throbber

`(Slip Opinion)
`
`
`
` OCTOBER TERM, 2017
`
`
`Syllabus
`
`1
`
` NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is
`
`
`
` being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued.
`
`
`
` The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been
`
` prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader.
`
` See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U. S. 321, 337.
`
`
`SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
`
`
`
` Syllabus
`
`
`
` MURPHY v. SMITH ET AL.
`
`CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR
`
`THE SEVENTH CIRCUIT
` No. 16–1067. Argued December 6, 2017—Decided February 21, 2018
`
`
`
` Petitioner Charles Murphy was awarded a judgment in his federal civil
` rights suit against two of his prison guards, including an award of at-
`
` torney’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 ex-
`ceed 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 de-
`fendants responsible for the remainder. The Seventh Circuit re-
`versed, holding that §1997e(d)(2) required the district court to ex-
`
`haust 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 ap-
`
`plied” 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, espe-
`cially a financial obligation, usually means to discharge the obliga-
`tion 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 in-
`
` The previously governing provision, 42 U. S. C.
`terpretation.
`
`
`
`

`

`2
`
`
`
`
` MURPHY v. SMITH
`
`
`Syllabus
`§1988(b), granted district courts discretion to award fees in unam-
`
` biguous 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 dis-
`cretionary words with new mandatory ones. This conclusion is rein-
`forced 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 dis-
`trict courts apportion fees in proportion to the defendant’s culpabil-
`ity—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.
`
`
`
`

`

`
`
`
`
` Cite as: 583 U. S. ____ (2018)
`
`Opinion of the Court
`
`1
`
`
` NOTICE: This opinion is subject to formal revision before publication in the
`
`
`
` preliminary print of the United States Reports. Readers are requested to
`
` notify the Reporter of Decisions, Supreme Court of the United States, Wash-
`
` ington, D. C. 20543, of any typographical or other formal errors, in order
`
`
` that corrections may be made before the preliminary print goes to press.
`
`
`
`
`SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
`
`_________________
`
` No. 16–1067
`_________________
`CHARLES MURPHY, PETITIONER v.
`
` ROBERT SMITH, ET AL.
`
`
`ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF
`
`
`APPEALS FOR THE SEVENTH CIRCUIT
`
`
`[February 21, 2018]
`
` JUSTICE GORSUCH delivered the opinion of the Court.
`
`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 pris-
`oner’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 responsi-
`bility 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 judg-
`ment until it reaches the 25% cap and only then turn to
`the defendant?
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`

`

`
`
`2
`
`
`
`
` MURPHY v. SMITH
`
`Opinion of the Court
`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 re-
`quest. 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 re-
`versed, 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 nut-
`
`shell: did the district court have latitude to apply 10% (or
`some other discretionary amount) of the plaintiff ’s judg-
`ment 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
`
`
`
`
`

`

`3
`
`
`
` Cite as: 583 U. S. ____ (2018)
`
`Opinion of the Court
` 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 attor-
`ney’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
`——————
`1See Black’s Law Dictionary 1543 (10th ed. 2014) (defining “satisfac-
`
`tion” as “[t]he fulfillment of an obligation; esp., the payment in full of a
`
`
`debt”); 14 Oxford English Dictionary 504 (2d ed. 1989) (defining “sat-
`
`isfy” as “[t]o pay off or discharge fully; to liquidate (a debt); to fulfil
`completely (an obligation), comply with (a demand)”); Webster’s New
`
`International Dictionary 2220 (2d ed. 1950) (defining “satisfy” as “1. In
`
`general, to fill up to the measure of a want of (a person or a thing);
`hence, to gratify fully the desire of . . . . 2. a To pay to the extent of
`
`
`claims or deserts; to give what is due to; as, to satisfy a creditor. b To
`
`answer or discharge, as a claim, debt, legal demand, or the like; . . . to
`pay off”).
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`

`

`4
`
`
`
`
` MURPHY v. SMITH
`
`Opinion of the Court
`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. Mur-
`
`phy’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 regis-
`
`trar must, without discretion, apply those credits toward
`the satisfaction or discharge of the student’s credit obliga-
`tions. 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 discre-
`tion 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 pur-
`pose 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.
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`

`

`5
`
`
`
` Cite as: 583 U. S. ____ (2018)
`
`Opinion of the Court
` 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 sus-
`pect 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 inter-
`pretations we should adopt for both bear that feature.
`Nor does the word “portion” necessarily denote unfet-
`
`tered 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, step-
`ping back to take in the larger statutory scheme surround-
`
`
`
`
`
`

