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Rastafarian's Attorneys Fees Limited in PLRA Dread-Touching Claim

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

“Don’t touch my junk” became an anti-TSA rallying cry last year after a San Diego software programmer objected to an enhanced patdown in an airport security line. Perhaps this year’s privacy catchphrase can be “don’t touch my dreads.”

That’s because touching a Rastafarian’s dreadlocks can interfere with his free exercise of religion.

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled this week that a Rastafarian can collect damages and attorney’s fees for dreadlock infringement, but those amounts are limited under the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA).

New York State prisoner Eon Shepherd, who practices Rastafarianism, sued New York Department of Corrections officials Alan Twedt and Christopher Post, alleging that they infringed his rights under the Free Exercise Clause by manually searching his dreadlocks without his consent despite his protests that it violated his Rastafarian beliefs.

In a pro se complaint, Shepherd charged Twedt and Post with violating his right to the free exercise of his religion when they touched his "sacred" dreadlocks and "slightly tore" them. In May 2010, Shepherd, represented by pro bono counsel, presented his case to a jury, and won $1 in actual damages.

Shepherd moved for attorney's fees in the amount of $99,485.25. Construing the PLRA to limit attorney's fees to a percentage of the actual damages, the district court concluded that Shepherd was entitled to a whopping $1.50 in attorney's fees.

Prior to the 1996 enactment of the PLRA, a litigant could move for attorney's fees in a civil rights claim under 42 U.S.C. §1988(b), which is a pretty generous statute. The PLRA, however, caps a fee award against a defendant at 150 percent of the awarded damages.

While the Second Circuit Court of Appeals recognizes that language regarding attorney's fees is "not a model of clarity," the court found that it was not so ambiguous as to require a trip to the canons of statutory construction for interpretation. The court affirmed the award applying the cap.

We think it's noble if you want to offer your services to help prisoners litigate PLRA claims, but please don't rely on those gigs to pay your rent/mortgage. The Second Circuit notes that none of its sister circuits have departed from the PLRA caps, so your fee, (if you win), will be based on a percentage of your client's actual damages.

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