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James v. AT&T West Disability Benefits Program

United States District Court, N.D. California

December 22, 2014

DIANA JAMES, Plaintiff,
v.
AT& T WEST DISABILITY BENEFITS PROGRAM, et al., Defendants

For Diana James, Plaintiff: David Joseph Linden, LEAD ATTORNEY, Attorney at Law, Napa, CA; Laurence Fred Padway, LEAD ATTORNEY, Law Offices of Laurence F. Padway, Alameda, CA.

For AT& T West Disability Benefits Program, Defendant: Susan Tayeko Kumagai, LEAD ATTORNEY, Rebecca Kim Kimura, Lafayette & Kumagai LLP, San Francisco, CA.

For AT& T Umbrella Benefit Plan No. 1, Defendant: Rebecca Kim Kimura, Lafayette & Kumagai LLP, San Francisco, CA.

ORDER ON MOTION FOR ATTORNEY'S FEES Re: Dkt. No. 71

WILLIAM H. ORRICK, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

INTRODUCTION

Having prevailed in this Employment Retirement Security Act (" ERISA") action for wrongful denial of long-term disability benefits, plaintiff Diana James moves for an award of attorney's fees in the amount of $200, 794.50. James is entitled to fees, but the hourly rate she requests for her attorney is slightly above the prevailing market rate, and some of the hours she claims were expended unreasonably. I will GRANT the motion but reduce the requested fee award to $181, 962.70.

BACKGROUND

James filed this action on December 12, 2012, alleging that defendant AT& T Umbrella Benefit Plan No. 1 (" AT& T") wrongfully denied her long-term disability benefits despite evidence that she suffered from chronic pain and depression. Dkt. Nos. 1, 55. On June 2, 2014, I granted James's summary judgment motion, and on July 18, 2014, a final judgment was entered ordering AT& T to pay James benefits in the amount of $55, 861.69. Dkt. Nos. 55, 69. James filed this motion for attorney's fees on July 30, 2014. Dkt. No. 71. Pursuant to Civil Local Rule 7-1(b), I determined the matter was suitable for disposition without oral argument and vacated the hearing set for September 3, 2014. Dkt. No. 77.

LEGAL STANDARD

Under 29 U.S.C. § 1132(g)(1), a court in its discretion may award reasonable attorney's fees to either party in an ERISA action. In exercising its discretion, a court should consider the following factors:

(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). No one of these factors is " necessarily decisive, " and some may not be relevant in a given case. Carpenters S. California Admin. Corp. v. Russell, 726 F.2d 1410, 1416 (9th Cir. 1984).

" ERISA . . . is remedial legislation which should be liberally construed in favor of protecting participants in employee benefits plans." Smith v. CMTA-IAM Pension Trust, 746 F.2d 587, 589 (9th Cir. 1984). Accordingly, courts generally construe the Hummel factors in favor of plan participants, and the Ninth Circuit has held that an employee plaintiff " should ordinarily recover an attorney's fee unless special circumstances would render such an award unjust." Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). The test for whether an employee plaintiff has prevailed in the litigation is not whether she succeeded on all her claims, but whether she succeeded on any significant, litigated issue " which achieves some of the benefit [she] sought in bringing suit." Id. (internal quotation marks omitted).

To set a fee award, the court " must determine the presumptive lodestar figure by multiplying the number of hours reasonably expended on the litigation by the reasonable hourly rate." Intel Corp. v. Terabyte Int'l, Inc., 6 F.3d 614, 622 (9th Cir. 1993). The burden is on the party seeking the award to " submit evidence supporting the hours worked and the rates claimed." Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433, 103 S.Ct. 1933, 76 L.Ed.2d 40 (1983). " Hours that are not properly billed to one's client also are not properly billed to one's adversary." Id. at 434 (internal quotation marks and emphasis omitted). Thus, the court should exclude from its lodestar calculation hours that were not reasonably expended because they were " excessive, redundant, or otherwise unnecessary." Id. In the Ninth Circuit, a district court may " ...


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