PLRA Legal Fees

Keup v. Hopkins (CA8) (here) is a reminder why lawyers should rarely file civil rights lawsuits on behalf of prisoners - at least if you want to keep the lights on.

In Keup, a prisoner won his lawsuit against various prison officials. Because the prisoner's injury was more abstract that monetary, the prisoner was awarded nominal damages - just one dollar. Nevertheless, the prisoner did prove that his rights had been violated.

Under 42 U.S.C. 1988, a prisoner is entitled to have the defendants pay his legal fees. Under 42 U.S.C. 1997, those fees are capped. In cases where nominal damages are awarded, the lawyer is only entitled to $1.50 in legal fees:

The district court awarded Keup approximately $25,000 in attorney fees eventhough the court determined Keup was entitled to only $1.00 in nominal damages.  The district court’s ruling is contrary to governing precedent. Section 1997e(d)(2)provides, “If the award of attorney’s fees is not greater than 150 percent of thejudgment, the excess shall be paid by the defendant.” We have repeatedly construedthis “awkwardly worded” statute to cap awards of attorney fees in prisoner rightscases to 150% of the monetary damages awarded.  When the plaintiff only receivesnominal damages of $1.00, § 1997e(d)(2) caps attorney fees at $1.50.  See, e.g., Royal v. Kautzky, 375 F.3d 720, 725-26 (8th Cir. 2004) (referring to the statute as“awkwardly worded” and affirming an attorney fees award of $1.50); Foulk, 262 F.3dat 704 (similar); see also Pearson v. Welborn, 471 F.3d 732, 742-44 (7th Cir. 2006) (holding cap at § 1997e(d)(2) applied to a prisoner who was entitled to nominaldamages); Robbins v. Chronister, 435 F.3d 1238, 1239 (10th Cir. 2006) (en banc)(similar); Walker v. Bain, 257 F.3d 660, 667 (6th Cir. 2001) (similar); Boivin v.Black, 225 F.3d 36, 40-41 (1st Cir. 2000) (similar).
No thanks.



6:35 PM

If you want to destroy civil rights in this country, the best way to do so is to make it impossible for lawyers to try to enforce them. The PLRA should be repealed.

  Norm Pattis

2:36 PM

That is still $1.17 more than the one-third of $1 Judge Covello gave me a decade ago in Haddad v. McCardle.