Murphy v. Smith,
583 U.S. ___ (2018)

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Justia Opinion Summary

Murphy was awarded a judgment in his federal civil rights suit against two prison guards, including an award of attorney’s fees; 42 U.S.C. 1997e(d)(2) provides that in such cases “a portion of the [prisoner’s] judgment (not to exceed 25 percent) shall be applied to satisfy the amount of attorney’s fees awarded against the defendant.” The district court ordered Murphy to pay 10% of his judgment toward the fee award, leaving defendants responsible for the remainder. The Seventh Circuit reversed, holding that section 1997e(d)(2) required the district court to exhaust 25% of the prisoner’s judgment before demanding payment from the defendants. The Supreme Court affirmed. The mandatory phrase “shall be applied” suggests that the district court has some nondiscretionary duty to perform. The infinitival phrase “to satisfy the amount of attorney’s fees awarded” specifies the purpose of the preceding verb’s nondiscretionary duty and “to satisfy” an obligation, especially a financial obligation, usually means to discharge the obligation in full. The district court does not have wide discretion to pick any “portion” that does not exceed the 25% cap. This conclusion is reinforced by section 1997e(d)’s surrounding provisions, which also limit the district court’s pre-existing discretion under section 1988(b).

  • Syllabus  | 
  • Opinion (Neil M. Gorsuch)  | 
  • Dissent (Sonia Sotomayor)

NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued. The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader. See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U. S. 321 .

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

Syllabus

MURPHY v. SMITH et al.

certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the seventh circuit

No. 16–1067. Argued December 6, 2017—Decided February 21, 2018

Petitioner Charles Murphy was awarded a judgment in his federal civil rights suit against two of his prison guards, including an award of attorney’s fees. Pursuant to 42 U. S. C. §1997e(d)(2), which provides that in such cases “a portion of the [prisoner’s] judgment (not to exceed 25 percent) shall be applied to satisfy the amount of attorney’s fees awarded against the defendant,” the district court ordered Mr. Murphy to pay 10% of his judgment toward the fee award, leaving defendants responsible for the remainder. The Seventh Circuit reversed, holding that §1997e(d)(2) required the district court to exhaust 25% of the prisoner’s judgment before demanding payment from the defendants.

Held: In cases governed by §1997e(d), district courts must apply as much of the judgment as necessary, up to 25%, to satisfy an award of attorney’s fees. The specific statutory language supports the Seventh Circuit’s interpretation. First, the mandatory phrase “shall be applied” suggests that the district court has some nondiscretionary duty to perform. Second, the infinitival phrase “to satisfy the amount of attorney’s fees awarded” specifies the purpose or aim of the preceding verb’s nondiscretionary duty. Third, “to satisfy” an obligation, especially a financial obligation, usually means to discharge the obligation in full. Together, these three clues suggest that a district court (1) must act (2) with the purpose of (3) fully discharging the fee award. And the district court must use as much of the judgment as necessary to satisfy the fee award without exceeding the 25% cap. Contrary to Mr. Murphy’s suggestion, the district court does not have wide discretion to pick any “portion” that does not exceed the 25% cap. The larger statutory scheme supports the Seventh Circuit’s interpretation. The previously governing provision, 42 U. S. C. §1988(b), granted district courts discretion to award fees in unambiguous terms. It is doubtful that Congress, had it wished to confer the same sort of discretion in §1997e(d), would have bothered to write a new law for prisoner civil rights suits alone; omit all of the words that afforded discretion in the old law; and then replace those old discretionary words with new mandatory ones. This conclusion is reinforced by §1997e(d)’s surrounding provisions, which like paragraph (2), also limit the district court’s pre-existing discretion under §1988(b). See, e.g., §§1997e(d)(1)(A) and (B)(ii). The discretion urged by Mr. Murphy is exactly the sort of unguided and freewheeling choice that this Court has sought to expunge from practice under §1988. And his suggested cure for rudderless discretion—to have district courts apportion fees in proportion to the defendant’s culpability—has no basis in the statutory text or roots in the law. Pp. 2–9.

844 F. 3d 653, affirmed.

Gorsuch, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C. J., and Kennedy, Thomas, and Alito, JJ., joined. Sotomayor, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Ginsburg, Breyer, and Kagan, JJ., joined.

Primary Holding

An award of attorneys' fees, in a prisoners' civil rights case, must be first satisfied from not more than 25% of the prisoner's judgment.

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