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Oregon jail must pay $802,000 in PLN's attorney fees, costs

Oregonian, Jan. 1, 2014.
Oregon jail must pay $802,000 in PLN's attorney fees, costs - Oregonian 2014

Columbia County must pay $802,000 in legal costs over unconstitutional inmate-mail policy, judge says

Helen Jung |
on March 25, 2014 at 1:25 PM, updated March 25, 2014 at 1:26 PM

March 26: This posting has been updated with a comment from an attorney representing Columbia County and additional details.

A federal judge has ordered Columbia County to pay more than $800,000 in attorneys’ fees and costs to Prison Legal News, after the publication prevailed in its lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the county jail’s inmate mail policies.

U.S. District Judge Michael Simon largely turned aside the county’s arguments to deny or slash the requested fees and costs to Prison Legal News, a monthly magazine published by the Human Rights Defense Center, which advocates for prisoners’ rights. He said their attorneys’ fees were reasonable and in line with the market rate, although the award is 10 percent lower than what the plaintiffs sought.

The order, issued Monday, comes almost a year after Simon sided with Prison Legal News in finding that the Columbia County jail’s policy of allowing only postcards to be delivered to inmates violated the 1st Amendment. He permanently blocked the jail from implementing the postcard-only policy, which he said, lacked a “common-sense connection” with its supposed goal of enhancing security. The jail already had been opening and inspecting mail and officials conceded there was not a known problem of people sending contraband through letters.

Instead, the policy blocked inmates from receiving items such as children's report cards, medical records, bills and news articles, Simon noted in his findings of fact.

Simon also declared the jail’s practice of not delivering magazines, including the monthly Prison Legal News, similarly violated the 1st Amendment. He also found that the jail’s failure to notify inmates that their mail has been rejected nor provide a way to appeal such rejections, violated their 14th Amendment right to due process.

After Simon’s decision, the county agreed to pay $15,000 to Prison Legal News for damages it sustained in not being able to deliver its publication. Prison Legal News then also sought $848,670.50 for attorneys’ fees.

Simon opted to award 90 percent of that sum -- $763,803.45 -- in attorney fees to the plaintiff’s legal team of five lawyers and four paralegals. The attorneys’ rates ranged from $210 for an attorney with two years of experience to $400 an hour for two lawyers with decades of experience. The paralegals’ rates ranged from $90 an hour to $175 an hour for an investigator/senior paralegal.

He shaved off 10 percent over concerns regarding the number of hours spent on a few tasks. He also ordered the county to cover all $38,373.01 in litigation costs.

The postcard-only policy that Simon declared unconstitutional has been adopted by many jails across the country. Prison Legal News has sued jails in other states over the policy, reportedly adopted first by Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Arizona.

Columbia County Sheriff Jeff Dickerson declined to comment. But Steve Kraemer, an attorney representing the county, said in an email "we were surprised and disappointed in the amount of attorney fees awarded, especially considering the Sheriff only enacted the postcard policy after receiving reliable and accurate information that similar policies had been held constitutional in other states," he said. He added that the county had admitted many of the constitutional violations alleged by the plaintiff, "made immediate changes to its procedures," and had offered Prison Legal News more than what they ultimately paid to compensate the publication for its damages. Prison Legal News rejected the offer.

But the defendants' offer for $21,000 did not include an agreement to a judgment declaring the mail policies unconstitutional. Nor were the defendants willing to accept a permanent injunction blocking Dickerson -- or anyone else elected to the sheriff position -- from reinstating the postcard-only policy, the publication argued in its filings.

The county's insurance carrier has not yet decided whether to appeal the attorney fee award, Kraemer said.
Getting paid for your work is certainly welcome, said Jesse Wing, one of the attorneys who represented Prison Legal News. But the significance of the case comes from Simon’s declaration of the unconstitutionality of the postcard-only practice.

“There’s literally thousands and thousands of people who benefit from a ruling like this,” he said. “From our perspective, it was a really poor choice for Columbia County to take this stand.”