Attorney Fee Cap Lifted on Prisoner Appeals

A mere $1,500 jury award won by jailhouse lawyer Earnest Woods has turned into a boon for private appellate lawyers in a decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Wednesday.

For the first time, the appeals court held, 2-1, that the Prison Litigation Reform Act, which caps attorney fees that a prisoner may recover at 150 percent of monetary judgments, does not apply to a private attorney who successfully defends a judgment attacked on appeal by prison officials.

Woods won the $1,500 against California’s state Solano State Prison after a jury found he was, for over a year, repeatedly denied dental care to fix his broken dentures.  Woods represented himself and collected no fees.

The state appealed and Woods was represented by a private lawyer who successfully defended the verdict in a decision by the 9th Circuit last year.  But Woods’ lawyer would be limited to $2,250 for the representation if the PLRA cap applied.  Woods requested $16,800 in fees and $520 in costs for his appellate lawyer.

Judge Stephen Reinhardt said in civil rights cases the court’s normal rule allows award of appellate attorney fees for the prevailing party who successfully defends a verdict. The PLRA caps fees at 150 percent of the monetary judgment at the trial stage for work in obtaining the award.

The question was, did this cap also apply to protecting the verdict on appeal?

Woods argued that the cap does not apply to appeals and if it does, it would violate the Equal Protection Clause.

The law’s cap “applies to the limited circumstance of attorney’s fees awarded in conjunction with securing ‘a monetary judgment,’ not to fees for services performed in the court of appeals,” Reinhardt wrote.

This decision furthers the purpose of the PLRA intended by Congress, according to Reinhardt.  “First, in ensures that prisoners who have prevailed on a constitutional claim before the district court will not lose the relief that they have been awarded because they cannot secure counsel on appeal,” he said.  He was joined by Judge John Noonan.

The PLRA was intended to curb frivolous suits, not legitimate defense of a prisoner’s victory.  Rejecting a fee cap on appeals will also discourage defendants [state prison officials] from “frivolously appealing judgments in prisoners’ cases.”

In dissent, Judge Mary Murguia said the decision breaks with a 2007 opinion of the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals.

“A court is not free ‘to revise the plain language of the statute simply because [it] thinks that an alternative construction is more sensible,’” she wrote.

The majority decision sends the case to an appellate commissioner to determine the amount of fees and costs.

Case:  Woods v. Carey, No. 09-16113