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HRDC Prevails in Censorship Suit Against Kentucky Prison System, Wins $104,711

A Kentucky federal district court awarded the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC) and its co-counsels $104,711.37 in attorney fees and costs in a lawsuit alleging the Kentucky Department of Corrections (KDOC) censored books sent to prisoners.

The court’s May 15, 2020, order resolves all issues in a lawsuit HRDC brought in July 2017 that alleged KDOC violated First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The complaint challenged KDOC’s policy and practice of banning books sent by HRDC and other publishers “because the books were not purchased by prisoners, but rather were sent to them as gifts, and/or because the sender was not on a pre-approved vendor list.” It also alleged KDOC failed “to provide senders of censored mail constitutionally adequate notice and an opportunity to appeal the censorship of the mail to the intended prisoner.”

From July 2016 to the filing of the complaint, HRDC sent 158 soft-cover books to prisoners. It identified 26 books HRDC sent to prisoners “which were censored by Defendants.” More may have been censored, but since KDOC “failed to provide HRDC any notice or opportunity to appeal these censorship decisions” it had to rely on prisoners informing it of the censorship. Thus, how many of the 131 complimentary books sent to prisoners by HRDC and subsequently censored by KDOC could not be determined.

In July 2019, the parties entered into a settlement agreement that resolved HRDC’s injunctive relief claims. KDOC changed its policies to allow prisoners to receive publications that are gifted and scrapped the publisher vendor list. HRDC also received $26,000 in damages.

The settlement designated HRDC as a “prevailing party” entitled to the award of attorney fees. For the work of six attorneys and four paralegals, HRDC sought $102,910 in fees and $2,091.17 in costs. It subsequently agreed to withdraw .4 hours of post-deposition work and $39.80 in costs.

KDOC objected to 62.6 hours of pre-litigation work, arguing HRDC “failed to explain how these activities were ‘necessary to secure the final result obtained from the litigation.’”

The court, however, said the improper standard is “whether a reasonable attorney would have believed the work to be reasonably expended in the pursuit of success at the point in time when the work was performed.” It found the entries at issue were reasonable, for HRDC explained it wrote prisoners and families to determine what “was happening at KDOC facilities as it related to the improper censorship and rejection of its publications.”

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Related legal case

Human Rights Defense Center v. Ballard