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Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said during oral arguments Dec. 6 that a carrot for dinner wouldn’t “satisfy” his hunger any more than a paltry contribution from a prisoner’s damages satisfies an attorneys’ fees award.
The justices appeared split on the interpretation of the federal statute that dictates what portion of a prisoner’s judgment in civil rights cases will be applied to awarded attorneys’ fees.
The provision of the Prison Litigation Reform Act in question says “a portion of the judgment (not to exceed 25 percent) shall be applied to satisfy the amount of attorney’s fees awarded against the defendant.” The remainder of the attorneys’ fees after the prisoner’s portion is applied is paid by the defendant.
The majority of lower courts have interpreted the provision as defining the upper end of a range where the court has the discretion to designate a portion of the prisoner’s monetary judgment to go toward attorneys’ fees.The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, however, interpreted the phrase as a fixed percentage.
The case arose after Charles Murphy, an inmate at Vandalia Correctional Center in Illinois, won a civil rights case against two officers—Robert Smith and Gregory Fulk—who beat him and left him in a cell.
Stuart Banner, who represents Murphy, said during the more than 20 years the statute has been in effect, “virtually all the district courts have interpreted it literally.”
The courts determine a portion of the judgment that doesn’t exceed 25 percent, apply it to the attorneys’ fees, and order the defendant to pay the rest, Banner, of UCLA School of Law, said.
“Respondents mistakenly suggest that Congress’s use of the word ‘satisfy’ indicates that the plaintiff has to pay the largest possible share of the fees in all cases,” Banner said.
Alito used a hypothetical to show what the word satisfy was doing in the provision.
Reading the statute in a way that gives courts discretion to choose any portion of a money judgment up to 25 percent to go toward attorneys’ fees is akin to his wife giving him a mere carrot for dinner to satisfy his hunger, Alito said.
“She knows that if she does that, I will just go in the refrigerator and stuff myself with lots of other stuff so that I won’t be hungry anymore,” Alito said to the laughing courtroom audience.
Alito wasn’t alone in his focus on the meaning of the word satisfy.Justice Elena Kagan suggested Congress’s intent behind satisfy could be to apply a portion of the damages to “contribute to the fee award,” rather than a total fulfillment of 25 percent.
A 25 percent portion of a judgment typically doesn’t cover the full amount an attorney is owed, Kagan said.
She questioned whether Congress would have used satisfy to mean a contribution of exactly 25 percent of the judgment if it knew that portion would not be a full payment of attorneys’ fees in most cases.
Deputy Solicitor General of Illinois Brett E. Legner, who represented the officers, said a cap of 25 percent doesn’t change the definition of satisfy.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., like Alito, suggested the word satisfy indicated the prisoner’s “initial obligation to satisfy the fees” with a portion of their judgment capped at 25 percent.
Nominal money judgments don’t satisfy any part of the fees, Roberts and Alito proposed, much like Alito’s carrot not satisfying his hunger.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who was the most talkative justice during the argument, focused on the fee-shifting nature of the statute, arguing most fee-shifting statutes give district courts maximum discretion.
Sotomayor questioned why Congress would have taken discretion away from the lower courts when some prisoner plaintiffs have been severely injured, and a smaller portion of their judgment for attorneys’ fees could reflect the severity of their injuries.
The case is Murphy v. Smith , U.S., No. 16-1067 , argued 12/6/17 .
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