Thursday, December 8, 2011

This is why lawyers don't represent prisoners

Think this guy is going to take on any more pro bono cases? I doubt it. Poor fellow represented a prisoner in federal court, and he actually convinced the jury that a Rastafarian's religious freedom rights were violated when prison guards tussled with his dreadlocks. Jury gave his client $1.00 in damages. The lawyer recovers $1.50 in attorneys' fees. The Court of Appeals upholds the $1.50 fee award.

The case is Shepherd v. Goord, decided on November 15. In the mid-1990s, when it was open season on prisoners in the U.S. Congress, the Prison Litigation Reform Act was enacted. It was intended to reduce the number of inmate lawsuits. One way to do that was to make it more difficult for attorneys to recover attorneys' fees in successful cases. Take away the attorneys' fees, and the attorneys will take a pass.

Congress was so eager to enact the PLRA once the Republicans took over the House and Senate that no one bothered to make sure the statute was written clearly. (In fairness, President Clinton signed the PLRA into law, so this is a bi-partisan deal). Under the PLRA, if the inmate wins money at trial and is therefore a prevailing party, his lawyer gets attorneys' fees. But, "if the award of attorneys' fees is not greater than 150 percent of the judgment, the excess shall be paid by the defendant." This is not the clearest language in the world. What it really means is that if the prisoner wins the case, his lawyer's fees cannot exceed 150 percent of the judgment. That's because the defendant is not responsible for fees beyond 150 percent. Since only the defendant pays out the attorneys' fees award, this provision essentially sets a 150 percent cap on fees.

So, if the jury awards an inmate $50,000, counsel can get up to $75,000 in attorneys' fees. Not too shabby. But here, counsel prevailed at trial, but the jury only awarded his prisoner client a dollar. Counsel filed an attorneys' fees application in the amount of $99,000. But the trial court said -- and the Court of Appeals (Raggi, Miner and Sack) agrees -- that counsel may only recover $1.50 in attorneys' fees.The Court of Appeals knows this is a harsh result for the lawyer. But the Second Circuit says that "whatever arguments can be mounted for against the policy choice reflected in [the PLRA], particularly as applied to pro bono counsel, the proper forum for that debate is Congress, not the courts." If you don't like the result, the next train to Washington leaves in 15 minutes.

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