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Wilson-El v. Mutayoba

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

April 29, 2015




Before the Court is Plaintiff's Motion for Attorneys' Fees (Doc. 112). Plaintiff's counsel seeks $15, 001.50 in attorneys' fees. Defendant has filed a Response (Doc. 116) arguing that Plaintiff should be required to pay twenty-five percent (which amounts to $2, 525.25) of the fees. For the reasons set forth below, Plaintiff's Motion is granted.


Plaintiff brought this lawsuit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violations of his constitutional rights while he was incarcerated within the Illinois Department of Corrections. Plaintiff alleged a violation of his First Amendment right to freely exercise his religion. Specifically, Plaintiff alleged that the denial of his request for a vegan diet was a violation of his First Amendment Free Exercise rights.

This matter proceeded to a jury trial, and on February 13, 2015, the jury returned a verdict for Plaintiff. The jury awarded Plaintiff $1.00 in compensatory damages and $10, 100.00 in punitive damages (Doc. 106).


Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988, a "prevailing party" in a Section 1983 action is entitled to "reasonable" attorneys' fees. See Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 429 (1983). A civil rights plaintiff is considered to be a "prevailing party" if he or she succeeds on "any significant issue in the litigation." First Commondities Traders, Inc. v. Heinold Commondities, Inc., 766 F.2d 1007, 1015 (7th Cir. 1985); Slane v. Mariah Boats, Inc., 164 F.3d 1065, 1068 (7th Cir. 1999). "[T]o qualify as a prevailing party, a civil rights plaintiff must obtain at least some relief on the merits of his claim." Farrar v. Hobby, 506 U.S. 103, 111 (1992). "[A] plaintiff who wins nominal damages is a prevailing party under § 1988." Id. at 112.

Furthermore, the Prison Litigation Reform Act ("PLRA"), 42 U.S.C. § 1997e, limits an incarcerated plaintiff's fee award. The PLRA places relative and absolute limits on the amount of the fee award. "Subsections (1) and (2) establish relative limits: fees must be "proportionately related to the court ordered relief" and, when monetary relief is awarded, the fees attributable to that relief cannot exceed 150% of the damages. Subsection (3) establishes an absolute limit at 150% of the hourly rate for defense counsel under the Criminal Justice Act, times the number of hours reasonably devoted to the litigation." Johnson v. Daley, 339 F.3d 582, 583 (7th Cir. 2003).

Plaintiff acknowledges that his counsel is limited under the PLRA to a total amount of attorneys' fee award of 150% of the judgment. Counsel has thus calculated attorneys' fees at $15, 001.50, which represents 150% of the judgment.[1] Defendant argues that, pursuant to the PLRA, Plaintiff should be ordered to pay twenty-five percent or $2, 525.25 to his counsel to compensate them for their work on Plaintiff's behalf, leaving Defendant to pay the balance of the attorneys' fees in the amount of $12, 626.25.

The PLRA provides that "whenever a monetary judgment is awarded...a portion of the judgment (not to exceed 25 percent) shall be applied to satisfy the amount of attorneys' fees awarded against the defendant." 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(d)(2). Clearly, the PLRA requires that some part of the jury award be used to satisfy a fee award, with twenty-five percent as the maximum set-off amount. Id. Courts have concluded that while § 1997e(d)(2) requires that a plaintiff pay some of the fee award from the judgment, it does not require that a plaintiff pay the entire twenty-five percent. See Johnson v. Daley, 2002 WL 23274532, at *1 (W.D. Wis., 2003) (on remand from the Seventh Circuit for an award of attorneys' fees that complied with Section 1997e(d), the district court applied $200.00 of the $40, 000.00 judgment toward the fee award); Cornell v. Gubbles, 2010 WL 3937597, at *2 (C.D. Ill. 2010) (ordering that one percent or $37.50, of plaintiff's judgment should be applied against attorneys' fees); Jellis v. Veath, 2013 WL 1689061 (S.D. Ill. 2013) (ordering that plaintiff pay five percent of his recovery towards attorneys' fees); Shatner v. Cowan, 2009 WL 5210528 (S.D. Ill. 2009) (finding that a nominal contribution of $1.00 against the judgment was within the Court's discretion under the statute).

In light of the facts of this case, the Court finds that requiring Plaintiff to pay twenty-five percent of his total damages toward attorneys' fees would defeat the purpose of awarding him compensatory and punitive damages. See Shatner, 2009 WL 5210528, at *4. Accordingly, the Court finds that Plaintiff shall pay a nominal contribution of $1.00. This amount recognizes Plaintiff initially proceeded pro se, that counsel was recruited on a pro bono basis, and that Plaintiff benefitted from counsel's appointment. To require Plaintiff to pay more of the attorneys' fees from his judgment would defeat the purpose of awarding him punitive damages.


For the foregoing reasons, Plaintiff's Motion for Attorneys' Fees is GRANTED. Plaintiff is awarded attorneys' fees in the amount of $15, 001.50. Of that amount, Plaintiff shall pay $1.00 to be deducted from Plaintiff's recovery ...

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