The U.S. Supreme Court recently held that prisoners who prevail in civil rights actions may have to contribute up to 25% of their judgments to their attorneys for fees. Murphy v. Smith, et. al., 583 U.S. ____ (Supreme Court 2018), No. 16-1067.
The unfortunate Charles Murphy (no relation to your humble blogger) was a guest of Vandalia Correctional Center in Illinois. A fanatic for etiquette, Charles refused to dine at his assigned seat. His waiters (Correctional Officers Robert Smith and Lieutenant Gregory Fulk) took offense, hitting Murphy in the eye, applying a choke hold, handcuffing him, and ultimately pushing him into a cell where he fell head-first. A gratuity from Murphy was not forthcoming.
Murphy sued, winning $307,733.82 for himself and $108,446.54 in attorney fees (which included the cost of his meal, one presumes). The sole issue before the U.S. Supreme Court was whether under Section 1997e(d)(2) of the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995, Murphy was required to pay the first 25% of his attorney’s fees out of his judgment. 42 U.S.C. 1997e(d)(2).
The District Court only required Murphy to pay 10% of his award in attorney fees, with the defendant prison guards making up the rest. The 7th Circuit reversed, and the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the 7th Circuit, holding that in 1997e(d) cases, courts must apply as much of the judgment as necessary, up to 25%, to satisfy an award of attorneys fees. Murphy should have tipped his lawyer.
In its Opinion, the majority also affirmed its “lodestar” approach to Section 1988 fees for prevailing plaintiffs. The U.S. Supreme Court stated that the lodestar figure of reasonable attorney hours times reasonable attorney fees represents a reasonable fee. Citing Pennsylvania v. Delaware Valley Citizens’ Counsel, 478 U.S. 546, 565 (1986). This continues to be the prevailing calculation of attorneys’ fees in civil rights actions.