Prisoners Lose Out in High Court Attorneys’ Fees Battle

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By Kimberly Robinson and Madison Alder

The U.S. Supreme Court Feb. 21 cut back the amount of awards prisoners can keep if they win a civil rights suit.

Prevailing prisoners must pay 25 percent of their own money judgment to satisfy an attorneys’ fees award in their favor, the high court said. District court judges have no discretion to alter that amount, the court said.

The decision split the court 5-4 along familiar ideological lines, with the court’s newest member, Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, penning the majority opinion.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted in her dissent that prevailing prisoners don’t typically recover large money judgments in these cases. “In fiscal year 2012, for instance, the median damages award in a prisoner-civil rights action litigated to victory (i.e., not settled or decided against the prisoner) was a mere $4,185,” Sotomayor said.

Because 25 percent of that amount is unlikely to satisfy any attorneys’ fee award, the court’s decision means prevailing prisoners’ judgments will almost always be effectively reduced by one quarter.

That weakens one of the few checks we have on horrific abuse in U.S. prisons, David Shapiro, of the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center, Chicago, told Bloomberg Law.

A contrary ruling, though, would have left state and local governments—and their taxpayers—holding the bag for a prisoner’s attorneys’ fees, Lisa Soronen, of the State & Local Legal Center, Washington, told Bloomberg Law.

True Cost

State and local governments often are the ones that ultimately pay damages and attorneys’ fees “when their employees are successfully sued by prisoners,” Soronen said.

“Even following this ruling, in many cases states and local governments may still end up paying significant” attorneys’ fees, she said. “But now they will only do so after the plaintiff-prisoner has contributed 25 percent of his or her recovery.”

The real cost is to deterrence, Shapiro said.

In an amicus brief Shapiro filed with the court, he noted that “approximately one of every five prisoners reported suffering such abuse,” including some “26,000 incidents of reported staff sexual abuse of prisoners.” What happened at Abu Ghraib prison happens in the U.S., too, Shapiro told Bloomberg Law, referring to the mistreatment and torture of Muslim prisoners by U.S. personnel at the infamous Iraqi prison.

The court’s opinion weakens one of the few tools we have to combat that kind of abuse, Shapiro said.

In Full

The court parsed the word “satisfy” in the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995‘s fee-shifting provision to come to that result.

To “satisfy” an obligation “usually means to discharge the obligation in full,” the court said. Therefore, the judgment funds must be applied with the purpose to satisfy the attorneys’ fee award in full, it said.

To “meet that duty, a district court must apply as much of the judgment as necessary to satisfy the fee award, without of course exceeding the 25% cap,” it concluded.

Some Of

“But the phrase ‘to satisfy’” doesn’t “bear the weight the majority places on it,” Sotomayor said in dissent.

The phrase often means simply to be “applied toward the satisfaction of,” she said. Read that way, the judgment funds need only be applied with the purpose of satisfying some of the attorneys’ fee award, Sotomayor said—not all.

That would give judges discretion to determine the appropriate amount of judgment funds to apply to the attorneys’ fee award based on the circumstances of the case.

Beaten and Left

The court’s contrary ruling means prisoner Charles Murphy will have to pay an additional $45,000 out of his civil rights judgment to his attorneys.

Murphy was awarded more than $300,000 after prison officers Robert Smith and Gregory Fulk beat him and left him in a cell. Murphy’s vision never fully recovered, Sotomayor said.

The court also awarded Murphy more than $100,000 in attorneys fees and ordered him to pay 10 percent—approximately $30,000—of his judgment funds to satisfy that award.

That number now goes up to $77,000.

The case is Murphy v. Smith , U.S., No. 16-1067, 2/21/18 .

To contact the reporter on this story: Kimberly Robinson in Washington at and Madison Alder in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jessie Kokrda Kamens at

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