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Nguyen v. Hartford Life Insurance Co.

November 2, 2009

DAVE NGUYEN, PLAINTIFF(S),
v.
HARTFORD LIFE INSURANCE COMPANY, DEFENDANT(S).



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Andrew J. Guilford United States District Judge

ORDER GRANTING MOTION FOR ATTORNEY FEES

This case involves a claim under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 ("ERISA"). The parties have settled the lawsuit, and Plaintiff Dave Nguyen ("Plaintiff") filed a motion requesting reasonable attorney fees ("Motion"). The Court GRANTS the Motion and awards attorney fees of $29,556.

BACKGROUND

Plaintiff sought payment of insurance proceeds from Defendant Hartford Life Insurance Company ("Defendant"), but Defendant refused to pay and claimed Plaintiff's insurance application was incomplete. (Fourth Amended Complaint ("FAC") ¶¶ 10-12.) Plaintiff filed a Complaint for breach of contract and breach of the implied covenant of good faith. He alleged that Defendant improperly "review[s] insurance applications when a claim is submitted rather than when the applications are submitted . . . ." (FAC ¶ 19.)

Defendant removed the case to federal court, claiming that this lawsuit was "founded on a claim of right arising under [ERISA]." (Notice of Removal ¶ 4.) Then a series of dismissals and amended pleadings began. Plaintiff prepared five complaints total, including four amended complaints. Defendant claims it did not receive a copy of the First Amended Complaint. (Opp'n 9:8-9.)

In the Second Amended Complaint ("SAC"), Plaintiff asserted claims for (1) recovery of ERISA benefits, (2) breach of fiduciary duty, and (3) violation of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act ("RICO"), 18 U.S.C. § 1962. Defendant filed a motion to dismiss the SAC, which resulted in dismissal with leave to amend of Plaintiff's breach of fiduciary duty and RICO claims.

Plaintiff filed the Third Amended Complaint ("TAC"), asserting claims for (1) recovery of ERISA benefits, (2) equitable relief under ERISA, and (3) violation of RICO. Defendant filed another motion to dismiss, which led to dismissal with leave to amend of the equitable relief and RICO claims.

Then Plaintiff filed the Fourth Amended Complaint, asserting the same claims as the TAC. Again, Defendant filed a motion to dismiss. This time, the Court dismissed Plaintiff's RICO claim without leave to amend. But the Court also found that Plaintiff stated a viable equitable relief claim.

With claims for recovery of ERISA benefits and equitable relief remaining, the parties settled this lawsuit. The terms of the settlement are confidential, but include at least some payment to Plaintiff. (Mot. 1:23-24.)

Then Plaintiff filed this Motion. Though he does not explicitly state the total amount of attorney fees sought, Plaintiff requests fees for 169.6 hours worked at an hourly rate of "$325 or more." (Reply 12:22 (emphasis omitted).) These figures produce a total request of $55,120. Defendant opposes this request.

ANALYSIS

Defendant argues that no fees should be awarded. If fees are awarded, Defendant asserts that "the Court should significantly reduce the . . . hours of work allegedly performed," and that the award should be based on a lower hourly rate than Plaintiff requests. (Opp'n 3:24-26, 11:7-12:5.) The Court finds that a fee award is appropriate, but at a rate of $180 per hour for 164.2 hours.

1. WHETHER AN AWARD IS APPROPRIATE

In an ERISA lawsuit brought by a participant, beneficiary, or fiduciary, "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). In deciding whether to award attorney fees, courts "must analyze the five Hummell factors:

1. the degree of the opposing party's culpability or bad faith,

2. the ability of the opposing party to satisfy an award of fees,

3. whether an award of fees would deter others from acting in similar circumstances,

4. 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

5. the relative merits of the parties' positions."

Cline v. Indus. Maint. Eng'g & Contr. Co., 200 F.3d 1223, 1235 (9th Cir. 2000) (quoting Hummell v. Se. Rykoff & Co., 634 F.2d 446, 453 (9th Cir. 1980)). "These factors are intended to guide the court's exercise of its discretion, . . . but none is necessarily decisive; various permutations and combinations can support an award of attorney fees . . . ." Credit Managers Ass'n v. Kennesaw Life & Accident Ins. Co., 25 F.3d 743, ...


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