In any action brought by a plan participant, beneficiary, or fiduciary under ERISA, “the court in its discretion may allow a reasonable attorney’s fee and costs of action to either party.” 29 U.S.C. § 1132(g) (1). In interpreting this statute, the Ninth Circuit has held that a prevailing plan participant, such as Dr. Connor, should “ordinarily recover an attorney’s fee unless special circumstances would render such an award unjust.” Smith v. CMTA-IAM Pension Trust, 746 F.2d 587, 589 (9th Cir. 1984) (internal quotations omitted).
Connor, M.D. v. UNUM Life Insurance Company of America, et al. Case No. 4:19-cv-06552-YGR (7/26/2021)
This opinion offers a tidy overview of the elements of a successful motion for attorneys’ fees and costs. The opinion is attached below.
Three legal standards apply to this motion.
# 1. [T]he court must decide whether the moving party has “achieved some degree of success on the merits.” Simonia v. Glendale Nissan/Infiniti Disability Plan, 608 F.3d 1118, 1119 (9th Cir. 2010).
# 2 [ith respect to determining whether to exercise its discretion to award fees, a court is instructed to consider the following five factors, known as the Hummell factors: (i) the degree of the opposing party’s culpability or bad faith; (ii) the ability of the opposing party to satisfy an award of fees; (iii) whether an award of fees against the opposing party would deter others from acting under similar circumstances; (iv) whether the party requesting fees sought to benefit all participants and beneficiaries of an ERISA plan or to resolve a significant legal question regarding ERISA; and (v) the relative merits of the party’s positions. Hummell v. S.E. Rykoff & Co., 634 F.2d 446, 452 (9th Cir. 1980).
# 3 [T]he Court must assess the reasonableness of the requested fees. Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 437 (1983).