In a ruling by the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, Attorney Harrison Williams was awarded $1.50 for his work in representing prisoner Eon Shepherd. In contrast, Williams had submitted to the court a request amounting to almost $100,000 in attorney’s fees.
Eon Shepherd had retained Williams when he felt his civil rights were violated during his imprisonment in 2001 in the Elmira Correctional Facility. Shepherd claimed that in contravention with his Rastafarian beliefs, two guards touched his “sacred” dreadlocks and “slightly tore” them.
The appeals court justified its nominal award as being consistent with the statutory language of the Prison Litigation Reform Act, which “limits attorney fees to 150 percent of a jury award.” While the appeals court’s decision is not unusual, these nominal awards are often given by juries when “vindication of the plaintiff’s assertion of a right seem[s] more important than a cash award.” On the other hand, according to John Boston, director of the Prisoner’s Rights Project of the Legal Aid Society of New York, the appeals court’s decision serves as a disincentive for lawyers to take on similar cases and similar clients.
Williams has not yet received his $1.50 award, but he said he is “not looking for it.” In jest, Williams acknowledged that the award would cover the cost of the parking meter.