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Federal Court Caps Attorney Fees in Suit Over Teen Girl Raped in Oklahoma Jail

by Matt Clarke

In March 2019, a federal district court held that attorney fees in a lawsuit filed by a teenage girl who was repeatedly raped by a guard at the David L. Moss Criminal Justice Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma were limited by the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) to 150% of the $25,000 in damages awarded by a jury. To add insult to injury, the court held that pursuant to the PLRA, the victim had to pay 25% of her damages towards the attorney fee award. 

LaDona A. Poore was 17 and incarcerated at the jail in early 2010. She and other female juveniles were housed in the north wing of the facility’s medical unit, which lacked video surveillance. They were supervised by male and female guards, including Seth Bowers, who repeatedly sexually assaulted Poore and at least attempted to sexually assault another juvenile.

After Poore’s release from jail, Tulsa attorneys Louis W. Bullock, Patricia W. Bullock, Robert M. Blakemore, Daniel E. Smolen, Donald E. Smolen II, Lauren G. Lambright, Miranda R. Russell and Thomas E. Mortensen helped her file a civil rights lawsuit against Bowers and Sheriff Stanley Glanz.

On March 2, 2016, following an eight-day trial, a federal jury awarded Poore $25,000 in compensatory damages, which was upheld on appeal. [See: PLN, Sept. 2018, p.54; May 2017, p.60].

Poore’s attorneys then moved for $659,159.56 in fees. The defendants argued that the PLRA capped attorney fees at 150% of the compensatory damages – or $37,500. On March 29, 2019, U.S. District Court Judge John E. Dowdell issued an order agreeing that the attorney fee award should be capped at $37,500, adding that under new U.S. Supreme Court precedent, Murphy v. Smith, 138 S.Ct. 784 (2018) [PLN, July 2018, p.33], Poore was required to pay 25% of her jury award toward the fees, effectively reducing the jury award to $18,750.

In his order, Judge Dowdell overruled Poore’s arguments that the court was bound by a pre-trial ruling that the PLRA did not apply in the case, that the defendants had failed to assert the PLRA as an affirmative defense and had waived application of its provisions, and that the attorney fee result under the PLRA would be “absurd.” Poore’s attorneys also noted that, had the defendants presented evidence regarding the PLRA earlier in the case, they simply could have refiled the lawsuit after Poore was released from jail (less than a month after the initial filing), and the PLRA would not have applied.

The district court noted that while those arguments had some merit, the application of the PLRA fee cap was not “monstrous” or “absurd” under Tenth Circuit and Supreme Court precedent, and thus applied the statute’s attorney fee cap and cost-shifting provisions.

Poore was not incarcerated when she obtained counsel in the case, but was jailed on an unrelated matter when the lawsuit was subsequently filed. Her lawyers were unaware she had been reincarcerated at the time they filed the suit.

“Obviously, we would have waited [to file the case] if we had known she had gone back into jail on unrelated charges,” said attorney Daniel Smolen. 

This case demonstrates the fundamental lack of fairness enshrined in the PLRA, which works to discourage even meritorious lawsuits and makes attorneys reluctant to represent prisoners. Poore has since appealed the fee ruling to the Tenth Circuit. See: Poore v. Glanz, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Okla.), Case No. 4:11-cv-00797-JED-PJC. 


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Related legal case

Poore v. Glanz