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Supreme Court to Consider Attorney's Fees in Prison Beating Case

By William Vogeler, Esq. on September 06, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

After all that Charles Murphy suffered at the hands of prison guards, his case is going to the U.S. Supreme Court over another issue: attorney's fees.

The High Court has docketed the case, Murphy v. Smith, to decide whether a portion of a judgment means "up to 25 percent" or "exactly 25 percent" for attorney's fees under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983. The U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals said that Murphy has to pay 25 percent of the fees from his award.

Murphy's attorneys, who won a $307,733 judgment, said the appeals court cut too much into the recovery for attorney's fees to be paid by the plaintiff. They want the defendants -- prison guards who beat him -- to pay more.

"Up to 25 Percent"

The attorneys petitioned the Supreme Court to take up the issue because the Seventh Circuit is at odds with four other circuits that have said the attorney's fees division is "up to 25 percent." The petitioners said the issue needs resolution because prisoners often win their cases for civil rights violations.

"In recent years, prisoners have filed approximately 22,000 civil rights suits in federal court each year," they said. "Prisoners win approximately 10 percent of these suits -- more than 2,000 cases per year."

In Murphy's case, he was left with a broken eye socket after correctional officer Robert Smith struck him in the eye, choked him out and threw him into a metal toilet in his cell. Murphy was handcuffed during the attack.

A nurse found him in the cell, stripped of his clothing. He underwent surgery for a crushed orbital rim, but his eyesight was permanently damaged.

No Discretion on Apportionment

Murphy sued Smith and Lieutenant Gregory Fulk, who also pushed him onto the cell floor. A jury found them liable for civil rights violations and awarded $409,751 in damages.

The trial judge reduced the award to $307,733, and awarded $108,446 in attorney's fees. Under the Prison Litigation Reform Act, the court concluded that Murphy should pay 10 percent of the award.

The Seventh Circuit affirmed the judgment, but reversed on the apportionment of fees. The appeals court said the statute did not give trial judges discretion over the apportionment -- it required 25 percent of the fees to be borne by the prevailing party.

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