Low-Cost Legal Assistance

Published December 29, 2011

A New York jury found in favor of a prisoner who claimed his religious rights were violated when prison officials touched his “sacred” dreadlocks and “slightly tore” them.

But the jury awarded the prisoner total damages of $1.00. And due to a federal law restricting attorney fees in such cases to 150 percent of damages, the lawyer got only $1.50 in fees.

The prisoner says he’s satisfied his Rastafarian religious rights were “vindicated,” but the lawyer is upset, claiming he spent about $75,000 worth of time on the case. The Second Circuit Federal Court of Appeals upheld the fee award last month.

The head of the Prisoner’s Rights Project of the Legal Aid Society of New York said the ruling will deter lawyers from taking on prisoners’ rights claims.

“This ruling will absolutely discourage lawyers from taking on such cases and clients as unpopular as prisoners,” said John Boston, director of the Prisoner’s Rights Project of the Legal Aid Society of New York.

But another lawyer who sometimes represents prisoners said the federal law limiting attorneys fees is working as intended. “The rationale is that a lot of these cases are dubious and that prisoners need to be discouraged from bringing these cases and lawyers need to be discouraged too,” he said.

Source: Associated Press, “NY lawyer gets paid $1.50 for civil rights victory, December 3, 2011