Beaten Inmate’s Fee Award Faces Supreme Scrutiny

WASHINGTON (CN) – Interrupting their summer hiatus, the U.S. Supreme Court took up a legal-fee case where Illinois prison guards left an inmate without medical care after beating and throwing him head-first against a cell toilet.

As recounted in the Seventh Circuit’s ruling on the case, the merits of the verdict won by inmate Charles Murphy are not in dispute.

Murphy’s broken eye socket at the Vandalia Correctional Center stemmed from his complaint during mealtime on July 25, 2011, that his assigned seat was fouled up with food and water.

While escorting the handcuffed Murphy to a segregation building as punishment for speaking out, Correctional Officer Robert Smith began jabbing his finger in the inmate’s ear. Apparently Murphy had ignored Smith’s demand to identify his unit assignment.

Murphy was not resisting, but he did begin taunting Smith when they resumed walking, telling the guard they would have a problem the next time Murphy “ain’t got no handcuffs on.”

With two other guards along for the escort, Smith then hit Murphy in the eye and kept the inmate in a chokehold until he lost consciousness. Murphy awoke to find himself getting pushed into a cell by Smith and Lt. Gregory Fulk.

Still handcuffed, Murphy fell face-first into the cell and hit his head on its metal toilet. The nurse who came in to check on Murphy 30 or 40 minutes later found him stripped of his clothing. The handcuffs were off. Murphy underwent surgery to repair his crushed orbital rim, but his vision remains doubled and blurred.

In U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois, Murphy won a $307,733 verdict against Smith and Fulk.

Though the court tried to shave off just 10 percent of the award as fees for Murphy’s attorneys, the Seventh Circuit called this an abuse of discretion.

Murphy petitioned the high court to clarify Section 1997e(d)(2) of Title 42, which says “a portion of the judgment (not to exceed 25 percent) shall be applied to satisfy the amount of attorney’s fees awarded against the defendant.”

In reversing last year, the Seventh Circuit found that the parenthetical phrase “not to exceed 25 percent” means exactly 25 percent.

Four other circuits meanwhile have found that the phrase means any amount up to 25 percent.

The Supreme Court agreed on Aug. 25 to weigh in. Per its custom, the court did not issue any comment in taking up the case.

Murphy is represented by Stuart Banner with the UCLA School of Law’s Supreme Court Clinic in Los Angeles.

The correctional officers, Smith and Fulk, are represented by David Leigh Franklin with the Illinois Solicitor General’s Office, and by Assistant Illinois Attorney General Mary Welsh, both of Chicago.

%d bloggers like this: