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Murphy v. Smith

United States Supreme Court

February 21, 2018

HARLES MURPHY, PETITIONER
v.
ROBERT SMITH, ET AL.

          Argued December 6, 2017

         ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE SEVENTH CIRCUIT

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.

          OPINION

          GORSUCH JUSTICE.

         This is a case about how much prevailing prisoners must pay their lawyers. When a prisoner wins a civil rights suit and the district court awards fees to the prisoner's attorney, a federal statute says that "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. If the award of attorney's fees is not greater than 150 percent of the judgment, the excess shall be paid by the defendant." 42 U.S.C. §1997e(d)(2). Whatever else you might make of this, the first sentence pretty clearly tells us that the prisoner has to pay some part of the attorney's fee award before financial responsibility shifts to the defendant. But how much is enough? Does the first sentence allow the district court discretion to take any amount it wishes from the plaintiff's judgment to pay the attorney, from 25% down to a penny? Or does the first sentence instead mean that the court must pay the attorney's entire fee award from the plaintiff's judgment until it reaches the 25% cap and only then turn to the defendant?

         The facts of our case illustrate the problem we face. After a jury trial, the district court entered judgment for Charles Murphy in the amount of $307, 733.82 against two of his prison guards, Officer Robert Smith and Lieutenant Gregory Fulk. The court also awarded Mr. Murphy's attorney $108, 446.54 in fees. So far, so good. But then came the question who should pay what portion of the fee award. The defendants argued that, under the statute's terms, the court had to take 25% (or about $77, 000) from Mr. Murphy's judgment before taxing them for the balance of the fee award. The court, however, refused that request. Instead, it ordered that Mr. Murphy "shall pay 10% of [his] judgment" (or about $31, 000) toward the fee award, with the defendants responsible for the rest. In support of this allocation, the district court explained that it commonly varied the amount prisoners pay, though the court offered no explanation for choosing 10% instead of some other number. On appeal, a unanimous panel reversed, explaining its view that the language of §1997e(d)(2) requires a district court to exhaust 25% of the prisoner's judgment before demanding payment from the defendants. 844 F.3d 653, 660 (CA7 2016). So there we have both sides of the debate, and our question, in a nutshell: did the district court have latitude to apply 10% (or some other discretionary amount) of the plaintiff's judgment to his attorney's fee award instead of 25%? See 582 U.S. ___ (2017) (granting certiorari to resolve this question).

         As always, we start with the specific statutory language in dispute. That language (again) says "a portion of the judgment (not to exceed 25 percent) shall be applied to satisfy the amount of attorney's fees awarded." §1997e(d)(2). And we think this much tells us a few things. First, the word "shall" usually creates a mandate, not a liberty, so the verb phrase "shall be applied" tells us that the district court has some nondiscretionary duty to perform. See Lexecon Inc. v. Milberg Weiss Bershad Hynes & Lerach, 523 U.S. 26, 35 (1998) ("[T]he mandatory 'shall' . . . normally creates an obligation impervious to judicial discretion"). Second, 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 non-discretionary duty. Cf. R. Huddleston & G. Pullum, Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, ch. 8, §§1, 12.2, pp. 669, 729-730 (2002). Third, we know that when you purposefully seek or aim "to satisfy" an obligation, especially a financial obligation, that usually means you intend to discharge the obligation in full.[1]Together, then, these three clues suggest that the court (1) must apply judgment funds toward the fee award (2) with the purpose of (3) fully discharging the fee award. 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% cap. If Congress had wished to afford the judge more discretion in this area, it could have easily substituted "may" for "shall." And if Congress had wished to prescribe a different purpose for the judge to pursue, it could have easily replaced the infinitival phrase "to satisfy ..." with "to reduce ..." or "against . . . ." But Congress didn't choose those other words. And respect for Congress's prerogatives as policymaker means carefully attending to the words it chose rather than replacing them with others of our own.