`

`6
`
`
`
`
` MURPHY v. SMITH
`
`Opinion of the Court
`ing the specific language before us reveals that this case
`isn’t quite as close as it might first appear. In 1976, Con-
`gress enacted what is now 42 U. S. C. §1988(b) to author-
`ize 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 Liti-
`gation 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. Sec-
`tion 1988(b) confers discretion on district courts in unam-
`biguous 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 opera-
`tion 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”).
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`

`

`7
`
`
`
`
`
` Cite as: 583 U. S. ____ (2018)
`
`Opinion of the Court
`The surrounding statutory structure of §1997e(d) rein-
`
`forces this conclusion. Like paragraph (2), the other pro-
`visions of §1997e(d) also limit the district court’s pre-
`
`existing discretion under §1988(b). These provisions limit
`the fees that would otherwise be available under §1988 to
`
`tasks, see
`cover only certain kinds of
`lawyerly
`§§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 fig-
`ure—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,” Bur-
`lington 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. Ulti-
`
`mately, 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.
`
`
`
`
`
`
`

`

`8
`
`
`
`
`MURPHY v. SMITH
`
`Opinion of the Court
`To avoid reading §1997e(d)(2) as affording entirely rudder-
`
`less 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 evi-
`
`dence, 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
`——————
`2Even for those of us who might be inclined to entertain it, Mr. Mur-
`phy’s legislative history argument fails to overcome the textual, contex-
`
`tual, and precedential evidence before us. He points to an early draft of
`
`§1997e(d)(2) that read: “Whenever a monetary judgment is awarded in
`an action described in paragraph (1), a portion of the judgment (not to
`exceed 25 percent) shall be applied to satisfy the amount of attorney’s
`
`
`
`
`
`

`

`
`
`
`
`
`Cite as: 583 U. S. ____ (2018)
`
`
`Opinion of the Court
`
`
`9
`
`The judgment is
`
`
`
`Affirmed.
`
`——————
`fees awarded against the defendant. If the award of attorney’s fees is
`
`greater than 25 percent of the judgment, the excess shall be paid by the
`
`defendant.” Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995, S. 1279, 104th Cong.,
`
`1st Sess., §3(d), p. 16 (1995) (emphasis added). Mr. Murphy admits
`
`that the italicized language in the second sentence suggests that it is
`
`the size of the attorney’s fees award, not some invisible discretion, that
`determines what the defendant must pay. Yet, he notes, the second
`
`
`sentence was revised in the legislative process and now reads: “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)
`
`(emphasis added).
`
`But what exactly does this amendment process prove, even taken on
`
`its own terms? It shows that, at some stage of the bill’s consideration,
`its proponents likely shared our understanding that the (still un-
`changed) first sentence doesn’t give district courts the discretion to
`
`allocate fees to the defendant as they please. For if such discretion
`were intended, it would have been incoherent for the drafters to say, in
`
`the second sentence, that defendants must pay only “[i]f the award of
`
`attorney’s fees is greater than 25 percent of the judgment,” instead of
`whenever the district court chooses. Beyond that, the amendment
`process tells us nothing. Did legislators voting on the measure agree
`
`with our interpretation of the first sentence and drop the confirmatory
`language from the second as flabby duplication? Or did they drop it
`
`
`because, as Mr. Murphy supposes, they thought it erroneous or even
`just bad policy? Did anyone voting on the measure even think about
`
`this question? There is no way to know, and we will not try to guess.
`
`
`
`
`

`

`
`
`
`
` Cite as: 583 U. S. ____ (2018)
`
` SOTOMAYOR, J., dissenting
`
`
`SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
`
`1
`
`
`
`_________________
`
` No. 16–1067
`_________________
`CHARLES MURPHY, PETITIONER v.
`
` ROBERT SMITH, ET AL.
`
`
`ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF
`
`
`APPEALS FOR THE SEVENTH CIRCUIT
`
`
`[February 21, 2018]
`
` JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR, with whom JUSTICE GINSBURG,
`
`
`
`JUSTICE BREYER, and JUSTICE KAGAN join, dissenting.
`
`The Court concludes that the attorney’s fee apportion-
`
`ment provision of the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995
`
`(PLRA), 42 U. S. C. §1997e(d)(2), requires that a district
`court endeavor to fulfill the entirety of an attorney’s fee
`
`award from the monetary judgment awarded to a prevail-
`ing prisoner-plaintiff, and only if 25 percent of the judg-
`ment is inadequate to cover the fee award can the court
`require contribution from the defendant. Ante, at 8. I
`cannot agree. The text of §1997e(d)(2)—“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”—and its statutory context make clear that the
`provision permits district courts to exercise discretion in
`
`
`choosing the portion of a prisoner-plaintiff ’s monetary
`judgment that must be applied toward an attorney’s fee
`award, so long as that portion is not greater than 25 per-
`cent. I therefore respectfully dissent.
`I
`In approaching this case, it helps to understand the
`
`
`background of the fee award at issue. On July 25, 2011,
`petitioner Charles Murphy, a prisoner at the Vandalia
`Correctional Center in Illinois, reported that his assigned
`
`
`
`

