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Joas v. Reliance Standard Life Insurance Co.

April 22, 2008

THOMAS A. JOAS, M.D., PLAINTIFF,
v.
RELIANCE STANDARD LIFE INSURANCE COMPANY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hayes, Judge

ORDER GRANTING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR ATTORNEY'S FEES & COSTS

Pending before the Court is Plaintiff's motion for attorney fees and costs. (Doc. # 76). The Court finds this matter suitable for submission on the papers and without oral argument pursuant to Civil Local Rule 7.1(d)(1).

BACKGROUND

On or about April 4, 2003, Plaintiff Thomas A. Joas, M.D. filed the Complaint in this matter against Defendant Reliance Standard Life Insurance Company in the California State Superior Court in San Diego. (Doc. # 1). Plaintiff alleged that Defendant improperly calculated Plaintiff's disability benefits in violation of various state laws. (Doc. # 1). On May 19, 2003, Defendant Reliance Standard Life Insurance Company removed the case to this Court on the grounds that the dispute was governed by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), 29 U.S.C. §§ 1001, et seq., and presented a federal question. (Doc. # 1).

On March 25, 2004, the parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment. (Docs. # 16-17, 22-23). On April 29, 2004, the Court granted Defendant's motion for summary judgment and denied Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment. (Doc. # 34). On May 21, 2004, Plaintiff filed a notice of appeal. (Doc. # 36).

On January 3, 2007, the Court of Appeal for the Ninth Circuit vacated this Court's Order of April 29, 2004, and remanded the case back to this Court for reconsideration in light of Abatie v. Alta Health & Life Insurance Co., 458 F.3d 955 (9th Cir. 2006) (en banc), an intervening Circuit decision which altered the standard of review for a district court in ERISA cases. (Doc. # 69). On July 25, 2007, the parties again filed cross-motions for summary judgment. (Docs. # 57, 59). On December 11, 2007, the Court granted Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment and denied Defendant's motion for summary judgment. (Doc. # 71). On January 8, 2008, the Court entered judgment in favor of Plaintiff and against Defendant. (Doc. # 75).

On January 18, 2008, Plaintiff filed the pending motion for attorney's fees and costs. (Doc. # 76).

STANDARD OF REVIEW

"ERISA permits district courts to award 'reasonable' attorney's fees and costs to either party." Welch v. Metropolitan Life Ins. Co., 480 F.3d 942, 945 (9th Cir. 2007) (citing 29 U.S.C. § 1132(g)(1)). "ERISA . . . is remedial legislation which should be liberally construed in favor of protecting participants in employee benefit plans," and 29 U.S.C. § 1132(g) "should be read broadly to mean that a plan participant or beneficiary, if he prevails in his suit under § 1132 to enforce his rights under the plan, 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 citations omitted); see also Landro v. Glendenning Motorways, Inc., 625 F.2d 1344, 1356 (8th Cir. 1980). "As a general rule, ERISA employee plaintiffs should be entitled to a reasonable attorney's fee 'if they succeed on any significant issue in litigation which achieves some of the benefit the parties sought in bringing suit.'" Id. (citing Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983)).

DISCUSSION

I. Whether Plaintiff is Entitled to an Award of Attorney's Fees

Plaintiff contends that he is entitled to an award of attorney's fees because he was the prevailing party in the underlying ERISA suit. Specifically, Plaintiff contends that a prevailing ERISA plaintiff should be awarded attorney's fees and costs absent special circumstances, and notes that the Court need not weigh the five factors articulated in Hummell v. S.E. Rykoff, 634 F.2d 446, 453 (1980). Defendant contends that the Court should weigh the factors articulated in Hummell, and notes that the factors weigh against an award of attorney's fees in this case. (Doc. # 80 at 3-6).

An "ERISA employee [plaintiff] should be entitled to a reasonable attorney's fee 'if [he or she] succeed[s] on any significant issue in litigation which achieves some of the benefit the part[y] sought in bringing suit.'" Smith, 746 F.2d at 589. In addition, the Court of Appeal for the Ninth Circuit has "explicitly stated," that "where the fact that the plaintiff prevailed 'is evident from the order of the district court, it is unnecessary for the court to engage in a discussion of the factors enumerated in Hummell.'" Grosz-Salomon v. Paul Revere Life Ins. Co., 237 F.3d 1154, 1164 (9th Cir. 2001) (citing Nelson v. EG&G Energy Measurements Group, Inc., 37 F.3d 1384, 1392 (9th Cir. 1994)).

On December 11, 2007, this Court entered an Order granting Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment, and it is clear and undisputed that Plaintiff prevailed and that judgment was entered in Plaintiff's favor. (Docs. # 71, 75). Accordingly, and as Defendant has not established any special circumstances outside of the Hummell factors which would render an award of attorney's fees and ...


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