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New York Prisoner’s Retaliation Claim Nets $147,000 in Damages, Fees and Costs

A New York federal jury entered a verdict that awarded a state prisoner $40,002 in a case alleging a First Amendment retaliation claim, and post-trial the court awarded over $107,000 in attorney fees and costs.

New York prisoner Juan Hernandez initiated a pro se civil rights action against “no less than twenty-three employees of two New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision” facilities where he had been incarcerated. Over the course of the litigation he was granted leave to amend his complaint three times.

Hernandez was appointed counsel in September 2013, and the case proceeded to a six-day trial in May 2014. The jury found the defendants not liable on an Eighth Amendment excessive force claim against four guards, but found guard Darren Williams and prison counselor Robert Smith had retaliated against Hernandez for filing grievances and the instant lawsuit.

The jury awarded Hernandez $1.00 each in nominal damages against Williams and Smith; it also awarded $25,000 and $15,000 in punitive damages against Williams and Smith, respectively. Following the verdict, both Hernandez and Williams filed post-trial motions.

The district court reviewed the motions and granted Hernandez leave to amend his complaint to include facts about an incident upon which the jury had entered its liability finding against Williams; the court found no prejudice accrued due to Hernandez giving “longstanding notice” during discovery that the incident was part of his retaliation claim.

The district court dismissed as untimely Williams’ motion for judgment as a matter of law, then turned to Hernandez’s motion to award attorney fees and costs. The court held counsel was entitled to $165 per hour for services prior to March 1, 2014 and $189 per hour after that date. It applied those rates to the 364 hours of work reasonably performed, resulting in a $60,003 attorney fee award plus $47,103.99 in costs.

The district court required Hernandez to pay $2,000 of the attorney fee award from the jury’s verdict, and ordered Williams to pay $36,251.51 of the fee award and Smith to pay the remaining $21,751.49. They were held “jointly and severally liable for the costs.” See: Hernandez v. Goord, U.S.D.C. (S.D. NY), Case No. 1:01-cv-09585-SHS; 2014 U.S. Dist. Lexis 113720.

Hernandez appealed the judgment to the Second Circuit in June 2014, and Williams cross-appealed but later withdrew his appeal. Proceeding pro se, Hernandez failed to file his appellate brief and the case appendix by the date required by the Court of Appeals, and his appeal was dismissed on September 8, 2015.

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Related legal case

Hernandez v. Goord