Decided: November 1, 2013
The Fourth Circuit upheld the constitutionality of § 1997e(d)(2) of the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 that caps attorneys’ fee award that a successful prisoner litigant may recover from the government in a civil rights action at 150 percent of the value of the prisoner’s monetary judgment.
Jamey Wilkins, a prisoner, filed a civil rights action against Officer Gaddy, a guard at the prison where he was incarcerated, where he alleged that Officer Gaddy opened his cell and physically harmed him by pinning, kicking, and punching him. Wilkins claimed various health complications resulting from the incident and sought damages. In his first action, Wilkins alleged that Officer Gaddy’s conduct violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. Ultimately, the Supreme Court agreed with Wilkins, but did not determine the appropriate amount of damages for his injury. At the trial to determine the amount of damages, the jury awarded only nominal damages of $0.99. Wilkins filed a motion to claim over $92,000 in attorneys’ fees as the prevailing party. The court declined to award the attorneys’ fees, citing § 1997e(d)(2) that caps attorneys fees for prisoner litigants at 150 percent of the monetary award. Wilkins argued that the fee shifting violated his equal protection rights under the Fifth Amendment. He claimed that statutes involving the rights of prisoners deserved a heightened sense of scrutiny; and, in the alternative, that the statute did not pass rational basis review.
First, the Fourth Circuit held that the statute at issue did not warrant a heightened standard of review. Although Wilkins admitted that prisoners are not a suspect class that warrants strict scrutiny, he argued that the unique characteristics of prisoners, including the inability to protect themselves in political processes and historical discrimination against prisoners, demanded a more searching form of rational basis. The Fourth Circuit disagreed finding that, “[b]ecause breaking the law is a voluntary act and many prisoners will eventually be released, the ‘status of incarceration is neither an immutable characteristic…nor an invidious basis of classification’” that warrants heightened scrutiny. Furthermore, the court concluded that it would be “ironic” to for the law to provide greater protection to those who had broken it.
Second, the Fourth Circuit held that § 1997e(d)(2) passed rational basis review. The Court cited the government’s legitimate objective of limiting the vast number of prisoner suits, in part, by capping the amount that attorneys can recover in fees. By limiting the amount for possible fees, Congress likely intended that many claims that lacked merit would not clog the courts’ dockets because prisoners are unlikely to find counsel for claims which have only a small opportunity for a fee recovery. Furthermore, the court emphasized the government’s goal of protecting public funds by limiting the amount of attorneys’ fees that the public treasury must pay. Therefore, the court upheld the constitutionality of § 1997e(d)(2).
– Wesley B. Lambert