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DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA v. JERRY M.

September 3, 1998

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, ET AL., APPELLANTS,
V.
JERRY M., ET AL., APPELLEES.



APPEAL FROM THE SUPERIOR COURT, RICHARD A. LEVIE, J. [717 A2d Page 867]

Before Terry and Schwelb, Associate Judges, and Belson, Senior Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Schwelb, Associate Judge:

In the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 (PLRA), Pub.L. No. 104-134, 110 Stat. 1321 (1996), Congress amended several different titles of the United States Code in a comprehensive effort to curtail the ability of prisoners to challenge the conditions of their confinement. Section 802 of the PLRA, known as STOP, *fn1 severely limited the remedies available to plaintiffs in litigation over prison conditions. See Alexander S. v. Boyd, 113 F.3d 1373, 1380 (4th Cir. 1997), cert. denied, ___ U.S. ___, 118 S.Ct. 880, 139 L.Ed.2d 869 (1998). Section 803(d) of the PLRA amended the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA), 42 U.S.C. § 1997 et seq., and restricted the recovery of counsel fees brought pursuant to the Civil Rights Attorney's Fees Award Act, [717 A2d Page 868]

42 U.S.C. § 1988, *fn2 "by a prisoner who is confined to any jail, prison, or other correctional facility." 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(d).

This appeal presents the question whether the PLRAs' limitation of counsel fee awards in prison litigation applies to the claim of an attorney whose clients are confined at a secure institution for adjudicated juvenile delinquents. We answer this question in the affirmative. We also reject the plaintiffs' related constitutional claim.

I.

BACKGROUND

This suit has a long and complex history. In 1985, the plaintiffs, a certified class of juveniles confined in secure juvenile institutions in the District of Columbia, alleged that the District and its agents had subjected them to unconstitutional and otherwise unlawful conditions of confinement and had failed to provide them with adequate care, rehabilitation and treatment. See District of Columbia v. Jerry M., 571 A.2d 178, 180 (D.C. 1990) (Jerry M. I). The parties subsequently reached a settlement, which was memorialized in a consent decree entered on July 24, 1986. Id. at 179. Since that date, most of the Jerry M. litigation has focused on the District's alleged failure to comply with various provisions of the consent decree. *fn3

Donna L. Wulkan is one of the attorneys of record for the plaintiffs in Jerry M. *fn4 In District of Columbia v. Jerry M., 580 A.2d 1270 (D.C. 1990) (Jerry M. II), we held that services rendered by Ms. Wulkan were "fully compensable" by the District pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988, at least to the extent that her fees were reasonable. Id. at 1272.

In June 1996, Ms. Wulkan submitted a bill for services furnished on behalf of the plaintiff class from April 15, 1996 through June 7, 1996. The District objected to the amount claimed, arguing that because the PLRA had become effective on April 27, 1996, the portion of Ms. Wulkan's fee request which covered the period from that date until June 7, 1996 was subject to the restrictions set forth in Section 803(d). The plaintiffs and Ms. Wulkan opposed the District's motion, contending that the PLRA's amendments to the CRIPA are inapplicable.

In an oral decision delivered on August 27, 1996, the trial judge ruled that Section 803(d) does not apply to juvenile facilities because, in his view, the plaintiffs were not "confined to any jail, prison, or other correctional facility" within the meaning of the Act. On September 11, 1996, the judge ordered the District to pay Ms. Wulkan $2,966.40, the full amount requested by her, for services provided after the effective date of the PLRA. This appeal followed.

II.

LEGAL DISCUSSION

A. The standard of review.

Although the amount of an award of counsel fees is ordinarily committed to the sound discretion of the trial court, see Jerry M. II, supra, 580 A.2d at 1280, the issue before us is one of statutory construction. Accordingly, we review the trial judge's order de novo. See Alexander S., supra, 113 F.3d at 1381; Ashton Gen. Partnership, Inc. v. Federal Data Corp., 682 A.2d 629, 632 (D.C. 1996).

Since the trial judge's ruling, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit has squarely decided the principal question in this case in accordance with the position taken by the District. Alexander S., supra, 113 F.3d at 1380-85. The Supreme Court has denied certiorari. ___ U.S. ___, 118 S.Ct. at 880, 139 L.Ed.2d 869. We accord respectful consideration to the interpretation of the PLRA, which is a federal statute, [717 A2d Page 869]

by the only federal appellate court that, to our knowledge, has had occasion to construe the provision here at issue. *fn5

B. Statutory background.

Section 803 of the PLRA, as codified in the CRIPA, provides, in pertinent part, as follows:

(d) Attorney's Fees

(1) In any action brought by a prisoner who is confined to any jail, prison, or other correctional facility, in which attorney's fees are authorized under section 1988 of this title, such fees shall not be awarded, except to the extent that . . .

42 U.S.C. § 1997e (d)(1) (emphasis added). The statute then enumerates various restrictions on the availability of awards of counsel fees to successful plaintiffs, and it establishes a cap of 150 percent of the hourly rate prescribed by the Criminal Justice Act. 42 U.S.C. § 1997e (d)(1)-(4).

The word "prisoner" is defined in Section 803(h) of the PLRA as follows:

As used in this section, the term "prisoner" means any person incarcerated or detained in any facility who is accused of, convicted of, sentenced for, or adjudicated delinquent for, violations of criminal law or the terms and conditions of ...


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