You already know that courts typically award attorney fees in ERISA cases when the Plaintiff/claimant achieves “some success on the merits.”

But does a mere remand constitute “some success on the merits”?  Probably yes.

And how many Plaintiff’s attorney billed hours are reasonable for an ERISA case? Maybe 80-85 hours if there was a summary judgment motion.

Here’s the case of Standish v. Federal Express Corp. LTD Plan and Aetna Life Ins. Co., 2017 WL874689 (W.D.N.Y. March 6, 2017) that highlights the point.

FACTS: Standish, a former FedEx employee, sought and was denied ERISA-governed long term disability benefits. Standish filed suit and the District Court reversed the denial of benefits and remanded the case back to Aetna, the claims administrator, for reconsideration.

Standish then sought attorney fees, claiming the Court’s remand order was “some success on the merits.” Plaintiff’s counsel sought attorney fees based on 189.6 total hours: (141.4 partner hours at $350 per hour; 6.5 associate hours at $200 per hour; 41.7 paralegal hours at $115 per hour). For the summary judgment motion alone, Plaintiff’s attorney billed a total of 163.2 combined hours: (116.2 partner hours, 6.2 associate hours, 40.5 paralegal hours).

DISTRICT COURT HELD:

  1. By issuing an order for remand, the Court “finds that Plaintiff here achieved some degree of success by obtaining a remand order, which ‘inherent[ly]’ entails ‘two positive outcomes…(1) a finding that the administrative assessment of the claim was in some way deficient, and (2) the plaintiff’s renewed opportunity to obtain benefits or compensation.’” Op. at 4.
  2. As to the amount of fees to award, “[i]f a court finds that claimed hours are ‘excessive, redundant, or otherwise unnecessary,’ it should exclude those hours in calculating the fee award.” Op. at 5.
  3. The Court reduced the hourly rates and approved the following rates: lead attorney — $300; associate attorney $175; paralegal $90 per hour.
  4. What other District Courts have deemed a “reasonable” number of hours for summary judgment motions:

Laser Lite Elec. Inc. v. United Welf. Fund Welfare & Sec. Divisions, 2015 WL 459412 (E.D.N.Y. February 3, 2015)(“80.60 hours…is reasonable for a case that proceeded to summary judgment”);

Trustees of Local 531 Pension Fund v. Flexwrap Corp., 818 F.Supp.2d 585, 591 (E.D.N.Y. 2011)(“82 hours of work to litigate an ERISA case through summary judgment”);

      5.  The Court reduced the number of hours worked on this ERISA case.

  • For the summary judgment motion and related pleadings alone, Plaintiff’s attorney billed a total of 163.2 combined hours: (116.2 partner hours, 6.2 associate hours, 40.5 paralegal hours).
  • “The Court finds that this is excessive in light of what other district courts have found reasonable for litigating a case through summary judgment.” Op. at 6.
  • “’[T]asks like serving, filing, and docketing papers…are ‘normally subsumed into an attorney’s overhead expenses’ and ‘not generally considered recoverable.’”. Op. at 7.
  • The Court allowed only 85 hours for the lead attorney’s time spent on the summary judgment, and excluded time spent by the associate and paralegal as duplicative.” Op. at 7.

NCAA MEN’S BASKETBALL—GO GONZAGA!

Mike