         Mr. Murphy's reply does more to hurt than help his cause. Consider, he says, college math credits that the college prospectus says shall be "applied to satisfy" a chemistry degree. No one, the argument goes, would understand that phrase to suggest a single math course will fully discharge all chemistry degree requirements. We quite agree, but that is beside the point. In Mr. Murphy's example, as in our statute, the word "satisfy" does not suggest some hidden empirical judgment about how often a math class will satisfy a chemistry degree. Instead it serves to tell the college registrar what purpose he must pursue when handed the student's transcript: the registrar must, without discretion, apply those credits toward the satisfaction or discharge of the student's credit obligations. No doubt a college student needing three credits to graduate who took a three-credit math course would be bewildered to learn the registrar thought he had discretion to count only two of those credits toward her degree. So too here. It doesn't matter how many fee awards will be fully satisfied from a judgment without breaking the 25% cap, or whether any particular fee award could be. The statute's point is to instruct the judge about the purpose he must pursue-to discharge the fee award using judgment funds to the extent possible, subject to the 25% cap.

         Retreating now, Mr. Murphy contends that whatever the verb and the infinitival phrase mean, the subject of the sentence-"a portion of the judgment (not to exceed 25 percent)"-necessarily suggests wide judicial discretion. This language, he observes, anticipates a range of amounts (some "portion" up to 25%) that can be taken from his judgment. And the existence of the range, Mr. Murphy contends, necessarily means that the district court must enjoy discretion to pick any "portion" so long as it doesn't exceed the 25% cap.

         But that does not logically follow. Under either side's reading of the statute the portion of fees taken from the plaintiff's judgment will vary over a range-whether because of the district court's discretionary choice (as Mr. Murphy contends), or because of the variance in the size of fee awards themselves, which sometimes will be less than 25% of the judgment (as Officer Smith and Lieutenant Fulk suggest). If the police have two suspects in a robbery committed with a red getaway car, the fact that one suspect drives a red sedan proves nothing if the other does too. The fact that the statute contemplates a range of possible "portion[s]" to be paid out of the judgment, thus, just doesn't help identify which of the two proposed interpretations we should adopt for both bear that feature.

         Nor does the word "portion" necessarily denote unfettered discretion. If someone told you to follow a written recipe but double the portion of sugar, you would know precisely how much sugar to put in-twice whatever's on the page. And Congress has certainly used the word "portion" in just that way. Take 16 U.S.C. §673b, which defines the National Elk Refuge to include the "[e]ntire portion now in Jackson Hole National Monument except that portion in section 2 lying west of the east right-of-way line of United States Highway Numbered 187, " among other similar plots-descriptions sufficiently determinate that the statute itself can later give the total number of acres of covered land ("six thousand three hundred and seventy-six acres, more or less"). So the question is how has Congress used the word "portion" in this statute? And as we have explained, the text persuades us that, subject to the 25% cap, the size of the relevant "portion" here is fixed by reference to the size of the attorney's fee award, not left to a district court's unguided choice.

         Even if the interpretive race in this case seems close at this point, close races still have winners. Besides, stepping back to take in the larger statutory scheme surrounding the specific language before us reveals that this case isn't quite as close as it might first appear. In 1976, Congress enacted what is now 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b) to authorize discretionary fee shifting in civil rights suits. Civil Rights Attorney's Fees Awards Act, 90 Stat. 2641. For years that statute governed the award of attorney's fees in a large variety of civil rights actions, including prisoner civil rights lawsuits like this one. But in the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995, Congress reentered the field and adopted §1997e's new and specialized fee shifting rule for prisoner civil rights suits alone. See 110 Stat. 1321-71.