`

`2
`
`
`
`
` MURPHY v. SMITH
`
` SOTOMAYOR, J., dissenting
`
`
`seat at mealtime had food and water on it, which resulted
`in Murphy being handcuffed and escorted to a segregation
`building. Once there, Murphy taunted respondent Correc-
`tional Officer Robert Smith, who responded by hitting
`
`Murphy in the eye and applying a choke hold, causing
`Murphy to lose consciousness. When Murphy woke up,
`
`
`Officer Smith and respondent Lieutenant Gregory Fulk
`
`were pushing him into a cell. His hands were still cuffed
`behind his back and he fell face-first into the cell and hit
`his head on a metal toilet. Officer Smith and Lieutenant
`Fulk then stripped Murphy of his clothes, removed his
`handcuffs, and left him in the cell without checking his
`
`condition. Thirty or forty minutes passed until a nurse
`
`
`arrived to attend to Murphy, who was sent to a hospital.
`
`Part of his eye socket had been crushed and required
`surgery. Despite the procedure, Murphy did not fully
`recover; almost five years later, his vision remained dou-
`bled and blurred.
`
`Murphy sued respondents under 42 U. S. C. §1983 and
`
`state-law causes of action. After trial, a jury found Officer
`
`Smith liable for state-law battery and unconstitutional use
`of force under the Eighth Amendment, and found Lieuten-
`ant Fulk liable for deliberate indifference to a serious
`
`medical need in violation of the Eighth Amendment. The
`
`jury awarded Murphy $409,750.00 in compensatory and
`punitive damages, which the District Court reduced to
`
`$307,733.82. The District Court also awarded Murphy’s
`
`attorney $108,446.54 in fees for the several hundred hours
`he spent on the case and, pursuant to §1997e(d)(2), or-
`dered Murphy to contribute 10 percent of his money judg-
`ment toward the attorney’s fee award and respondents to
`pay the rest.
`Respondents appealed, arguing that §1997e(d)(2) re-
`
`quired Murphy to contribute 25 percent of his judgment
`toward payment of the attorney’s fee award. The Court of
`Appeals for the Seventh Circuit agreed and reversed. In
`
`
`
`
`
`
`

`

`
`
`3
`
`
`
` Cite as: 583 U. S. ____ (2018)
`
` SOTOMAYOR, J., dissenting
`
`
`so doing, it acknowledged that its interpretation of
`
`§1997e(d)(2) was at odds with that of all the other Courts
`of Appeals to have considered the question. See 844 F. 3d
`
`
`653, 660 (2016) (citing Boesing v. Spiess, 540 F. 3d 886,
`
`892 (CA8 2008); Parker v. Conway, 581 F. 3d 198, 205
`(CA3 2009)).
`
`
`
`
`II
`
`A
`
`The relevant provision in the PLRA provides:
`“Whenever a monetary judgment is awarded in [a
`civil-rights action brought by a prisoner], a portion of
`the judgment (not to exceed 25 percent) shall be ap-
`plied 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).
`The crux of the majority’s reasoning is its definition of
`
`the infinitive “to satisfy.” The majority contends that
`“when you purposefully seek or aim ‘to satisfy’ an obliga-
`tion, especially a financial obligation, that usually means
`you intend to discharge the obligation in full.” Ante, at 3.
`
`To meet its duty to act with the purpose of fully discharg-
`ing the fee award, the majority reasons, “a district court
`
`must apply as much of the judgment as necessary to sat-
`isfy the fee award, without of course exceeding the 25%
`
`cap.” Ibid.
`But the phrase “to satisfy” as it is used in §1997e(d)(2)
`
`does not bear the weight the majority places on it. Its
`neighboring text and the realities of prisoner-civil-rights
`
`litigation rebut the conclusion that “to satisfy” compels
`
`a district court always to maximize the amount of the
`prisoner-plaintiff ’s judgment to be contributed to the fee
`
`award, and instead indicate that the only work “to satisfy”
`
`
`
`
`

