By Lisa Soronen
The Prison Litigation Reform Act states that when a prisoner wins a civil rights case “a portion of the judgment (not to exceed 25 percent) shall be applied to satisfy” his or her attorney’s fees award.
In Murphy v. Smith, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that this statute means “the court must pay the attorney’s entire fee award from the [prisoner’s] judgment until it reaches the 25 percent cap and only then turn to the [prison guards].” There are two awards: one for the prisoner and one for his or her attorney. But the prisoner has to pay up to 25 percent of the attorney's award; the remainder is paid from the money the guards have to pay.
In other words, the court may not exercise its discretion and take any amount it wishes from the prisoner’s judgment to pay the attorney “from 25 percent down to a penny.”
A jury awarded inmate Charles Murphy about $300,000 in damages from prison guards 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 prison guards, whose judgment is likely paid by the prison, argue that the PLRA requires that 25 percent of the judgment in favor of Murphy (or about $75,000) to be allocated to Murphy’s attorney’s fees.
The Supreme Court agreed with the prison guards in an opinion written by Justice Neal Gorsuch. The court focused on the “to satisfy” language in the statute. “[W]e know that when you purposefully seek or aim ‘to satisfy’ an obligation, especially a financial obligation, that usually means you intend to discharge the obligation in full.”
The Supreme Court’s interpretation is favorable to states and local governments who may cover the balance of inmates’ attorney’s fees in these cases.
Lisa Soronen is executive director of the State and Local Legal Center and a frequent contributor to the NCSL Blog.