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$260,000 in Attorney Fees Awarded by California Federal Court after Finding Governing State Law Not Impacted by PLRA

by David M. Reutter

After finding the award of attorney’s fees under California’s Code of Civil Procedure is not impacted by the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), 42 U.S.C. § 1997e, a federal district awarded $259,237.50 to attorneys for two prisoners who obtained civil verdicts against guards employed by state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).

The underlying incident from which both prisoners’ suits sprang was a riot at Pelican Bay State Prison on June 4, 2015. A guard, Justin Vangilder, “discharged a T-16 oleoresin capsicum chemical grenade in the control booth of the housing unit where he was working,” according to court documents, entering the cell housing the two men, Daniel Cisneros and Daniel Manriquez. As the grenade’s chemical irritants filled the room, the prisoners alerted guards, repeatedly shouting, “Man down!” But they were not given medical help nor allowed to exit the cell and decontaminate for some time.

The two prisoners filed suits in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California against Vangilder and two fellow guards, Juan Vasquez, and Scott Cupp, as well as prison officials, accusing them of negligence under state law and of indifference to the prisoners’ serious medical needs in violation of their Eighth Amendment guarantee to freedom from cruel and unusual punishment. They sought only a modest award, saying their primary goal was to keep what happened to them from happening again.

On June 21, 2019, a jury returned a modest verdict against the three guards totaling $5,000 for each prisoner, though the Court then granted judgment as a matter of law to Cupp on January 13, 2020. See: Cisneros v. Vangilder, USDC (N.D. Ca.), Case No. 4:16-cv-00735; and Manriquez v. Vangilder, USDC (N.D. Ca.), Case No. 4:16-cv-01320.

That left each prisoner with a $2,500 award - $1,500 against Vasquez and $1,000 against Vangilder. Cisneros and Manriquez moved for fees for their attorneys: Reed Smith LLP, representing both men pro bono, as well as Singleton Schreiber McKenzie & Scott LLP, representing Manriquez for a contingency fee.

The Court noted that California Code of Civil Procedure Section 1021.5 allows an award if:

• a plaintiff is “a successful party in an action resulting in the enforcement of an important right affecting the public interest”;

• “a significant benefit, whether pecuniary or nonpecuniary, [will be] conferred on the general public or a broad class of persons”;

• “the necessity and financial burden of private enforcement [transcends] the litigant’s personal interest in the controversy”; and

• the fees “should not in the interest of justice be paid out of the recovery.”

Defendants argued an award under Section 1021.5 is not allowed by PLRA. The Court disagreed. In a decision reached on February 3, 2021, it noted Plaintiffs prevailed on distinct state-law claims, forming a basis for an award of attorney fees under the first prong of the state law. Citing Woods v. Carey, 722 F. 3d 1177 (9th Cir. 2013), the also Court found PLRA does not bar a separate award of attorney’s fees under Section 1021.5 when Plaintiffs’ state law claims meet statutory requirements, and the Court found Cisneros and Manriquez met the other factors of Section 1021.5.

But since Reed Smith LLP acted pro bono, no fees were awarded that firm. To the other firm, the Court awarded $259,237.50 under Section 1021.5. It declined to add any award under PLRA since that would be “duplicative” of Manriquez’s award under state law. And although PLRA typically requires plaintiffs to pay 25% of their award for attorney’s fees, the Court said it “does not find that the interest of justice is served by requiring Plaintiff Cisneros to pay any portion of the fees from his modest award.” See: Cisneros v. Vangilder, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 20758 (N.D. Cal.).

The Court declined to vacate its decision on May 4, 2021. See: Cisneros v. Vangilder, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 85314 (N.D. Cal.). Meanwhile both defendants filed appeals with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which declined to grant summary judgment in favor of Cisneros on June 8, 2021. See: Cisneros v. Vangilder, 2021 U.S. App. LEXIS 17031 (9th Cir.).

The 9th Circuit then affirmed the district court’s decision on April 21, 2022. See: Manriquez v. Vangilder, 2022 U.S. App. LEXIS 10863 (9th Cir.).

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