Jim Dey | Illinois-based case has Supreme Court justices minding P's, Q's

Jim Dey | Illinois-based case has Supreme Court justices minding P's, Q's

All eyes were on the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington on Monday during oral arguments on an Illinois-based case — Janus v. AFSCME — that poses a financial threat to the political power of public employee unions.

But another Illinois case decided last week — Murphy v. Smith — also will have significant, but more narrow, ramifications. The dispute involves prisoner litigation that can cost taxpayers a fortune.

The high court ruled 5-4 (court conservatives plus Justice Anthony Kennedy against court liberals) that prison inmates who win financial damages in civil-rights cases are required to pay more of their attorney's fees than previous court decisions allowed.

The facts of the case were not much in dispute. But lawyers and judges fought doggedly instead over definitions of words like "satisfy" and interpretation of statutory phrases.

Not surprisingly, the high court judges came to opposite conclusions about what the disputed words and phrases really mean.

The bottom line in the case is that injured inmate Charles Murphy will have to pay a larger percentage of his $307,000 damage award to cover his lawyers' fees of $108,000.

A federal magistrate had ordered Murphy to pay 10 percent ($30,700) of his lawyers' fees with the government paying the $77,300 balance.

But a federal appeals court in Chicago unanimously overturned the magistrate's ruling, ordering that Murphy pay $76,900 toward the legal fees with the government paying the $31,100 balance.

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling conflicted with different holdings in other federal circuits. It concluded that trial judges have no discretion in how much they can order winning litigants, like Murphy, to pay.

In sustaining the 7th Circuit, the U.S. Supreme Court established a national standard that governs the lower federal courts.

The ruling was based on the interpretation of a federal statute that states "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."

The lawsuit stemmed from an unjustified beating that guards at the federal prison in Vandalia meted out to Murphy that left the handcuffed prisoner with "part of his eye socket" crushed.

The injury required surgery and left Murphy with blurred vision and double-vision.

He filed a federal lawsuit in the Southern District of Illinois, and a jury awarded him $407,000 in damages. U.S. Judge Michael Reagan subsequently reduced the damages to $307,000.

On top of that sum, U.S. Magistrate Stephen Williams awarded $108,000 in attorney's fees to Murphy's lawyers and ordered Murphy to pay the reduced amount — 10 percent or $30,700 — as his share. The federal appeals court concluded that it should have been a mandatory 25 percent, not the discretionary sum of 10 percent.

The 7th Circuit panel — appellate Judges David Hamilton, Daniel Manion and William Bauer — acknowledged that "we have read the statute differently" than other federal circuits but asserted their interpretation is "the most natural reading of the statutory test."

"Only if 25 percent of the award is inadequate to compensate counsel fully does the defendant contribute more to the fees," Judge Hamilton wrote.

"The statute neither uses discretionary language nor provides any guidance for such discretion," he stated.

Writing for the high court majority, Justice Neil Gorsuch noted that the statutory word "shall" tells us "the district court has some nondiscretionary duty to perform."

He noted that "immediately following the verb, we find an infinitival phrase ('to satisfy the amount of attorney's fees awarded') that specifies the purpose or aim of the verb's nondiscretionary duty."

Finally, he wrote that "to satisfy an obligation" usually means to "discharge the obligation in full."

"And to meet that duty, a district court must apply as much of the judgment as necessary to satisfy the fee award, without, of course, exceeding the 25 percent cap," he wrote.

Gorsuch said if Congress had intended otherwise it could have used different words, like substituting "may" for "shall" or "to satisfy" with "to reduce."

Writing for the minority, Justice Sonia Sotomayor was having none of Gorsuch's argument. She concluded that the statutory provision "here does not simply say 'to satisfy'; it says 'applied to satisfy'" that could be construed to mean "not be intended to discharge the obligation in full."

Sotomayor also contended the use of the word "portion" ... "makes evident that the district court is afforded the discretion to choose the amount of the judgment to be paid toward the fee award."

When brilliant jurists — Gorsuch and Sotomayor — address issues likes the one in this case, their opinions are routinely convincing. The only difference is that Gorsuch's argument received five votes and Sotomayor's four.

As to what Congress really meant in its statutory language, it's unclear.

Sometimes unclear language in statutes is the product of bill-writing incompetence.

But it also can be intentional because legislators sometimes are unable to agree on more specific language and leave language open to interpretation and for the courts to sort out.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or by phone at 217-351-5369.