Gregory A. Hall

If New York attorney Harrison Williams was representing a typical client, his recent win should have netted him thousands of dollars in attorney’s fees. Some even estimate that he should have gotten around $75,000 for the successful civil rights case. However, Williams will only be seeing a minuscule fraction of that amount. An appeals court has ruled that he will be paid $1.50.
The reason? Williams was handling a prisoner’s case. Under the Prison Litigation Reform Act, passed in 1997, attorney fees in these types of lawsuits are limited to 150% of a jury’s award.
So even though Williams successfully litigated the case, he is only entitled to $1.50 in attorney’s fees given that the jury awarded his client $1.
Williams’ client, a man serving a life sentence in prison for robbery and possession of stolen property, had alleged the prison violated his rights by conducting a search of his “sacred” dreadlocks. Williams’ client believed that when the guards touched his hair, they were violating his Rastafarian beliefs, reports The Wall Street Journal.
Williams is concerned that the fee structure might discourage attorneys from taking on civil rights cases since solo practitioners simply might not have enough resources to take on cases if they cannot recoup their expenses. Civil rights cases may be important to society as a whole, but not all lawyers can afford to lose money.
Harrison Williams’ case illustrates the need for reform. Admittedly the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) limits the number of frivolous lawsuits filed by incarcerated individuals, as The Wall Street Journal points out, it can certainly also act to limit the number of meritorious lawsuits pursued by attorneys. The assumption behind the limit on attorneys’ fees is that most prisoner cases are frivolous. The problem is that any prisoners that do have cases with with merit will find it very difficult to find a lawyer to represent them, since it is unlikely the lawyer will be able to recover a reasonable fee for his work, even if the lawyer prevails. As a society should we be discouraging representation of a class of people that need representation, simply because a lot of prisoner cases are dubious?

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