Supreme Court to Decide Prisoner Civil Rights Attorney’s Fees Case

The Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) states that when an inmate recovers money damages in a confinement conditions case “a portion of the judgment (not to exceed 25 percent)” shall be applied to his or her attorney’s fees award. The question the Supreme Court will decide in Murphy v. Smith is whether “not to exceed 25 percent” means up to 25 percent or exactly 25 percent.   

A jury awarded inmate Charles Murphy about $300,000 in damages relating to an officer crushing his eye socket and leaving him unconscious in a cell without checking his condition.

The trial judge awarded Murphy’s attorney about $100,000 in fees and allocated 10 percent of Murphy’s damages award to attorney’s fees (about $30,000).

The Seventh Circuit reversed the trial judge and held that 25 percent of the judgment in favor of Murphy (or about $75,000) must be allocated to attorney’s fees.

The Seventh Circuit reached this conclusion relying on a 2003 Seventh Circuit case raising the same issue. According to the court: “’[O]nly if 25% of the award is inadequate to compensate counsel fully’ does the defendant contribute more to the fees. We continue to believe that is the most natural reading of the statutory text. We do not think the statute contemplated a discretionary decision by the district court. The statute neither uses discretionary language nor provides any guidance for such discretion.”

As is the case in most Supreme Court cases, a number of federal circuit courts of appeals are divided on the question this case raises. The Seventh Circuit’s interpretation, which requires the maximum contribution to attorney’s fees by an inmate, is more favorable to states and local governments who will cover the balance of inmates’ attorney’s fees in these cases.