Prisoners Rights and Attorneys Fees: Opinion Analysis of Murphy v. Smith

In an opinion published Wednesday, February 21, 2018, the Supreme Court decided a case about prisoners’ civil rights, Murphy v. Smith. This case stemmed from a 2011 incident at Vandalia Correctional Center in Illinois in which Petitioner Charles Murphy was punched in the right eye by a prison guard, placed into a chokehold during which he lost consciousness, and – once he awoke – pushed into a prison cell with his arms handcuffed behind his back. Murphy fell face-first and hit his head on a metal toilet. Murphy was later hospitalized, at which time it was discovered that his eye socket had been crushed, requiring eye surgery. As a result of these injuries, Murphy’s vision is impaired.

Murphy brought a 42 U.S.C. §1983 claim against the prison guards for violating his constitutional rights. (For a brief and easy-to-read overview of 42 U.S.C. §1983 claims, click here.)

At trial, the jury found Officer Robert Smith liable for unconstitutional use of force and a state law battery and Lieutenant Gregory Fulk liable under the Eighth Amendment for deliberate indifference to a serious medical need. Murphy was awarded a combined total of approximately $307,000 in damages. In addition, the District Court awarded around $108,000 in attorney’s fees under 42 U.S.C. §1988.

Pursuant to the Prison Litigation Reform Act,  42 U.S.C. § 1997e, when a prisoner plaintiff is awarded attorney’s fee recovery for a successful §1983 claim, “a portion of the judgment (not to exceed 25 percent) shall be applied to satisfy the amount of attorney’s fee awarded against the defendant.” 42 U.S.C. §1997e(d)(2). The trial court interpreted this language to mean that it could use its discretion to set any percentage of the award amount to go toward the payment of attorney’s fees, provided that the percentage did not surpass 25 percent. This interpretation was in line with decisions of most circuit courts that have considered the question. Accordingly, the trial court ordered plaintiff to pay 10 percent of the damage award toward attorney’s fees, with defendants to pay the remainder. On appeal, however, the Seventh Circuit relied on its own earlier precedent holding that the trial court did not have discretion to set a percentage other than 25 percent.

Before the Supreme Court, Murphy argued that the statute sets a ceiling on the amount of the award that can be applied toward attorney’s fees but does not set a floor. Therefore, the district court has discretion to determine the “portion” within those limits. He further argued that the interpretation used by the Seventh Circuit is more likely to deter abusive behavior by prison guard and induce attorneys to take prisoner suits. The prison guards argued that §1997e(d)(2) is a nondiscretionary statute and that the purpose of the statute was to deter prisoners from filing frivolous or marginal lawsuits rather than to deter wrongful conduct as Murphy argued.

Justice Gorsuch delivered the concise opinion of the Court, joined by the Chief Justice, and Justices Alito, Kennedy, and Thomas, holding in favor of the guards. The Court interpreted the term “to satisfy” to mean “to discharge the obligation in full,” and it compared the fee language in §1997e with the fee-shifting language in 42 U.S.C. § 1988, finding that the unambiguously discretionary terms in §1988 were not replicated in §1997e.

Justice Sotomayor wrote the dissent, in which Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, and Kagan joined. The dissent makes three points. The first is that “to satisfy” is understood in common usage as “applied toward the satisfaction of.” With this understanding, applying any part of Murphy’s damages award toward his attorney’s fee award would comply with §1997e. Next, Justice Sotomayor looked to legislative history. She argued that Congress considered but ultimately rejected language that would have created a mandate for the court to apply 25 percent of the damages award, thus showing that the intent was to provide the courts with discretion. Finally, Justice Sotomayor discussed the terms “portion” and “not to exceed,” arguing that these two terms specifically confer discretion onto the courts, creating an upper but not a lower limit to the amount of the damages award that should be applied to the attorney’s fee award, and therefore cabining but not eliminating the exercise of discretion.

The PLRA, which was enacted in 1996, was passed in response to a belief that frivolous prisoner litigation was unduly burdening the courts and the states that had to defend the lawsuits. It has been heavily criticized, however, for making it difficult or impossible for prisoners to bring even meritorious lawsuits.

This post was written by ISCOTUS Fellow Eva Dickey, Chicago-Kent College of Law Class of 2020, edited by ISCOTUS Editorial Coordinator Anna Jirschele, Chicago-Kent College of Law Class of 2018, and overseen by ISCOTUS Co-Director and Chicago-Kent faculty member Carolyn Shapiro. (Disclosure: Professor Shapiro participated in a moot court to help prepare the respondents’ lawyer for oral argument.)


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