Attorney Harrison Williams should have made $75,000 for work he did on behalf of a prisoner who filed a lawsuit. Instead, an appeals court ruled, he earned $1.50.
The prisoner, who claimed he had his religious rights violated when his dreadlocks were touched, was awarded one dollar.
Williams said the Nov. 15 ruling by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan may discourage lawyers from representing the civil rights claims of prisoners. The appeals court said Congress limited attorney fees to 150 percent of a jury award when it passed the Prison Litigation Reform Act in 1997, though it conceded the description in the law was “not a model of clarity.”
“A lot of attorneys were probably unhappy when they saw that decision,” Williams said. “You have to consider there aren’t many of these cases economically you can afford to take on.”
Richard J. Cardinale, a Brooklyn lawyer who sometimes represents prisoners, said he was not surprised by the ruling.
“The rationale is that a lot of these cases are dubious and that prisoners need to be discouraged from bringing these cases and lawyers need to be discouraged too,” he said. “It discourages me from taking small cases.”
It’s unlikely the law will change, Cardinale said.
“There’s no constituency for prisoners or for people who represent prisoners. I have no hope,” he said.
This ruling will absolutely discourage lawyers from taking on such cases and “clients as unpopular as prisoners,” said John Boston, director of the Prisoner’s Rights Project of the Legal Aid Society of New York.
“The Prison Litigation Reform Act was supposedly enacted to help curb frivolous litigation by prisoners. However, some of its major provisions are not restricted to frivolous cases, but apply equally, or worse, to meritorious cases,” he said.
Boston noted that the Shepherd decision cited a 2006 case from an appeals court in Chicago. That ruling limited payment to a lawyer to $1.50 after his prisoner client was awarded $1 in a case.
Williams, a 77-year-old partner at Green & Seifter, estimates the firm spent about $75,000 in billable hours working on the claim by prisoner Eon Shepherd. The jury was only required to determine if Shepherd’s rights were violated and the amount of the award. It did not elaborate on its finding.
The jury’s minuscule financial award was not unusual. Juries in other cases, often unrelated to prisoners, have made a token payment in a case where vindication of the plaintiff’s assertion of a right seemed more important than a cash award.
Williams said Shepherd seemed pleased afterward. “He said, ‘You know what, I’m really satisfied because I feel like I’ve been vindicated.”‘
Shepherd said his civil rights were violated on July 4, 2001, while he was incarcerated in New York’s maximum-security Elmira Correctional Facility. He claimed that two guards had touched his “sacred” dreadlocks and “slightly tore” them. As the appeals court explained it, one guard held a metal detector over Shepherd’s head while the other manually searched his hair as Shepherd complained that touching his dreadlocks without his permission violated his Rastafarian beliefs.
Shepherd was serving a life sentence for robbery and possession of stolen property and has since been moved to another facility.
Williams said the case required several hour-long rides to the prison to meet with Shepherd and the daily drive to federal court in Utica for the weeklong trial that ended with the jury agreeing that guards violated Williams’ right to the free exercise of his religion.
“To be sure, capping attorney’s fees for a $1 monetary award at $1.50 is the practical equivalent of no fee award at all,” the appeals court wrote. “But that is not a sufficient reason to deny the statutory language its plain meaning, which permits no exception for minimal or nominal monetary judgments.”
Williams had actually requested nearly $100,000 in attorney fees but the appeals court said he would have qualified for less than half that amount if the law did not restrict his award to $1.50, which actually was reduced to $1.40 because 10 percent of the dollar paid to Shepherd was required to come from attorney fees.
The fee will provide enough quarters to pay his parking at a meter outside his office for a few hours, Williams said.
“We actually haven’t been paid $1.50 yet but I’m not looking for it,” he said. Williams noted that the fee has become a source of humor in his office, such as the accusation that he wasn’t meeting his billable hours quota.
As for his client, Williams had nothing but praise, saying that Shepherd reacted well from the moment the verdict came in.
“He thanked me and said, ‘You did a great job and I’m satisfied.’ I was really disappointed. I thought he probably should have been given some amount of money and maybe there would be a message to the correction officers not to do this again,” he said.
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