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Seventh Circuit Upholds Jury Award for Illinois Prisoner Beaten by Guards

by Derek Gilna

Charles Murphy, an Illinois state prisoner housed at the Vandalia Correctional Center, raised the ire of several guards on July 25, 2011 when he refused to eat at a dining hall table and chair he maintained were wet. Cuffed without incident and led to segregation, he was reportedly beaten while restrained, choked into unconsciousness and thrown into a cell, striking his head on a metal toilet and suffering shattered facial bones.

Unconscious and bleeding heavily, he was eventually examined by a prison nurse who ordered him transported to a hospital, where he underwent emergency surgery to repair the orbital bones around his eye. Murphy claimed that in addition to the pain he experienced, he continues to suffer from blurred and double vision.

He filed a federal civil rights suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the guards who beat him and also raised state law claims. Following a jury trial, he prevailed on four of his claims and was awarded around $410,000 in compensatory and punitive damages against guard Robert Smith and Lt. Gregory Fulk. The district court reduced that amount to $307,734.82, and also awarded $110,643.66 in attorney fees with the provision that 10 percent of the damages award be applied toward the fees.

Smith and Fulk appealed, raising both sovereign immunity and waiver arguments in the Seventh Circuit. However, as stated in the appellate court’s December 21, 2016 opinion, although waiver did not apply, “the district court said that sovereign immunity did not shield the defendants because the jury, in ruling on the battery claim, necessarily determined that they acted outside their authority ... Illinois courts hold that the immunity statute does not apply to claims against the individual official.... [since Murphy] proved the factual elements of the Illinois criminal offense of aggravated battery.”

The Court of Appeals also noted that the Prison Litigation Reform Act (42 U.S.C. § 1997e(d)(2)) requires successful prisoner-plaintiffs to pay a “portion of the judgment (not to exceed 25 percent).... to satisfy the amount of attorney’s fees awarded against the defendant.” In this case, the district court ordered Murphy to contribute only 10 percent of his damages award toward the attorney fees.

After reviewing the facts, the Seventh Circuit remanded the case to the district court to “modify its judgment to require Murphy to pay from the judgment the sum of $76,933.46 toward satisfying the attorney fee the court awarded” – that is, 25 percent of the total damages award as modified by the district court. See: Murphy v. Smith, 844 F.3d 653 (7th Cir. 2016), cert. granted.

Following remand and another appeal, on July 24, 2017 the appellate court held that Murphy was not entitled to attorney fees on appeal, as he had prevailed on only one appellate claim which related to a state law claim and not a federal claim. See: Murphy v. Smith, 864 F.3d 583 (7th Cir. 2017).

With respect to whether Murphy had to pay 25 percent of his damages toward the attorney fee award pursuant to the PLRA, rather than a lesser percentage as initially ordered by the district court, the U.S. Supreme Court granted cert on that issue on August 25, 2017. Murphy is represented before the high court by Stuart Banner with the UCLA School of Law’s Supreme Court Clinic. 


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Related legal case

Murphy v. Smith