In Murphy v. Smith, the Supreme Court is charged with interpreting statutory language that on its face appears straightforward. In prisoners’ federal civil-rights cases that result in an award of money damages and attorney’s fees, the Prison Litigation Reform Act requires that “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.” But that language turned out to be anything but simple, as evidenced by Justice Samuel Alito’s lament early in Wednesday’s argument that “I mean, this language can be read either way, and it’s very difficult.”
Here is the crux of the difficulty: Plaintiff Charles Murphy argues that the phrase “not to exceed 25 percent” grants district courts discretion to order that any amount, from a nominal sum up to a maximum of 25 percent of a prisoner’s award, be devoted to attorney’s fees. But the defendants, two prison guards, argue that the PLRA requires prisoners to pay attorney’s fees in full unless those fees exceed 25 percent of the damages award. That means that, in their view, prisoners must contribute toward attorney’s fees 25 percent of their money judgment or 100 percent of awarded attorney’s fees, whichever is less.
Stuart Banner, representing Charles Murphy, began by urging the justices to interpret literally the statutory phrase “not to exceed 25 percent.” But that led quickly to an exchange about the meaning of the word “satisfy,” with Alito offering a Dickensian hypothetical:
Suppose a teacher said to the parent: Your child can’t function at school because the child is hungry. Would you give the child a portion of food for breakfast to satisfy the child’s hunger?You wouldn’t say, well, you know, if I give the child a tiny crumb, that would satisfy the hunger.
It was unclear if Alito was satisfied by Banner’s answer – that depending on context, “satisfy” may mean either “satisfy in full” or “satisfy in part” – because Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg then asked about how courts that read the statute as Murphy urges divide responsibility for attorney’s fees in prisoners’ civil-rights cases. According to Banner, courts weigh the seriousness of the conduct, often limiting plaintiffs’ contributions toward fees to a negligible amount in “really egregious cases.” This response prompted some puzzlement from Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Anthony Kennedy, both of whom suggested that it would at least be unusual for Congress to have used fee apportionment as a way of punishing serious violations of plaintiffs’ civil rights.
The argument then turned to the purpose of the PLRA in general, and its fee-allocation provision specifically. For example, Justice Elena Kagan observed that several provisions of the PLRA seemed to be aimed at reducing district courts’ discretion in prisoners’ civil-rights cases, suggesting that it would have been incongruous for Congress to leave district courts with substantial discretion over fee allocation. However, Justice Sonia Sotomayor offered a contrary reading that Banner was quick to endorse, reasoning that whereas many of the discretion-limiting provisions in the PLRA sought to curb frivolous lawsuits, the attorney’s fee provision comes into play only in cases in which the prisoner plaintiff has prevailed.
Banner’s argument ended with an extended exchange over whether the PLRA sought to put prisoners in the same position as plaintiffs in cases to which no fee-shifting statute applies. Roberts suggested that the defendants’ reading of the statute would make sense if Congress was trying to place prisoner plaintiffs in a similar position to plaintiffs proceeding under a contingent fee arrangement. However, Justice Stephen Breyer asked whether those litigants were really the correct comparators, or whether the Supreme Court should instead consider the PLRA against the baseline of victorious civil-rights plaintiffs who are eligible to have their attorney’s fees paid in full by defendants.
Arguing for the defendants, Brett Legner began where Roberts left off, arguing that Congress’ intent in enacting the fee-allocation provision of the PLRA was to “replicate a contingent fee arrangement”; he later added that Congress also sought to make prison litigation less expensive for defendants. However, Breyer suggested that Congress could have had a different calculation in mind: “You can have a reasonable attorney fee here … and the prisoner doesn’t pay the whole 25 percent. We put some of it on the prison guard, the state, that’s acted so abominably.” Breyer posited that Congress could have feared that, under the defendants’ interpretation of the statute, district courts might shrink fee awards in order to avoid eating into a badly mistreated prisoner’s judgment. In contrast, Murphy’s interpretation would allow district courts to achieve two goals – awarding a reasonable attorney’s fee, and allowing prisoners to keep a substantial amount of the judgment awarded.
Legner’s argument also included substantial discussion of the text of the statute, ultimately circling back to the definition of the word “satisfy.” Here, Kagan tipped her hand, stating that “what I’m suggesting is that this language should be read … to say … shall go towards satisfying. So a dollar would go a small way towards satisfying.” Legner responded that this interpretation made superfluous the phrase “to satisfy the amount of attorney’s fees.” Later, Alito returned to this point (and to food analogies) by pointing out that a single carrot wouldn’t “satisfy” his hunger for dinner, even if he could later augment his diet with other food in the refrigerator. The ensuing discussion of Alito’s dinner requirements ended with a reference to “17 percent of [a] casserole,” but no mention of what kind.
Toward the end of the argument, Ginsburg asked a question that seemed to encapsulate the heart of the dispute: “[I]f … we conclude that the statute is ambiguous … why shouldn’t we take [42 U.S.C. §] 1988 as the closest [baseline], rather than … the American rule?” In other words, should the Supreme Court assume, as Ginsburg was suggesting, that Congress was attempting to make a relatively minor modification to the fee-shifting provision that routinely applies to civil-rights plaintiffs? Or should it assume that Congress was trying to place prisoners in a position very similar to tort plaintiffs, who must pay their own lawyers? The justices seem divided on that question, which is likely to inform their assessment of what Congress meant by “satisfy.”