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Montoya v. Reliance Standard Life Insurance Co.

United States District Court, N.D. California

May 15, 2017



          William H. Orrick United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff moves for an aware of attorney's fees against Reliance. That motion is set for hearing on May 17, 2017. Pursuant to Civil Local Rule 7-1(b), this matter is appropriate for resolution without oral argument, and the May 17, 2017 hearing is VACATED. As explained below, I find that plaintiff is entitled to fees, but not in the amount sought.


         On September 27, 2016, I granted plaintiff's motion for summary judgment and denied defendant's, finding that defendant Reliance Standard Life Insurance Company (Reliance) erred and acted unreasonably when it denied plaintiff's claim for long term disability benefits under the “own occupation” limitation. Dkt. No. 77.

         Plaintiff seeks an award of $238, 455 in attorney's fees against Reliance. Reliance opposes. Reliance does not contest plaintiff's entitlement to fees, but argues that plaintiff is not entitled to fees for hours expended on issues that were either litigated unnecessarily or on which plaintiff was not successful, and that plaintiff's counsel billed an unreasonable amount of hours on other identified tasks. Reliance also argues that the hourly rate requested by plaintiff's counsel, $675 an hour, is excessive.


         Under ERISA, “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). The Ninth Circuit has held that a prevailing plan participant such as plaintiff “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 quotations omitted). In the ERISA context, the test is not whether plaintiffs prevail on all of their claims, but whether they “succeed on any significant issue in litigation which achieves some of the benefit [they] sought in bringing suit.” Smith, 746 F.2d at 589 (internal quotations omitted).

         “[T]he extent of a plaintiff's success is a crucial factor in determining the proper amount of an award of attorney's fees.” Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 440 (1983). To determine fees in cases of partial success, courts consider (1) whether the plaintiff failed to prevail on claims that were unrelated to the claims on which he succeeded, and (2) whether the plaintiff achieved a level of success that makes the hours reasonably expended a satisfactory basis for making a fee award. See, e.g., Watson v. County of Riverside, 300 F.3d 1092, 1096 (9th Cir. 2002). The “first step” requires determining whether the successful and unsuccessful claims were unrelated. Claims are unrelated if the successful and unsuccessful claims are “distinctly different” both legally and factually. Sorenson v. Mink, 239 F.3d 1140, 1147 (9th Cir. 2001). “Hours expended on unrelated, unsuccessful claims should not be included in an award of fees.” Id. at 1147.

         If the unsuccessful and successful claims are related, under the “second step” the court evaluates the significance of the overall success obtained by the plaintiff in relation to the hours reasonably expended on the litigation. Id. (citing Hensley, 461 U.S. at 434-35). “Where a plaintiff has obtained excellent results, his attorney should recover a fully compensatory fee.” Hensley, 461 U.S. at 435. “A plaintiff may obtain excellent results without receiving all the relief requested.” Sorenson, 239 F.3d at 1147.

         If a plaintiff is entitled to fees, the plaintiff “bears the burden of establishing entitlement to an award and documenting the appropriate hours expended and hourly rates.” Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 437 (1983). “When it sets a fee, the district court must first determine the presumptive lodestar figure by multiplying the number of hours reasonably expended on the litigation by the reasonable hourly rate.” Secalt S.A. v. Wuxi Shenxi Const. Mach. Co., Ltd., 668 F.3d 677, 689 (9th Cir. 2012) (citation omitted); Oster v. Std. Ins. Co., 768 F.Supp.2d 1026, 1034 (N.D. Cal.2011) (“In ERISA cases, attorneys' fees to a prevailing plaintiff are determined by a lodestar analysis, multiplying the number of hours reasonably expended on the matter by a reasonable hourly rate.”).

         “Hours that are not properly billed to one's client also are not properly billed to one's adversary pursuant to statutory authority.” Hensley, 461 U.S. at 434. Accordingly, the district court should exclude from this initial calculation hours that were not “reasonably expended, ” including where a case is overstaffed or where claimed hours are “excessive, redundant, or otherwise unnecessary.” Id. In the Ninth Circuit a “district court can impose a small reduction, no greater than 10 percent-a ‘haircut'-based on its exercise of discretion and without a more specific explanation.” Moreno v. City of Sacramento, 534 F.3d 1106, 1112 (9th Cir. 2008).


         I. HOURLY RATE

         Reliance objects to the requested rate of $675 an hour for plaintiff's counsel's time (from June 2014 forward), because in May 2015 plaintiff's counsel represented to defendant that his normal billing rate was $650 an hour. Declaration of Dennis J. Rhodes [Dkt. No. 112-1], Ex. 9. Plaintiff responds that the $675/hour request was adequately supported in his declaration and through the declarations from other ERISA practitioners he filed in support of that rate. Plaintiff also points out that this rate was recently approved in two ERISA cases in this Court. See Nagy v. Group Long Term Disability Plan For Employees of Oracle America, Inc., Case. No. 14-cv-0038-HSG (LB) (approving $675/hour rate); Lin v. Metro. Life Ins. Co., Case No. 4:15-cv-02126-SBA (KAW) (N.D. Cal. Nov. 23, 2016) (approving $675/hour rate); see also James v. AT&T W. Disability Benefits Program, Case No. 3:12-cv-06318-WHO (N.D. Cal Dec. 22, 2014) (approving $650/hour rate).

         The difference here, however, is that plaintiff's counsel represented to Reliance what his hourly rate was and charged them that rate, $650 an hour, in May 2015. That rate is consistent with the rate I approved for plaintiff's counsel in December 2014. Therefore, plaintiff's counsel's time should be calculated at $650 an hour through May 2015. Thereafter, his time should be calculated at $675 an hour.

         II. REASONABLY ...

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