This Prisoner Made Supreme Court History and All He Got Was $2.40

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By William Peacock, Esq. on November 07, 2013 4:34 PM

Jamey Wilkins is a long-term guest of the State of North Carolina. Back in 2007, he got into an argument with a guard, who allegedly went into his cell, and proceeded to end the argument -- with his fists, feet, and knees. Wilkins's dramatic injuries included a bruised heel, back and neck pain, headaches, and of course, "other health complications."

If you're thinking that he's full of crap, well, you aren't alone. His case was originally dismissed because of the de minimis injuries. After the Fourth Circuit affirmed, the Supreme Court stepped in and reversed, holding that unreasonable or excessive force rather than the injury was what mattered. On remand, and after a jury trial, Wilkins won: $0.99.

Even with the court's gracious rounding to $1.00, and with a fee shifting provision that upped the total to $2.40, it wasn't even enough to the extensive legal tab: $92,306.25.

SCOTUS: The Means, Not The Ends

In contrast to the two lower courts' reliance on Wilkins' bruised and sore body parts, the Supreme Court, in a brief per curiam decision, reminded everyone that it's called excessive force, not injury:

"Injury and force, however, are only imperfectly correlated, and it is the latter that ultimately counts. An inmate who is gratuitously beaten by guards does not lose his ability to pursue an excessive force claim merely because he has the good fortune to escape without serious injury."

And in a foreboding note, the Court stated, "Moreover, even if Wilkins succeeds, the relatively modest nature of his alleged injuries will no doubt limit the damages he may recover."

Limited Damages, Attorney's Fee Cap

Of course, on remand, the Supreme Court's words proved prescient, as he ended up with a $1 verdict. Now, Supreme Court battles are expensive, with Wilkins's case running a total tab of $92,306.25, which he asked to be shifted to the defendant's tab under the fee-shifting provision of 42 U.S.C. § 1988.

Ah, but wait: he's in prison, and prisoners' claims are governed by the Prison Litigation Reform Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1987e. Most importantly, the statute limits attorney fees to 150 percent of the damages awarded, and part of the plaintiffs damages have to go to his own lawyers. After careful calculations, the magistrate came out with the defendants' total tab: $2.40.

But, But, Arbitrary! And Capricious! And Equal Protection! SCRUTINY!

Wilkins challenges the applicability of the PLRA's fees cap, first by claiming that prisoners should be entitled to a heightened standard of scrutiny, then by claiming that the law fails the rational basis test.

The Supreme Court has limited heightened scrutiny to where a "quasi-suspect" class "possesses immutable characteristics, faces historic or ongoing discrimination, or is subject to arbitrary burdens on some basis beyond its ability to control."

But because incarceration is usually temporary, and because they had plenty of control when they committed the crime that put them in prison, inmates aren't subject to heightened scrutiny.

Or as the Fourth Circuit previously noted, "Moreover, it would be ironic for the law to confer special solicitude upon a class whose members had violated it."

As for the rational basis test, do you really think the court is going to disagree with Congress's efforts to clear court dockets? The PLRA was passed, in part, to curb the "ever-growing number of prison-condition lawsuits that were threatening to overwhelm the capacity of the federal judiciary."

An additional justification for treating prisoners different from everyday folk is that prisoners not only have plenty of time on their hands, but often get "free paper, postage, and legal assistance."

In short: we all know prisoners file frivolous docket-clogging crap, such as lawsuits for bruised heels. The PLRA was, and does, address the issue with rationally-based means.

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