Wednesday, December 16, 2009

PLRA limits attorneys' fees even if inmate is released from jail

In the mid-1990's, Congress limited the attorneys' fees for inmates who won their civil rights cases. Generally, if a civil rights plaintiff wins the case, her attorney recovers fees, usually calculated by multiplying the lawyer's hourly rate by the hours expended on the case. But under the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), the attorney's hourly rate is limited under a formula which allows the attorney $138 per hour in the Southern District of New York. This is a lot lower than the hourly rate for experienced lawyers in New York.

The case is Perez v. Westchester County of Corrections, decided on November 20. I wrote about this case in the context of the lawyer's entitlement to attorneys' fees where the case did not prevail at trial but, instead, settled. This installment covers another attorneys' fees issue: whether the PLRA limitation on fees applies when the inmates are released from prison. The Court of Appeals answers that question in the affirmative.

The lawyers in this case got nearly $100,000 in challenging the County's food policies which affected the religious practices of Muslim inmates. But that amount would have been a lot more had the PLRA not attached. Under the PLRA, fees are limited "in any action brought by a prisoner who is confined in any jail, prison, or other correctional facility." How does this language apply when the plaintiff is no longer an inmate? Plaintiffs argue that the congressional concerns in enacting the PLRA do not apply since that law was intended to dissuade prisoners from wasting everyone's time with frivolous lawsuits. That is no longer a concern when the inmate is once again a productive member of society and has better things to do than to file lawsuits.

The Court of Appeals (Calabresi, Livingston and Korman, D.J,) appreciate plaintiffs' arguments, which Judge Chin had recognized in an unrelated case, Morris v. Eversley, 343 F.Supp.2d 234 (SDNY 2004). But the Second Circuit sides with the County on this one. Reasonably read, the law is best interpreted to limit attorneys' fees if the plaintiffs were inmates at the time the lawsuit was filed. Remember, the law references "any action brought by a prisoner who is confined ..." This means the PLRA applies if the plaintiff was confined when he brought the action. The Court of Appeals does recognize an anomaly in this reading: plaintiffs who wait until they leave prison before filing suit are not limited under the PLRA. Even so, the Court finds, "Congress may well have thought that persons still incarcerated were more inclined to bring suits than those who were back in the world and now had less time on their hands and better things to do with it."

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