies only to a “merits-related fee award.”

While the district court held the PLRA did not apply, it reduced the requested fee award on other grounds, finding Howard was entitled to $400/hour and Lombard to $230/hour. As such, the court entered an order awarding $15,980 in reasonable expenses and attorney fees. See: Scott v. Clarke, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Vir.), Case No. 3:12-cv-00036-NKM; 2014 U.S. Dist. Lexis 51602.

The district court subsequently denied the defendants’ motion for summary judgment on November 25, 2014 and granted the plaintiffs’ motion for partial summary judgment. The parties then entered into a Memorandum of Understanding pending a settlement agreement. [See: PLN, Aug. 2015, p.40]. According to an August 2015 status report, they “anticipate that final documents will be submitted on or before September 15, 2015, with the Class Notice period and scheduling of the Fairness Hearing to proceed as expeditiously as possible thereafter.”

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Related legal case

Scott v. Clarke