BOIVIN v. MERRILL

66 F. Supp.2d 50 (1999) | Cited 0 times | D. Maine | August 12, 1999

ORDER

On January 20, 1999, a jury rendered a verdict in favor of PlaintiffRaymond P. Boivin ("Plaintiff") in the above-captioned civil rightsaction. Specifically, the jury found that Defendant Donald Black("Defendant"), a correctional officer at Maine CorrectionalInstitution—Warren ("MCI— Warren"), violated Plaintiffs dueprocess rights as a pre-trial detainee when he supervised the placement ofPlaintiff in a restraint chair. Plaintiff was awarded nominal damages inthe amount of $1.00. The Court entered an amended judgment in this actionon March 24, 1999, following denial of Defendant's Motion for Judgment asa Matter of Law.

Before the Court is an application by Tisdale & Davis, P.A.("Tisdale"), Plaintiffscounsel, for attorney's fees in the amount of $3,892.50. Defendantopposes Tisdale's application on the ground that section 1997e(d)(2) ofthe Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 ("PLRA") precludes an award ofattorney's fees in this case. For the reasons stated below, Tisdale'sApplication for Attorneys' Fees is GRANTED.

I. DISCUSSION

Defendant contends that section 1997e(d) of the PLRA bars an award ofattorney's fees in connection with this action because Plaintiffs claimyielded no more than nominal damages. That section provides in relevantpart:

(1) In any action brought by a prisoner who is confined to any . . . correctional facility, in which attorney's fees are authorized under section 1988 of this title, such fees shall not be awarded, except to the extent that— (A) the fee was directly and reasonably incurred in proving an actual violation of the plaintiffs rights protected by a statute pursuant to which a fee may be awarded under section 1988 of this title; and

(B)(i) the amount of the fee is proportionately related to the court ordered relief for the violation;

(2) Whenever a monetary judgment is awarded in an action described in paragraph (1), a portion of the judgment (not to exceed 25 percent) shall be applied to satisfy that amount of attorney's fees awarded against the defendant. If the award of attorney's fees is not greater than 150 percent of the judgment, the excess shall be paid by the defendant.

42 U.S.C. 1997e(d) (Supp. II 1996). Looking to paragraph 2 of thissection, Defendant argues that nominal damages qualify as a "monetaryjudgment" and that his liability for attorney's fees therefore is limitedto 150 percent of that judgment.

The extent to which section 1997e(d) of the PLRA limits attorney's feeswhere a plaintiff is awarded nominal damages in a civil rights action isa question of first impression for this Court. Indeed, neither theparties nor the Court has located any case law addressing this issue whichis essentially one of statutory interpretation. When interpreting astatute, a court must endeavor to divine the intent of Congress,beginning with the plain meaning of the statutory language. See Brady v.Credit Recovery Co., 160 F.3d 64, 66 (1st Cir. 1998). As the FirstCircuit has noted, however, "the plain-meaning doctrine is not apedagogical absolute" and courts should "go beyond the plain meaning ofthe statutory language when adherence to it would produce an absurdresult." Greenwood Trust Co. v. Commonwealth of Mass., 971 F.2d 818, 825(1st Cir. 1992).

Interpreting the term "monetary judgment" to include an award ofnominal damages would produce absurd results indeed. The present matteris an apt example. Tisdale spent at least 23 hours preparing his client'scase and 24 hours in trial, following which his client received a verdictin his favor and a nominal damage award of $1.00. Pursuant to section1997e(d)(2), which caps attorneys' fees at 150 percent of a monetaryjudgment, Tisdale would be entitled to no more than $1.50 for hisefforts. As Tisdale notes, such an award would discourage many attorneysfrom taking on prisoner's rights cases despite the power of even nominaljudgments to vindicate important constitutional principles. The Courtfinds nothing in the legislative history of this provision to suggestthat Congress intended this result.1

While the Court holds that a nominal damage award does not constitute amonetary judgment within the meaning of section 1997e(d)(2), it findsthat an award of attorney's fees in a nominal damages case neverthelessis subject to the requirements of reasonableness and proportionality setforth in section 1997e(d)(1)(A) & (B). These requirements merely codifythe preexisting state of the law with respect to the award of attorney'sfees in civil rights actions under 42 U.S.C. § 1988. See42 U.S.C. § 1988(b) (Supp. II 1996) ("[i]n any action or proceedingto enforce a provision of section[] . . . 1983, . . . the court, in itsdiscretion, may allow the prevailing party . . . a reasonable attorney'sfee as part of the costs") In O'Connor v. Huard, 117 F.3d 12, 18 (1stCir. 1997), the First Circuit set the standard for such awards in casesinvolving nominal damages. The Court declined to adopt a per se rulebarring attorney's fees and went on to find the district court's award ofattorney's fees reasonable, citing the deterrent impact of the litigationon those who otherwise would violate a prisoner's constitutional rightsand the need to provide attorneys with an incentive to representlitigants seeking to vindicate such rights. See O'Connor, 117 F.3d at18. The Court also noted that the remedy sought by the plaintiff, "relieffrom . . . [the] infliction of punishment without due process of law,"was not unreasonable when compared to the verdict he received. Id.(contrasting its facts with those of Farrar v. Hobby, 506 U.S. 103, 113,113 S.Ct. 566, 121 L.Ed.2d 494 (1992), in which Supreme Court refused toaward attorney's fees where plaintiff sought $17 million in compensatorydamages and received only $1).

Guided by O'Connor, the Court is satisfied that the attorney's feessought here by Tisdale are eminently reasonable. The in-court andout-of-court hours are billed at an appropriate rate and it is undisputedthat the 23 hours of out-of-court time billed reflect only a fraction ofthe actual time spent preparing Plaintiffs case. Moreover, like theplaintiff in O'Connor, Tisdale's client did not specifically seek a largecompensatory damage award disproportionate to the verdict and award heactually received.

II. CONCLUSION

For the reasons discussed above, the Court GRANTS Tisdale's Applicationfor Attorneys' Fees and awards a fee of $3,892.50.

SO ORDERED.

1. A primary purpose of the PLRA is "to discourage frivolous andabusive prison lawsuits." 141 Cong. Rec. S14408-01 (daily ed. Sept. 27,1995) (statement of Sen. Dole). The Court considers a due process claimresulting in a finding of liability neither frivolous nor abusive.

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