U.S. Supreme Court Hands ERISA Plan Participants Major Victory in Allowing Recovery of Attorneys’ Fees

As predicted in my April blog post, the U.S. Supreme Court today handed ERISA plan participants a big victory when they decided the important ERISA disability case of Hardt v. Reliance Standard Life Insurance, __ U.S. __ (Decided May 24, 2010) holding that an ERISA plan participant may be able to collect attorneys’ fees from a plan or claim administrator without obtaining a judgment in the action. 

In that case, Bridget Hardt filed suit against the plan’s disability insurer, arguing that Reliance Standard Life Insurance Co. wrongly denied her claim for long-term disability benefits.  The district court found that Reliance’s original decision denying benefits disregarded pertinent medical evidence in violation of ERISA and found that the decision was otherwise unsupported by substantial evidence. Based on those findings, the district court remanded the matter to Reliance for reconsideration, ordering it to make a new benefits determination, after which it finally granted the benefits due. The district court then awarded Hardt $39,149 in attorney fees.

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, holding that 29 U.S.C. Section 1132(g)(1)of ERISA provides a district court discretion to award attorney fees only to a prevailing party, and Hardt was not a prevailing party because her only request for relief was the award of benefits, which the district court did not award.

The questions presented were: (1) Whether ERISA section 502(g)(1) provides a district court with discretion to award reasonable attorney’s fees only to a prevailing party; and (2) whether a party is entitled to attorney’s fees pursuant to section 502(g)(1) when she persuades a district court that a violation of ERISA has occurred, successfully secures a judicially ordered remand requiring a redetermination of entitlement to benefits, and subsequently receives the benefits sought on remand.

In a 9-0 decision authored by Justice Thomas, the United States Supreme Court reversed, holding that because Section 1132(g)(1) does not use the term “prevailing party,” district court judges have discretion to award attorneys’ fees to either party, even in a situation where there is no judgment in favor of the plan participant.  “We hold instead that a court ‘in its discretion’ may award fees and costs ‘to either party,’ ibid., as long as the fee claimant has achieved ‘some degree of success on the merits,’ Ruckelshaus v. Sierra Club, 463 U. S. 680, 694 (1983).”

The Court further explained its holding:

Ruckelshaus lays down the proper markers to guide a court in exercising the discretion that §1132(g)(1) grants. As in the statute at issue in Ruckelshaus, Congress failed to indicate clearly in §1132(g)(1) that it “meant to abandon historic fee-shifting principles and intuitive notions of fairness.” 463 U. S., at 686. Accordingly, a fees claimant must show “some degree of success on the merits” before a court may award attorney’s fees under §1132(g)(1), id., at 694. A claimant does not satisfy that requirement by achieving “trivial success on the merits” or a “purely procedural victor[y],” but does satisfy it if the court can fairly call the outcome of the litigation some success on the merits without conducting a “lengthy inquir[y] into the question whether a particular party’s success was ‘substantial’ or occurred on a ‘central issue.’” Id., at 688, n. 9.

This decision will encourage the proper adjudication of ERISA rights so that when plan participants achieve some measure of success in their actions against plan/claim administrators, they will be in a position to collect their attorney’s fees.

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