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Johnson v. Guardian Life Insurance Company of America

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

September 26, 2018

KIMBERLY JOHNSON, Plaintiff,
v.
THE GUARDIAN LIFE INSURANCE COMPANY OF AMERICA, Defendant.

          RULING ON MOTION FOR ATTORNEY'S FEES AND COSTS

          Michael P. Shea, U.S.D.J.

         Plaintiff Kimberly Johnson (“Johnson”) sued Defendant The Guardian Life Insurance Company of America (“Guardian”) under the Employment Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”), 29 U.S.C. § 1001, et seq., after Guardian terminated her long-term disability (“LTD”) benefits under an employee benefit plan. The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment. I denied Defendant's motion and granted Plaintiff's motion on October 27, 2017. (ECF No. 37.) Plaintiff now moves for attorney's fees and costs under 29 U.S.C. § 1132(g)(1). For the reasons stated below, Plaintiff's motion is GRANTED.

         I. Background

         Guardian is the administrator of an employee benefit plan (“the Plan”) furnished by Johnson's former employer, Greenfield Direct, LLC. (ECF No. 37 at 1.)[1] Johnson filed for LTD benefits in March 2010. (Id.) Guardian approved her application and provided LTD benefits through May 2015. (Id. at 2.) On May 7, 2015, Guardian informed Johnson that it had determined that she was no longer disabled and refused to continue providing benefits. (Id.) Johnson appealed, and Guardian denied her appeal on May 12, 2016. (Id.) On July 7, 2016, Johnson brought this action under the Employment Retirement Income Security Act seeking to have her LTD benefits reinstated. (See Complaint, ECF No. 1.) After discovery, the parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment. (ECF Nos. 16, 17.)

         In ruling on summary judgment, I found that the Plan gave Guardian discretion to determine eligibility for benefits and construe the terms of the Plan. (ECF No. 37 at 16.) As a result, I concluded that I could overrule Guardian's decision denying Johnson LTD benefits only if Guardian's decision was arbitrary and capricious, (Id. at 17) (citing Pagan v. NYNEX Pension Plan, 52 F.3d 438, 441 (2d Cir. 1995). Ultimately, I concluded that Guardian's decision was arbitrary and capricious because (1) Guardian had not conducted a full and fair review of Johnson's claim (ECF No. 37 at 18-28), and (2) procedural irregularities in the administrative process suggested that Guardian's decision was influenced by its conflict of interest as the entity that would both determine Johnson's disability status and pay disability benefits (ECF No. 37 at 29-34.) Because I found serious procedural defects in Guardian's decision-making process, I remanded the case to Guardian to properly consider all of the medical evidence, re-evaluate its disability determination, and provide a fuller explanation of its conclusions. (ECF No. 37 at 35-36.)[2]

         II. Legal Standard

         Following a suit for disgorgement of benefits under ERISA, a “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 Supreme Court has clarified that it is only appropriate to award costs and fees to a party that has “achieved some degree of success on the merits.” Hardt v. Reliance Standard Life Ins. Co., 560 U.S. 242, 245 (2010). “After Hardt, whether a plaintiff has obtained some degree of success on the merits is the sole factor that a court must consider in exercising its discretion.” Donachie v. Liberty Life Assur. Co. of Boston, 745 F.3d 41, 46 (2d Cir. 2014). Courts also have discretion to consider five other factors to determine whether awarding fees and costs is appropriate:

Those five factors, known in this Circuit as the “Chambless factors” are: (1) the degree of opposing parties' culpability or bad faith; (2) ability of opposing parties to satisfy an award of attorneys' fees; (3) whether an award of attorneys' fees against the opposing parties would deter other persons acting under similar circumstances; (4) whether the parties requesting attorneys' fees sought to benefit all participants and beneficiaries of an ERISA plan or to resolve a significant legal question regarding ERISA itself; and (5) the relative merits of the parties' positions.

Id.

         III. Discussion

         A. The Plaintiff Obtained “Some Degree of Success on the Merits”

         Guardian argues that Johnson is not entitled to attorney's fees and costs because “the Court did not provide her with a sweeping victory, as it declined to grant the majority of her requested relief.” (ECF No. 44 at 4.) But that is not the standard for attorney's fees under ERISA-Johnson need only have achieved “some degree of success on the merits.” Hardt, 560 U.S. at 245. Neither the Supreme Court nor the Second Circuit has decided whether remanding a case to the plan administrator, without more, constitutes “some success on the merits.” See Scarangella v. Grp. Health, Inc., 731 F.3d 146, 152 (2d Cir. 2013). However, the Supreme Court “clearly held that a remand order opining positively on the merits of the plaintiff's claim was sufficient.” Id. at 155 (citing Hardt, 560 U.S. at 256). As Guardian acknowledges, “most courts that have addressed the issue ‘have held that a remand to the plan administrator for review of a claimant's entitlement to benefits . . . is sufficient success on the merits to establish eligibility for fees under section 1132(g)(1)'” (ECF No. 44 at 5) (quoting Schuman v. Aetna Life Ins. Co., No. 3:15-CV-01006 (SRU), 2017 WL 2662191, at *4 (D. Conn. June 20, 2017)). In ruling on the parties' cross motions for summary judgment, I agreed with much of Johnson's reasoning and ultimately reached the conclusion that she urged with respect to Guardian's decision on her disability claim. I diverged only on the appropriate remedy. I find that Johnson achieved sufficient success on the merits to warrant attorney's fees and costs.

         B. In Addition, the Chambless Factors Weigh in Favor of Granting Fees and Costs

         Guardian next argues that the Chambless factors weigh against awarding Johnson's fees and costs even if she ...


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