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Murphy v. Smith: Prison Litigation Reform Act requires that prevailing prisoners pay 25% of their judgments toward their attorney's fees

When prisoners win civil rights cases for unconstitutional conditions in prison, the Prison Litigation Reform Act requires that 25% of the judgment be used to pay their attorney's fees before the defendants can be required to pay any excess attorney's fees, the U.S. Supreme Court rule February 21 in Murphy v. Smith.
When prisoners win civil rights cases for unconstitutional conditions in prison, the Prison Litigation Reform Act requires that 25% of the judgment be used to pay their attorney's fees before the defendants can be required to pay any excess attorney's fees, the U.S. Supreme Court rule February 21 in Murphy v. Smith.
 
The Court held that district courts do not have discretion under the PLRA to allow prisoners to pay less than 25% of the judgment before requiring the defendants to also pay.
 
Facts
 
Charles Murphy, a prisoner at Vandalia Correctional Center in Illinois, was beaten by guards and sustained permanent eye damage.
 
He sued the guards under 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983 for unconstitutional use of force under the 8th Amendment. 
 
Murphy ultimately won about $308,000.  His attorney submitted fees of about $108,000 for several hundred hours spent on the case. 
 
The district court ordered Murphy to pay 10% of the judgment toward his attorney's fees – about $31,000 -- and ordered the prison guards to pay the balance of Murphy's attorney's fees.
 
The prison guards appealed the award of attorney's fees.  They argued that the PRLA required Murphy to pay 25% of his judgment – about $77,000 -- toward the fees before the guards could be required to pay.  The Seventh Circuit agreed, contrary to other circuits which had ruled on the issue.
 
Holding
 
In a 5-4 opinion, the Supreme Court held that the PRLA requires prisoners to pay 25% of their judgments to satisfy their attorney's fees, before defendants can be required to pay.
 
The PLRA, 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1997(e)(d)(2), provides that whenever a monetary judgment is awarded in a civil rights action brought by a prisoner, “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.”
 
Murphy argued that the statute granted district courts discretion to order that less than 25% of the judgment be used to satisfy attorney's fees.
 
But the Court disagreed:  “If Congress had wished to afford the judge more discretion in this area, it could have easily substituted ‘may' for ‘shall.'”
 
 “[T]he text persuades us that, subject to the 25% cap, the size of the relevant ‘portion' here is fixed by reference to the size of the attorney's fee award, not left to a district court's unguided choice,” the Court said.
 
“In cases governed by Sec. 1997e(d), we hold that district courts must apply as much of the judgment as necessary, up to 25%, to satisfy an award of attorney's fees,” the Court concluded.
 
Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justices Breyer, Ginsburg and Kagan, dissented. 

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