         Comparing the terms of the old and new statutes helps to shed a good deal of light on the parties' positions. Section 1988(b) confers discretion on district courts in unambiguous terms: "[T]he court, in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party ... a reasonable attorney's fee as part of the costs" against the defendant. (Emphasis added.) Meanwhile, §1997e(d) expressly qualifies the usual operation of § 1988(b) in prisoner cases. See §1997e(d)(1) (providing that "[i]n any action brought by a prisoner . . . in which attorney's fees are authorized under section 1988 . . . such fees shall not be awarded, except" under certain conditions). And as we've seen §1997e(d)(2) proceeds to use very different language to describe the district court's job in awarding fees. It does not say "may, " it does not say "reasonable, " and it certainly does not say anything about "discretion." If Congress had wished to confer the same discretion in §1997e(d) that it conferred in § 1988(b), we very much doubt it would have bothered to write a new law; omit all the words that afforded discretion in the old law; and then replace those old discretionary words with new mandatory ones. See Russello v. United States, 464 U.S. 16, 23 (1983) (refusing to conclude that "the differing language" in two statutory provisions "has the same meaning in each").

         The surrounding statutory structure of §1997e(d) reinforces this conclusion. Like paragraph (2), the other provisions of §1997e(d) also limit the district court's preexisting discretion under § 1988(b). These provisions limit the fees that would otherwise be available under §1988 to cover only certain kinds of lawyerly tasks, see §§1997e(d)(1)(A) and (B)(ii); they require proportionality between fee awards and the relief ordered, see §1997e(d)(1)(B)(i); and they restrict the hourly rate of the prisoner's lawyer, see §1997e(d)(3). All this suggests a statute that seeks to restrain, rather than replicate, the discretion found in § 1988(b).

         Notably, too, the discretion Mr. Murphy would have us introduce into §1997e doesn't even sit easily with our precedent under §1988. Our cases interpreting §1988 establish "[a] strong presumption that the lodestar figure-the product of reasonable hours times a reasonable rate-represents a 'reasonable' fee." Pennsylvania v. Delaware Valley Citizens' Council for Clean Air, 478 U.S. 546, 565 (1986). To be sure, before the lodestar became "the guiding light of our fee shifting jurisprudence, " Burlington v. Dague, 505 U.S. 557, 562 (1992), many lower courts used one of your classic 12-factor balancing tests. See Delaware Valley, 478 U.S., at 562, and n. 7. Ultimately, though, this Court rejected undue reliance on the 12-factor test because it "gave very little actual guidance to district courts[, ] . . . placed unlimited discretion in trial judges[, ] and produced disparate results." Id., at 563. Yet, despite this guidance, Mr. Murphy effectively seeks to (re)introduce into §1997e(d)(2) exactly the sort of unguided and freewheeling choice-and the disparate results that come with it-that this Court has sought to expunge from practice under §1988. And he seeks to achieve all this on the basis of considerably less helpful statutory language. To state the suggestion is to reveal its defect.

         Nor does Mr. Murphy's proposed cure solve his problem. To avoid reading §1997e(d)(2) as affording entirely rudderless discretion, Mr. Murphy contends that district courts should apportion fees in proportion to the defendant's culpability. When a defendant has acted egregiously, he says, the court should lower the plaintiff's responsibility for the fee award and increase the defendant's-even if that means applying only a "nominal" amount of the plaintiff's judgment toward the fee. But precisely none of this appears in §1997e(d)(2) or, for that matter, enjoys any analogue in §1988's lodestar analysis or even the old 12-factor approach. Whatever you might have to say about Mr. Murphy's culpability formula as a matter of policy, it has no roots in the law. Nor is it clear, for what it's worth, that the culpability approach would even help him. The district court never cited the defendants' culpability (or any other reason) to justify taking only 10% rather than 25% from Mr. Murphy's judgment. And it's tough to see what the choice of 10% might have had to do with the defendant's culpability in this case. The district court actually remitted the jury's punitive damages award- suggesting that, if anything, the defendants' culpability had been already amply addressed.

         At the end of the day, what may have begun as a close race turns out to have a clear winner. Now with a view of the full field of textual, contextual, and precedential evidence, we think the interpretation the court of appeals adopted prevails. In cases governed by §1997e(d), we hold that district courts must apply as much of the judgment as necessary, up to 25%, to satisfy an award of attorney's fees.[2]

         The ...


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