`

`4
`
`
`
`
` MURPHY v. SMITH
`
` SOTOMAYOR, J., dissenting
`
`
` does in the statute is to direct a district court to contribute
`
`some amount of the judgment toward payment of the fee
`award.
`
`Beginning with the neighboring text, it may well be
`
`
`that, standing alone, “to satisfy” is often used to mean “to
`completely fulfill an obligation.” But the statutory provi-
`sion here does not simply say “to satisfy”; it says “applied
`to satisfy.” As a matter of everyday usage, the phrase
`
`“applied to satisfy” often means “applied toward the satis-
`faction of,” rather than “applied in complete fulfillment
`of.” Thus, whereas an action undertaken “to satisfy” an
`
`obligation might, as the majority suggests, naturally be
`understood as an effort to discharge the obligation in full,
`ante, at 3, a contribution that is “applied to satisfy” an
`
`obligation need not be intended to discharge the obligation
`in full.
`
`Take a few examples: A consumer makes a payment on
`
`her credit card, which her agreement with the card com-
`
`pany provides shall be “applied to satisfy” her debt. A
`student enrolls in a particular type of math class, the
`credits from which her university registrar earlier an-
`nounced shall be “applied to satisfy” the requirements of a
`
`physics degree. And a law firm associate contributes
`
`hours to a pro bono matter that her firm has provided may
`be “applied to satisfy” the firm’s overall billable-hours
`requirement. In each case, pursuant to the relevant
`agreement, the payment, credits, and hours are applied
`toward the satisfaction of a larger obligation, but the
`inference is not that the consumer, student, or associate
`
`had to contribute or even necessarily did contribute the
`
`maximum possible credit card payment, classroom credits,
`or hours toward the fulfillment of those obligations. The
`
`consumer may have chosen to make the minimum credit
`
`card payment because she preferred to allocate her other
`funds elsewhere; the student may have chosen the four-
`credit version of the math course over the six-credit one
`
`
`
`
`
`

`

`5
`
`
`
` Cite as: 583 U. S. ____ (2018)
`
` SOTOMAYOR, J., dissenting
`
`
`because the former had a better instructor; and the asso-
`ciate may have been judicious about the hours she dedi-
`
`cated to the pro bono matter because she knew her firm
`
`
`more highly valued paid over pro bono work. So, too, here.
`Section 1997e(d)(2), like the credit card agreement, uni-
`versity registrar announcement, and law firm policy, sets
`
`out the relevant rule—“a portion of the judgment (not to
`
`exceed 25 percent) shall be applied to satisfy” the fee
`
`award—and the district court, like the consumer, student,
`
`and law firm associate, decides how much of the judgment
`
`to apply.
`
`
`As a practical matter, moreover, a district court will
`
`almost never be able to discharge fully a fee award from
`25 percent of a prisoner-plaintiff ’s judgment. In the vast
`majority of prisoner-civil-rights cases, the attorney’s fee
`award exceeds the monetary judgment awarded to the
`prevailing prisoner-plaintiff. In fiscal year 2012, for in-
`stance, the median damages award in a prisoner-civil-
`
`rights action litigated to victory (i.e., not settled or decided
`
`against the prisoner) was a mere $4,185. See Schlanger,
`Trends in Prisoner Litigation, as the PLRA Enters Adult-
`
`hood, 5 U. C. Irvine L. Rev. 153, 168 (2015) (Table 7)
`
`(Trends in Prisoner Litigation). Therefore, in 2012, the
`maximum amount (25 percent) of the median judgment
`
`that could be applied toward an attorney’s fee award was
`
`$1,046.25. The PLRA caps the hourly rate that may be
`
`awarded to a prisoner-plaintiff ’s attorney at 150 percent
`of the rate for court-appointed counsel under 18 U. S. C.
`§3006A, which in 2012 was $125. 42 U. S. C. §1997e(d)(3);
`App. to Pet. for Cert. 21a. Thus, a prisoner’s attorney was
`
`entitled to up to $187.50 per hour worked. Even if a dis-
`trict court were to apply an hourly rate of just $100, well
`below the cap, unless the attorney put in fewer than 10.5
`hours in the ordinary case—a virtually unimaginable
`scenario—25 percent of the judgment will not come close
`
`
`
`
`
`

`

`6
`
`
`
`
`MURPHY v. SMITH
`
` SOTOMAY

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