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Michigan: $9,750 in Damages and Costs in Prison Ramadan Violation Suit

by David M. Reutter 

A Michigan federal district court awarded costs in a case that alleged prison officials violated the religious rights of four Michigan prisoners during their observance of Ramadan – a holy month for Muslims.

The case went to trial and the jury awarded each plaintiff $150 in compensatory damages plus $500 in punitive damages for each Ramadan observance at issue. Prisoners Lamont Heard and Anthony Nelson each received $1,300 for 2011 and 2012 violations, while prisoners Jamero T. Moses and William Johnson were awarded $650 each for 2012 Ramadan violations. All were members of the Nation of Islam.

After the district court denied defendant Brad Purves’ motion for judgment as a matter of law and the plaintiffs’ motion for a new trial on damages, the prisoners moved for costs.

That motion sought recovery of costs while the plaintiffs litigated the case pro se and when they were later represented by the Michigan State University College of Law Clinic, which acted pro bono but sought reimbursement for $6,117.84 in costs.

Purves did not argue that the Law Clinic’s costs were not recoverable. Rather, he claimed that such expenses were capped at $5,850 under 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(d)(2), by the 150% cap on attorney fees (the total jury award of $3,900 x 1.5). The district court agreed, concluding that under 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b), “attorney fees are considered ‘part of the costs,’ and not the other way around.” As such, the court capped expenses at $5,850. It said the Law Clinic could seek to recover the $267.84 balance of its costs by filing a motion with the court’s Pro Bono Fund.

The district court’s May 7, 2019 order also awarded each of the prisoners $87.50 for their respective portions of the filing fee they had paid. It rejected recovery of costs for postage, but awarded Nelson $2.40 and Johnson $20 for copies made while acting pro se. See: Heard v. Purves, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Mich.), Case No. 1:13-cv-00373-GJQ-RSK.

On July 15, 2019, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the collective jury award of $3,900 to the four prisoners, rejecting their claim that the district court should have granted their motion for a new trial on damages. See: Heard v. Finco, 2019 U.S. App. LEXIS 20847 .

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Related legal case

Heard v. Finco