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PLRA Attorney Fee Award Discussed after Oklahoma Jail Prisoner Awarded $35,001

by Derek Gilna

James Jordanoff, a former pre-trial detainee at the Cleveland County Detention Center in Oklahoma, won a $35,001 judgment following a jury trial based on a First Amendment retaliation claim against ex-guard Josh Coffey. 

The May 9, 2018 judgment included $1 in nominal damages plus $35,000 in punitive damages, and also provided for attorney’s fees for Jordanoff’s counsel, J. Wes Billingsley.

Jordanoff filed his original complaint pro se, and Billingsley took his case after Coffey’s motion for summary judgment was denied. Following the successful conclusion of the lawsuit, Billingsley moved for $157,811.75 in fees under 42 U.S.C. § 1988 but the district court reduced the fee award based on the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(d), as well as § 1988(b)’s “reasonableness” requirement.

“The Court herein rejects Counsel’s challenges to the PLRA’s applicability and constitutionality before calculating the lodestar from Counsel’s billing records,” the district court wrote.

As noted by the court, the PLRA “imposes four potential limits on Counsel’s attorney’s fees award: (1) a reasonableness and tailoring requirement ensuring that fees are for work directly tied to the prisoner’s relief, id.; (2) ‘a portion of the judgment (not to exceed 25 percent)’ must be allocated to satisfy an attorney’s fees award, with the rest of the award ‘paid by the defendant,’ id. § 1997e(d)(2); (3) a total cap on the attorney’s fees award of 150 percent of the money judgment, id. § 1997e(d)(2), ... which would limit Counsel’s award to $52,501.50; and (4) the award must be ‘based on an hourly rate’ no greater than 150 percent of the rate established under the Criminal Justice Act (‘CJA’).”

The district court rejected Jordanoff’s argument that “the PLRA – which classifies incarcerated and non-incarcerated pre-trial defendants differently for attorney’s fees purposes – violate[d] his Fifth Amendment right to equal protection under the law.” The court concluded that it “presumes the statute to be valid and will sustain the classification so long as it ‘is rationally related to some legitimate end.’” 

Accordingly, in a July 10, 2018 order, the district court awarded $47,764.10 in attorney fees to Billingsley. Pursuant to the PLRA, Jordanoff was ordered to pay $8,750.25 (25 percent of his damages) toward the fee award. See: Jordanoff v. Coffey, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Okla.), Case No. 5:15-cv-00939-R; 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 114458. 

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Related legal case

Jordanoff v. Coffey