In Woods v. Carey the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decided a case on the recovery of attorney fees in the context of a prisoner defending a judgment on appeal.
Earnest Woods was a prisoner at a California State Prison. Cervantes was an Appeals Coordinator at that facility. Woods won a judgment against Cervantes in a civil rights action, where the jury found Cervantes violated Woods’ Eight Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment. The district court awarded Woods $1,500 in compensatory and punitive damages. Cervantes appealed the verdict, challenging the denial of qualified immunity and the award of punitive damages.
Cervantes lost again on appeal. Woods then filed a motion under 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b) for attorney fees, demanding $16,800 in attorney fees and $521.09 in costs.
Section 1988(b) of the U.S. Code provides that in a civil rights action, the court may award attorney fees to the prevailing party in its discretion. Cervantes, however, argued that Woods’ award of attorney fees was subject to the provisions in Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(d), which arguably could limit the recovery of attorney fees under these circumstances.
The PLRA imposes a cap on the amount of attorney fees that a prisoner can recover from defendant prison officials. In Dannenberg v. Valadez, the Ninth Circuit held that the PLRA only limits those fees “incurred for the sole purpose of securing the monetary judgment.” Similarly here, the Court reasoned that it would be inconsistent with the PLRA to apply the fee cap to attorney fees incurred for services performed in court of appeals to defeat a challenge to the district court’s verdict.
In other words, PLRA cap only applies to fees incurred in securing a monetary judgment in the district court and not to fees incurred in defending the judgment on appeal. Thus, the Ninth Circuit granted Woods’ motion for attorney fees.
Brian Fu also contributed to this article.