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Murphy v. Smith (Decision February 21, 2018)

The law requires Murphy to give 25% of his monetary award to his attorney.

Murphy suffered from abuse in prison that left his eye irreparably damaged. He sued and was awarded $307,743. This case was about how much of his compensation he must contribute to his attorney’s fees.

The Prison Litigation Reform Act

The Prison Litigation Reform Act was passed to limit frivolous civil rights suits from prisoners claiming abuse. So the rules it enacted make the lawsuits less appealing to the individuals who are considering bringing suit.

Attorney’s fees

One of the rules relates to the award of attorney’s fees. The judge decides how much is owed for the attorney’s work, and then a certain provision kicks in: The prisoner must pay a portion of his award “(not to exceed 25 percent)” to satisfy his attorney’s fees.

The potential interpretations

This case only cares about a situation in which the attorney’s fees are over 25%. Does that mean Murphy pays all 25% (right up to the limit), or can the trial judge decide that Murphy can pay less? After all, as Murphy argues, “not to exceed” is an upper limit, not a lower limit.

The decision

The Supreme Court decided the Prison Litigation Reform Act does not give judges discretion to award less than 25% in cases where at least 25% is necessary. The Court analyzed the text of the law to determine the meaning. For example, the Court highlighted certain language in the provision that specifies the trial judges are to perform an obligatory duty instead of a discretionary one (“the word ‘shall’ usually creates a mandate, not a liberty,”). Further, the Court said, the word “satisfy” implies a complete fulfillment of a duty, not a partial one.

Before signing off, the Court reiterated its interpretation by noting the history of the PLRA: the statute was changed to take discretion away from judges, and if it wanted to give discretion, it would have said so explicitly like it did in the past.

See our argument explainer for more information on the case.


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Murphy v. Smith (Decision February 21, 2018)

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About the Author

Mariam Morshedi

Mariam Morshedi

Mariam Morshedi is the Founder and Executive Director of Subscript Law. Before starting Subscript Law, she practiced civil rights law for AARP Foundation, where she litigated housing, consumer and disability rights issues.

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