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U.S. Supreme Court: Prevailing Prisoners Must Pay 25 Percent of Damage Awards Towards Attorney Fees

by Derek Gilna

On February 21, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court held, in a 5-4 decision, that when a prisoner wins a monetary judgment in a federal lawsuit and is entitled to attorney fees as the prevailing party, he or she is obligated to pay the first 25 percent of those fees from any damages awarded.

At issue in the case was the interpretation of 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(d)(2), which states: “[A] portion of the [prisoner’s] judgment (not to exceed 25 percent) shall be applied to satisfy the amount of attorney’s fees awarded against the defendant. If the award of attorney’s fees is not greater than 150 percent of the judgment, the excess shall be paid by the defendant.”

The Supreme Court held that that statutory provision, included as part of the Prison Litigation Reform Act, “pretty clearly tells us that the prisoner has to pay some part of the attorney’s fee award before financial responsi­bility shifts to the defendant. But how much is enough? Does the first sentence allow the district court discretion to take any amount it wishes from the plaintiff’s judgment to pay the attorney, from 25% down to a penny? Or does the first sentence instead mean that the court must pay the attorney’s entire fee award from the plaintiff’s judg­ment until it reaches the 25% cap and only then turn to the defendant?”

Illinois state prisoner Charles Murphy had won a $307,733.82 jury award against Vandalia Correctional Center guard Robert Smith and Lt. Gregory Fulk for violations of his civil rights. He claimed Smith and Fulk had hit him in the eye and choked him while he was handcuffed, then denied him medical care. Following the verdict, the district court awarded $108,446.54 in fees to Murphy’s attorney. [See: PLN, Oct. 2017, p.38].

When it came time to pay those fees, the “defendants argued that, under the statute’s terms, the court had to take 25% (or about $77,000) from Mr. Murphy’s judgment before taxing them for the balance of the fee award.” The court instead ordered Murphy to pay only 10% from the judgment, with the defendants to pay the rest.

However, on appeal to the Seventh Circuit, “a unanimous panel re­versed, explaining its view that the language of § 1997e(d)(2) requires a district court to exhaust 25% of the prisoner’s judgment before demanding payment from the defendants.” The Supreme Court agreed, concluding “In cases governed by § 1997e(d), we hold that district courts must apply as much of the judgment as necessary, up to 25%, to satisfy an award of attorney’s fees.”

In her dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor – joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer and Kagan – adopted the common sense position that § 1997e(d)(2) “make[s] clear that the provision permits district courts to exercise discretion in choosing the portion of a prisoner-plaintiff’s monetary judgment that must be applied toward an attorney’s fee award, so long as that portion is not greater than 25 per­cent.”

Murphy was represented by attorney Stuart Banner with the UCLA School of Law’s Supreme Court Clinic. See: Murphy v. Smith, 138 S.Ct. 784 (2018); 2018 U.S. LEXIS 1379. 


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Related legal case

Murphy v. Smith