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Meguerditchian v. Aetna Life Insurance Co.

United States District Court, C.D. California

August 12, 2014

NERSES MEGUERDITCHIAN, Plaintiff,
v.
AETNA LIFE INSURANCE COMPANY, FEDERAL EXPRESS CORPORATION SHORT TERM DISABILITY PLAN; DOES 1-10, inclusive, Defendants.

ORDER GRANTING IN PART MOTION FOR ATTORNEY FEES AND COSTS [48]

OTIS D. WRIGHT, II, District Judge.

I. INTRODUCTION

Defendant Federal Express Corporation ("FedEx") employed Plaintiff Nerses Meguerditchian as a Senior Global Vehicle Technician. When Meguerditchian injured his back on the job, he had to stop working. He submitted a claim for short-term disability benefits to Defendant Aetna Life Insurance Company, FedEx's claims-paying administrator. Aetna denied the claim as untimely.

After Meguerditchian appealed to this Court under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act ("ERISA"), 29 U.S.C. §§ 1001-461, the Court found that the plan's timing language was inherently confusing and that Aetna's denial was an abuse of discretion. The Court reversed Aetna's decision and remanded for consideration on the claim's merits. Meguerditchian now moves for attorneys' fees and costs. The Court finds that $600 per hour is the reasonable hourly rate for this case. The Court also declines to apply a multiplier, finding that this case is not "exceptional" within the Ninth Circuit's definition.[1]

II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND[2]

Meguerditchian worked for FedEx as a Senior Global Vehicle Technician. (ECF No. 37, at 2.) FedEx sponsors a Short-Term Disability Plan ("STD Plan") for its employees. ( Id. ) Aetna Life Insurance Company acts as the claims-paying administrator for the plan. ( Id. ) Aetna has full discretion to determine benefits eligibility and interpret the plan. ( Id. )

In January 2011, Meguerditchian injured his back while working on a FedEx vehicle. ( Id. at 3-4.) His physician instructed him to stop working. ( Id. at 4.) Meguerditchian participated in FedEx's mandatory Temporary Return to Work Program ("TRW Program") for the maximum 90-day period. ( Id. at 3.) Eight days after finishing the TRW Program, he submitted an STD claim to Aetna. Aetna denied the claim as untimely under the 60-day notification deadline. ( Id. at 4.) Aetna also denied his subsequent administrative appeal. ( Id. at 4-5.)

On December 27, 2012, Meguerditchian filed this ERISA action against FedEx and Aetna challenging the STD claim denial. (ECF No. 1.) The parties briefed the appeal's merits. On February 21, 2012, the Court reversed Aetna's denial. (ECF No. 37.) The Court found that FedEx had "violated ERISA's disclosure and fiduciary requirements, specifically section 1022(a)'s mandate that plan disclosures be written in a manner calculated to be understood by the average plan participant, and [] be sufficiently accurate and comprehensive to reasonably apprise such participants and beneficiaries of their rights and obligations under the plan.'" ( Id. at 12.) The Court reached this conclusion after reviewing the relevant plan provision dealing with when a participant had to file an STD benefits claim vis-à-vis the TRW Program. Since the "timely rules are inherently unclear, " the Court found that "Aetna's decision to deny Meguerditchian's claim based on the 60-day notice requirement was arbitrary and capricious as a matter of law." ( Id. at 12-13.) The Court accordingly remanded the claim to Aetna for a merits-based decision. ( Id. at 13.)

Meguerditchian now moves for $32, 441.25 in attorneys' fees plus $817.25 in costs under ERISA. (ECF No. 48.) Neither defendant has opposed the Motion. That Motion is now before the Court for decision.

III. LEGAL STANDARD

ERISA provides that "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). The United States Supreme Court has held that an ERISA attorneys'-fees award does not hinge on whether a particular litigant is the prevailing party; rather, the litigant must only demonstrate "some degree of success on the merits" to receive a § 1132(g)(1) fee award. Hardt v. Reliance Standard Life Ins. Co. , 560 U.S. 242, 252, 255 (2010).

The Ninth Circuit has expounded several factors a district court should consider in deciding whether to award attorneys' fees under ERISA:

(1) the degree of the opposing parties' culpability or bad faith; (2) the ability of the opposing parties to satisfy an award of fees; (3) whether an award of fees against the opposing parties would deter others from acting under similar circumstances; (4) whether the parties 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. Hummell v. S. E. Rykoff & Co. , 634 F.2d 446, 453 (9th Cir. 1980). The court has also adopted a "special circumstances" rule under which a successful ERISA participant "should ordinarily recover an attorney's fees award unless special circumstances would render such an award unjust." McElwaine v. U.S. W., Inc. , 176 F.3d 1167, 1172 (9th Cir. 1999) (internal quotation marks omitted).

IV. DISCUSSION

Meguerditchian requests a discretionary award of attorneys' fees under ERISA as well as an upward adjustment based on a 1.5-times multiplier. The Court finds that an ...


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