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$54,000 Award of Attorney Fees to Enforce Settlement Agreement on Behalf of Deaf Prisoners

by David M. Reutter

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a district court’s order granting attorney’s fees after it found the Illinois Department of Correction (IDOC) was in “substantial noncompliance” with a consent decree in a class action lawsuit filed by deaf and hard of hearing prisoners. It reversed the district court’s order for IDOC to assure prisoners receive audiology evaluations or reevaluations.

The court’s March 16, 2021, order came in an appeal brought by IDOC. The contractual terms of a July 2018 settlement agreement between IDOC and the class of prisoners to resolve their dispute were at issue. For about a year after that agreement was entered into, IDOC admitted it incorrectly referred about 700 prisoners to licensed hearing instrument dispensers—hearing aid salesman—instead of audiologists for their audiological evaluations. The parties reached an out of court agreement in July 2019 to end that practice.

The class in 2020 filed a motion to enforce the settlement agreement. In that motion, the class asserted there was as much as an eight month lapse from the time of screening and the actual audiological evaluations. The class sought an order to require the evaluations occur within a reasonable time. They also requested an award of attorney’s fees.

The district court granted the motion. It ordered IDOC to ensure prisoners are given audiological evaluations within 30 days of arrival at their home prisons or 45 days after being admitted into IDOC custody. It also awarded the class $52,357.50 in attorney’s fees and $1,741.35 in costs related to enforcing the settlement. IDOC appealed.

The Seventh Circuit affirmed the award of attorney’s fees. IDOC admitted it was in substantial non-compliance with the settlement. The court found the settlement authorized awarding reasonable attorney’s fees for any work expended by class’s counsel in investigating and litigating such non-compliance.

It, however, reversed the portion of the order regarding evaluation and reevaluation decisions because the district court went too far. It noted that the settlement only requires IDOC to refer a prisoner for audiological evaluations within 30 days of arrival at their home prisons or 45 days after being admitted into IDOC custody. Thus, IDOC was only obligated to refer prisoners within those time frames and to keep records of the evaluations and then treat prisoners accordingly. There were no obligatory time frames as to when the evaluations must occur.

The district court’s order was affirmed in part and reversed part. See Holmes v. Godinez, 991 F.3d 775 (7th Cir. 2021). 

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Related legal case

Holmes v. Godinez