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Supreme Court Decides 25% of Prisoner Damages Must Go to Lawyers’ Fees

In a recent 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court resolved a dispute among lower federal courts about how large a share of damage awards won by inmates in civil rights cases must be paid towards their lawyers’ fees. Murphy v. Smith, decided February 21, turned on how to interpret §42 USC 1977(e)(d), a provision in the Prisoner Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), which says that in cases where an inmate is awarded both damages and attorney’s fees, a “portion of the judgment (not to exceed 25 percent) shall be applied to satisfy” the inmate’s legal fees.

In 2011, Charles Murphy, an Illinois state prison inmate, angered two guards who were taking him to a segregation cell. As Murphy’s arms were handcuffed behind his back, one guard hit him in the eye and put him in a chokehold that caused him to black out. The guards pushed the unconscious inmate into the cell face-first, causing him to hit his head on a metal toilet. They then uncuffed him and left him without getting him medical attention. After a nurse eventually discovered him, he was hospitalized for surgery on his partially crushed eye socket; his vision remains impaired.

Murphy sued the guards in federal court, alleging civil rights violations. At trial, a jury found the police had violated Murphy’s civil rights by using excessive force and ignoring his medical needs. The district court judge awarded Murphy $307,733 in compensatory damages, and awarded his lawyer $108,446. The trial judge then decided 10% would be a reasonable portion of Murphy’s damages for him to pay towards satisfying the lawyer’s award, and ordered the inmate to pay his lawyer about $31,000.

But on appeal, a three-judge panel of the Chicago-based 7th Circuit disagreed, reading the PLRA section as requiring an inmate who prevails in such a lawsuit to pay exactly 25% of his award towards the legal fees, not as much as 25%, as the trial judge deemed fit. Under this interpretation, Murphy would have to give his lawyer about $77,000. He appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which took the case to address the differing approaches taken by the 7th Circuit and four other federal appellate courts.

Sixteen states filed a “friend of the court” brief urging the Court to uphold the decision that defendants who lose in inmate civil rights lawsuits are required to pay legal fees only after prevailing inmates have first paid a full 25% out of their damage awards. Nine groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, submitted a brief calling for the appeals court decision to be reversed.

The high court’s conservative majority, in an opinion written by its newest member, Justice Neil Gorsuch, agreed with the Chicago-based appeals court, reading the PLRA language as mandatory, not discretionary, especially absent any standards by which a trial judge might go about figuring what lesser figure might be fitting. Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Alito, Kennedy and Thomas joined the majority decision. A dissenting opinion by Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, and Kagan, pointed to language in the statute (“portion” and “not to exceed”) which frequently are used by legislative drafters to confer discretion.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons(Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to The Huffington PostNew York Daily News, and Prison Legal News. He can be found online at and


About Christopher Zoukis

Christopher Zoukis, a writer currently incarcerated at FCC Petersburg (Medium), is an impassioned and active prison education advocate, a legal commentator, and a prolific writer of books, book reviews, and prison law articles. While living in federal prison at various security levels, retaliations for his activism have earned him long stretches in solitary, or "the hole." While in prison, he has earned numerous academic, legal, and ministerial credentials. Christopher is very knowledgeable about prison-related legal issues, prison policy, federal regulations, and case law. He is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014) and thePrison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016).The Federal Prison Handbook is an IndieReader Discovery Awards winner. A regularly featured contributing writer for The Huffington Post and Prison Legal News, the nation's most prominent prison law publication, Christopher has enjoyed significant media exposure through appearances with the Wall Street Journal's Market Watch,,, In These Times, The Jeff McArthur Show, The Simi Sara Show,, 88.9 WERS' award-winning "You Are Here" radio segment, and The Examiner. Other articles and book reviews appeared in The New York Journal of Books, the Kansas City Star, The Sacramento Bee, Blog Critics, Midwest Book Review, Basil and Spice, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, SF Gate, AND Magazine,, Rain Taxi, and the Education Behind Bars Newsletter, with content syndicated by the Associated Press, Google News, and Yahoo News. He established three websites:,, and, and was a former editor of the Education Behind Bars Newsletter. In 2011, his fiction won two PEN American Center Prison Writing Awards for a screenplay and a short story. He taught a popular course on writing and publishing to over 100 fellow prisoners. Today Christopher is successfully working on a Bachelor's Degree in Interdisciplinary Studies (Business/Law) from Adams State University. Following his 2016 graduation, he plans on attending Adams State University's MBA program. He regularly advises fellow prisoners and prison consultants about legal issues and federal regulations governing the Federal Bureau of Prisons operations. Upon release he plans to attend law school and become a federal criminal defense attorney. Christopher will not allow incarceration to waste his years or halt the progress of his life. He began his prison terms as a confused kid who made poor decisions but is today determined to create a better life. "We can't let the past define us," he says. "We have to do something today to make tomorrow what we want it to be."

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