FAIRFIELD — A former inmate at California State Prison Solano in Vacaville did not like being told repeatedly in 2003 that prison staff was not going to promptly fix his dentures.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled Wednesday that lifer Earnest C. Woods Jr. is not only entitled to $1,500 for his troubled teeth, but that his lawyer deserves more than $17,000.
Woods, who has been locked up since 1987, sued the prison and its staff in 2004 in federal court, claiming his constitutional rights were being violated and he was being subjected to cruel and unusual punishment because it took more than a year to get his dentures fixed. The lawsuit was one of more than 20 lawsuits Woods has filed against prison staff in the past decade.
After five years of delays and legal maneuvering, the lawsuit went to trial in 2009. After a two-day jury trial in a Sacramento courtroom with Woods acting as his own attorney, a jury awarded him $500 for his pain and suffering and then tacked on $1,000 in punitive damages against prison staff.
Woods, who had asked for much more than $1,500, unsuccessfully challenged the damage award. Also unhappy were lawyers for prison staff who filed an appeal to the verdict.
Woods got an attorney for the appeal, which the prison lost. Woods asked for the state to pay for his appellate lawyer. Prison lawyers balked at paying the more than $17,000 in legal fees. They insisted federal laws passed in 1997 precluded Woods’ lawyer from getting a dime more than 150 percent of the damage award – or $2,250.
The appeal took nearly four years, ending with Wednesday’s ruling.
A split ruling by a three-judge panel stated that the federal laws limiting lawyer fees would give prison lawyers an incentive to always appeal lawsuits won by inmates and that that could not have been the intent of the law. The ruling also pointed out that in spite of the large number of inmate lawsuits, more than 55,000 in 2000, only 10 percent made it to trial and only a handful of those end up with judgments favoring the inmate – only 0.1 percent.
One judge, in a dissenting opinion, said the ruling subverts the plain language of the law.
Reach Jess Sullivan at 427-6919 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jsullivandr.