Justice Neil Gorsuch may have been curiously silent last week when a big public union case came before the Court. But he spoke eloquently one week earlier in an Illinois case about prison litigation that merits more attention than it so far has received. What the newest justice said, in effect, is that a dubious federal law used for decades to undermine accountability in cases of prison abuse and neglect ought to be even more protective of corrections officials and even less hospitable to inmates.
The Illinois case, styled Murphy v. Smith, was about who must pay attorney’s fees when a prisoner sues his guards and wins a damage award from a judge or jury. So this isn’t a case about a frivolous lawsuit. It’s a case about a meritorious one. Charles Murphy, the prisoner, was abused by guards at the Vandalia (Ill.) Correctional Center after he complained that the chair he was supposed to sit in for a meal had food and water in it. For that he was handcuffed and escorted to a segregation unit. Once there, Justice Sotomayor wrote in her dissent:
Murphy taunted respondent Correctional Officer Robert Smith, who responded by hitting Murphy in the eye and applying a choke hold, causing Murphy to lose consciousness. When Murphy woke up, Officer Smith and respondent Lieutenant Gregory Fulk were pushing him into a cell. His hands were still cuffed behind his back and he fell face-first into the cell and hit his head on a metal toilet. Officer Smith and Lieutenant Fulk then stripped Murphy of his clothes, removed his handcuffs, and left him in the cell without checking his condition. Thirty or forty minutes passed until a nurse arrived to attend to Murphy, who was sent to a hospital. Part of his eye socket had been crushed and required surgery. Despite the procedure, Murphy did not fully recover; almost five years later, his vision remained doubled and blurred.
For this, Murphy sued. A jury found Smith, the guard, liable for battery and for using an illegal level of force. The other guard, Fulk, was found liable for “deliberate indifference to a serious medical need.” Both officers, in other words, were found guilty of violating Murphy’s right to be free from “cruel and unusual punishment” under the Eighth Amendment. The jury awarded Murphy $409,750 in compensatory and punitive damages, which the trial judge reduced to $307,733.82. The judge also awarded Murphy’s attorney $108,446.54 in fees for the “several hundred hours” he had spent on the case. And then the judge ordered Murphy to pay ten percent of his award toward the attorney’s fee.
The ten-percent offset came courtesy of a provision of the Prison Litigation Reform Act, another one of those Clinton-era “tough-on-crime” laws that may have done more harm than good in the end. The law provides that “whenever a monetary judgment is awarded, 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. If the award of attorney’s fees is not greater than 150 percent of the judgment, the excess shall be paid by the defendant.” The fight at the Supreme Court came down to what Congress meant by the words “to satisfy.”
Gorsuch, for the five-justice majority, concluded that trial judges in these instances have no discretion to determine what percentage of an inmate’s damage award must be used to cover an attorney’s fee award. It must be 25 percent. I’ll leave you, if you wish, to read the brief opinion to glean what you can from his dense grammatical analysis, but I found it lacking both in sense and sensibility. The justice, known for his love of “textualism,” contorted the text of the statute to give prison officials everywhere an important victory and prisoners everywhere a stinging defeat.
What the ruling means, in Murphy’s case and now in every similar case that follows it, is that prisoners who win their lawsuits against prison officials, and who are granted money damages, will likely receive less of those damages and that the prison officials responsible for the misconduct will in turn be required to pay less. Remember now what it takes for this part of the law even to come into play. A prisoner must bring a legitimate case, which has to be endorsed by a judge and a jury, and which has to overcome all of the qualified immunity and other procedural hurdles in place to limit damage awards. And at the end of all of that, Justice Gorsuch just wrote, the prisoner gets screwed one more time on attorney’s fees.
It was left to Justice Sonia Sotomayor, writing for herself and the Court’s three other progressive justices, to describe what the majority’s ruling would mean in practical terms for the prisoners who might fall under it. The “vast majority of prisoner-civil rights cases” result in relatively small damage awards to prisoners in which “the attorney’s fee award exceeds the monetary judgment awarded,” she wrote. There is no way Congress could have written the law in a way to nullify virtually every damage award by having it offset by a payment of a mandatory 25 percent toward attorney’s fees.
So we have a federal law, the one at issue here, that precludes all but a tiny fraction of legitimate prisoner cases from going to trial. And then we have broad immunity standards that also prevent viable claims from getting to a jury. And then we have limits on damage awards-- even the trial judge here, remember, limited the damage award-- and now we have a new ruling that says that prisoners likely have to pay for more of their share of attorneys’ fees even when they overcome all of these other hurdles. There is nothing fair or right about any of this. And it doesn’t bode well for Justice Gorsuch’s criminal justice jurisprudence going forward.
The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.