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Justices add prisoner fees case to merits docket

The Supreme Court is currently in its summer recess, and the justices are not scheduled to meet to review new cases until September 25, when their “long conference” – at which they will consider the approximately 2,000 petitions that have accumulated since the end of June – will take place. But in a relatively unusual summer order, the justices today added a new case, involving the interpretation of a federal law governing the award of attorney’s fees to prisoners who prevail in civil rights cases, to their docket for the fall.

Today’s grant came in a case filed by an Illinois prisoner, Charles Murphy, who was awarded over $300,000 after he prevailed in a lawsuit alleging that corrections officers had badly beaten him, causing permanent damage to his eye. A provision in the Prison Litigation Reform Act indicates that, when a prisoner like Murphy is awarded money in a civil rights lawsuit, “a portion of the judgment (not to exceed 25 percent) shall be applied to satisfy the amount of attorney’s fees awarded against the defendants.” The dispute now before the Supreme Court centers on exactly what the phrase “not to exceed 25 percent” means: Does 25 percent of the money awarded to the prisoner have to go toward his attorney’s fees, before the defendants must also contribute to the fees, or can the district court require a smaller portion of the attorney’s fees to come out of the prisoner’s award?

In Murphy’s case, the district court awarded attorney’s fees of approximately $108,000. It ordered Murphy to pay 10 percent of his award – approximately $30,000 – to his attorney, with the roughly $78,000 remaining to come from the corrections officers. But on appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit reversed the district court’s ruling on the attorney’s fees award. It interpreted the phrase “not to exceed 25 percent” to mean that 25 percent of the prisoner’s award was required to go to attorney’s fees; under this construction, the corrections officials would have to pitch in only if the prisoners’ attorneys were still owed money after that. The court of appeals therefore ordered Murphy to contribute approximately $77,000 (rather than roughly $30,000) of his award to his attorneys; this left corrections officials on the hook for only approximately $31,000 (rather than the $78,000 that they owed under the district court’s order).

Murphy took his case to the Supreme Court, where he urged the justices to step in and resolve a conflict between the 7th Circuit’s interpretation and those of several other circuits that would give district courts discretion to decide how much of a prisoner’s award should go to his attorneys. The 7th Circuit’s rule, he argued, “leaves prisoners whose constitutional rights have been violated with smaller net recoveries than Congress intended them to receive.”

Opposing review, the corrections officers – represented by Illinois solicitor general David Franklin – effectively conceded that the courts of appeals are divided on how to interpret the phrase “not to exceed 25 percent.” But, they emphasized, the conflict is not as widespread as Murphy suggests, because only two courts of appeals “have squarely held that the PLRA gives district courts discretion to choose any portion of the judgment up to 25% to apply to a fee award.” And in any event, they added, the issue arises relatively rarely, because virtually no prisoners in PLRA cases are even represented by attorneys, much less prevail and receive money damages.

Although Murphy’s case – particularly given the state’s acknowledgment that the courts of appeals are divided – was certainly a good candidate for certiorari, the timing of today’s grant remains uncommon: Although the court regularly issues “miscellaneous orders” like today’s to dispose of pending petitions for rehearing and to deal with attorney discipline matters, orders granting review on the merits during the summer are more atypical. However, the issue presented by Murphy’s case is reasonably uncontroversial, and – even more importantly, the court’s docket for the fall is low on cases. The calendar for October arguments is full, bolstered by two cases in which the justices are hearing oral arguments for the second time and two other cases – involving the Trump administration’s “travel ban” and a challenge to Wisconsin’s redistricting maps – that are being argued earlier than they might normally have been. But the court still has 12 days of arguments (for a total of up to 24 arguments) to fill in the November and December sittings, with only 17 hours’ worth of arguments before today’s grant. Today’s grant should allow Murphy’s case to be briefed in time for oral argument in December, bringing the total of November and December arguments to 18.

This post was originally published at Howe on the Court.

Recommended Citation: Amy Howe, Justices add prisoner fees case to merits docket, SCOTUSblog (Aug. 25, 2017, 1:40 PM),