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If New York attorney Harrison Williams was representing a typical client, his recent win should have netted him thousands of dollars in attorney's fees. Some even estimate that he should have gotten around $75,000 for the successful civil rights case.
Williams will only be seeing a minuscule fraction of that amount. An appeals court has ruled that he will be paid $1.50.
The reason? Williams was handling a prisoner's case. Under the Prison Litigation Reform Act, passed in 1997, attorney fees in these types of lawsuits are limited to 150% of a jury's award.
So even though Williams successfully litigated the case, he is only entitled to $1.50 in attorney's fees given that the jury awarded his client $1.
Williams' client, a man serving a life sentence in prison for robbery and possession of stolen property, had alleged the prison violated his rights by conducting a search of his "sacred" dreadlocks. Williams' client believed that when the guards touched his hair, they were violating his Rastafarian beliefs, reports The Wall Street Journal.
Williams says that the small fee award has become a source of humor in his office. Yet he is also concerned that the fee structure might discourage attorneys from taking on civil rights cases.
Solo practitioners simply might not have enough resources to take on cases if they cannot recoup their expenses. Civil rights cases may be important to society as a whole, but not all lawyers can afford to lose money.
Cases like Harrison Williams' may illustrate the need for reform. Though the Prison Litigation Reform Act may limit the number of frivolous lawsuits filed by incarcerated individuals, as The Wall Street Journal points out it can certainly also act to limit the number of meritorious lawsuits pursued by attorneys.