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$77,980 in Attorney's Fees, $57,000 Verdict in Police Excessive Force

by Lonnie Burton

On March 29, 2017, United States District Judge George B. Daniels, sitting in the Southern District of New York, adopted in part a magistrate's report and recommendation which granted attorney's fees and costs to a lawyer who had won a jury verdict in a prisoner's 42 U.S.C. § 1983 civil rights lawsuit. Judge Daniels, however, refused to adopt the portion of the R & R limiting the attorney's fee award to 150% of the verdict as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), because the lawsuit did not arise from claims arising out of the prisoner's current confinement.

Samuel L. Sutton sued the city of Yonkers, New York, the Yonkers police department, the county of Westchester, and two arresting officers for excessive force for a June 2, 2010 arrest which resulted in a week in jail. Sutton filed the suit while he was locked up for a subsequent, unrelated offense in February 2013. On June 9, 2016, a jury returned a verdict in his favor. The jury found for Sutton on his false arrest claim only, while rejecting his claims that he was arrested without probable cause, improperly strip-searched, and subjected to excessive force. The jury awarded Sutton a total of $57,000, which included $7,000 in lost wages and $50,000 for pain and suffering.

After the verdict, Sutton's attorney, Darryl Austin, moved under 42 U.S.C. § 1988 for attorney's fees and costs. He sought over $150,000 in attorney's fees and nearly $2,000 in costs. The magistrate eventually issued an R & R which awarded Austin about $70,000 in attorney's fees, which included just over $14,000 of Sutton's $57,000 verdict, and all of his requested costs. Austin filed an objection to the R & R, arguing that his fee award should not be limited to the PLRA's 150%-of-the-verdict rule because his client's claims did not arise out of his current confinement.

Judge Daniels agreed, vacating that part of the R & R limiting the attorney's fee award and abrogating Sutton's verdict.

"After reviewing the (R & R] in light of Plaintiff's objections, this Court declines to limit the attorney's fee award pursuant to the PLRA," Daniels wrote. Recognizing that federal courts have split on the issue of whether the PLRA's attorney's fee restrictions apply to suits filed by prisoners related to actions that took place prior to their current incarceration, Daniels said the controlling cases caution against extending the PLRA beyond suits challenging current prison condiditions or the arrest and prosecution that led to the prisoner's current incarceration.

"The PLRA was aimed primarily at prisoners' suits challenging prison conditions, many of which are routinely dismissed as frivolous," Daniels quoted Reyes v. Keane, 90 F.3d 678 (2d Cir. 1996).

Because none of the cases presented by the defendants were analogous to a case such asthis, in which a prisoner files suit challenging a prior civil rights violation unrelated to his present incarceration, the PLRA's 150% cap on attorney's fees does not here, Daniels ruled. As such, the Court awarded Austin a total of $77,980 in attorney's fees--representing 222.8 hours at $350 an hour--and $1,987.81 in costs, and kept Sutton's full $57,000 verdict intact.

See: Sutton v. City of Yonkers, et al., Case No. 13 Civ. 801 (GBD) (GWG) (U.S.D.C. S.D. NY), March 29, 2017.

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Related legal case

Sutton v. City of Yonkers