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Murphy v. Smith

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

July 24, 2017

Charles Murphy, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
Robert Smith and Gregory Fulk, Defendants-Appellants.

          Submitted February 15, 2017

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Illinois. No. 12-841-SCW - Stephen C. Williams, Magistrate Judge.

          Before Bauer, Manion, and Hamilton, Circuit Judges.

          Hamilton, Circuit Judge.

         This appeal is before us once more, this time not on the merits but on plaintiff Charles Murphy's petition for an award of attorney fees on appeal as a prevailing party pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b). We deny the petition. Plaintiff prevailed on only one issue on appeal, an issue of only state law that could not have affected the judgment in his favor on federal-law claims that allowed a fee award. He lost on the federal matters at issue on appeal. While he remains a prevailing party in the lawsuit as a whole, a fee award on this appeal is not justified.

         Our decision on the fee petition depends on the course and result of the appeal on the merits. We explained the facts in our earlier opinion, Murphy v. Smith, 844 F.3d 653 (7th Cir. 2016). To summarize, plaintiff Murphy is an Illinois prisoner. He filed this suit under Illinois state law and 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against several prison guards, including appellants Robert Smith and Gregory Fulk. Murphy alleged that the guards punched him, choked him, threw him head-first against a cell toilet, and left him without medical care. Id. at 655-56.

         Murphy divided those allegations into six claims: (1) a federal Eighth Amendment claim for unconstitutional use of force and (2) a state-law battery claim regarding the punch; (3) a federal Eighth Amendment claim for unconstitutional use of force and (4) a state-law battery claim regarding the choking and throwing; (5) a federal Eighth Amendment claim for failure to intervene to prevent federal constitutional violations; and (6) a federal Eighth Amendment claim for deliberate indifference to serious medical needs.

         Murphy prevailed on four of those claims in a jury trial. The jury found in his favor and against Officer Smith on both the federal and state claims for the punch. The jury also found for Murphy and against Smith on the state-law battery claim for choking him and throwing him into the cell and against the toilet, but against Murphy on the federal claim for those same actions. And the jury found for Murphy on his Eighth Amendment claim against Lieutenant Fulk for deliberate indifference to his medical needs after he was injured.

         The jury awarded a total of about $410, 000 in compensatory and punitive damages. The court later reduced the total to $307, 734.82. The court also awarded Murphy attorney fees and costs totaling $110, 643.66 under 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b). The court interpreted a provision of the Prison Litigation Reform Act, 42 U.S.C. § l997e(d)(2), as giving the court discretion in deciding what percentage, up to twenty-five percent, of the judgment should be used to pay attorney fees, and the court set that percentage at ten percent. Murphy v. Smith, No. 12-cv-0841-SCW, 2015 WL13236780, at *1, *5 (S.D. 111. Sept. 25, 2015).

         Defendants Smith and Fulk appealed and challenged just two separate aspects of the district court judgment. First, defendants argued that the Prison Litigation Reform Act required that fully twenty-five percent of the damages award be put toward the attorney fee award. Second, defendants argued that state-law sovereign immunity barred Murphy's recovery on his state-law claims. As a practical matter, the only part of the judgment implicated by this argument was an award of $25, 501 against Smith on the state-law battery claim for the choking and throwing. That was the claim on which the jury rejected the parallel federal constitutional claim.

         We ruled in the defendants' favor on the PLRA issue. Murphy, 844 F.3d at 660-61. (Murphy has filed a petition for certiorari on that issue, as to which circuits seem to be divided. See Petition for Writ of Certiorari, Murphy v. Smith, No. 16-1067 (U.S. Mar. 2, 2017).) We ruled in Murphy's favor on the question of state-law sovereign immunity for the state-law claims. Murphy, 844 F.3d at 660. Murphy then petitioned this court for attorney fees for his counsel's work on appeal.

         In 1976, Congress enacted the Civil Rights Attorney's Fees Awards Act, adding language that is now in 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b). The statute allows courts to award prevailing parties reasonable attorney's fees in "any action or proceeding to enforce a provision of" 42 U.S.C. § 1983. This fee-shifting law is designed to ensure "effective access to the judicial process" for persons with civil rights grievances. Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 429 (1983), quoting H.R. Rep. No. 94-1558, at 1 (1976). The law encourages plaintiffs to act as private attorneys general to enforce federal rights, and particularly federal constitutional rights, especially where the economics of litigation would otherwise discourage even meritorious suits. See S. Rep. No. 94-1011, at 2-3 (1976), as reprinted in 1976 U.S.C.C.A.N. 5908, 5910.

         When a plaintiff prevails in a suit under § 1983, a court should award a reasonable attorney fee, which is calculated by determining a lodestar amount and multiplying the attorney's hours on the case by a reasonable hourly rate. That lodestar amount may then be adjusted for a variety of reasons, including the results obtained. Hensley, 461 U.S. at 433-34; see also, e.g., Perdue v. Kenny A. ex rel. Winn, 559 U.S. 542 (2010) (explaining lodestar method and permissible adjustments); Johnson v. GDF, Inc., 668 F.3d 927, 929-30 (7th Cir. 2012) (same). The Prison Litigation Reform Act also imposes limits on fee awards in § 1983 cases where the prevailing plaintiff is a prisoner. 42 U.S.C. § l997e(d).

         Fee issues under § 1988 can become fairly complex in cases like this one, where the plaintiff has asserted several distinct claims under both federal and state law against several defendants, and where the plaintiff prevails on some but not all claims. Hensley offers broad guidance for such problems. Work on an unsuccessful claim that is unrelated to the successful claim would not be covered. 461 U.S. at 434-35. Where claims are closely related, however, a plaintiff who obtains excellent results should recover a fully compensatory fee even if he did not prevail on every contention in the lawsuit or if a court rejected or did not reach certain grounds supporting the excellent result. Id. Where the plaintiff achieves only partial or limited success, the court must use its equitable judgment to adjust the fee ...


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