United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Charlotte Division
J. Conrad, Jr. United States District Judge
MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion
for Attorneys' Fees and Costs. (Doc. No. 35.)
an Employee Retirement Income Security Act
(“ERISA”) case in which Rosa Ramirez
(“Plaintiff”) contends that Liberty Life
Assurance Company of Boston (“Liberty”) and Wells
Fargo and Company Long Term Disability Plan (“the
Plan” and collectively with Liberty,
“Defendants”) wrongfully denied her long-term
disability benefits (“LTD benefits”). On February
6, 2019, the Court granted summary judgment in favor of
Plaintiff, concluding that Defendants abused their discretion
in denying Plaintiff LTD benefits. (Doc. No. 34.) Plaintiff
now seeks an award of attorneys' fees and costs pursuant
to 29 U.S.C. § 1132(g)(1).
Discretionary Award of Attorneys' Fees
“In an ERISA action, a district court may, in its
discretion, award costs and reasonable attorneys' fees to
either party under 29 U.S.C. § 1132(g)(1), so long as
that party has achieved ‘some degree of success on the
merits.'” Williams v. Metro. Life Ins.
Co., 609 F.3d 622, 634 (4th Cir. 2010) (quoting
Hardt v. Reliance Std. Life Ins. Co., 560 U.S. 242,
245 (2010)). In exercising its discretion when ruling on a
motion for attorneys' fees under ERISA, the Court is to
consider five factors:
(1) 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.
Quesinberry v. Life Ins. Co., 987 F.2d 1017, 1029
(4th Cir. 1993). “[T]his five-factor approach is not a
rigid test, but instead provides general guidelines.”
Williams, 609 F.3d at 635 (quotation marks omitted).
the Court concluded that Plaintiff is entitled to LTD
benefits. Thus, Plaintiff achieved some degree of success on
the merits, and the Court may award reasonable attorneys'
fees to Plaintiff. The Court addresses each of the
Quesinberry factors in turn.
Defendants' Culpability or Bad Faith
Court found that “Liberty violated the express language
and purpose of the Plan, ” Liberty had “a
structural conflict of interest, ” and
“Defendants abused their discretion in denying
Plaintiff's LTD benefits.” (Doc. No. 34, at 17, 27,
29.) “Culpability connotes wrongful conduct that is not
intentional or deliberate and can be found where a plan's
decision is discernibly against the weight of the
evidence.” Vincent v. Lucent Techs., Inc., No.
3:07-cv-00240, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 123780, at *4 (W.D. N.C.
Oct. 25, 2011). Therefore, the Court finds that the first
Quesinberry factor weighs in favor of awarding
Ability of Defendants to Satisfy an Award of
Court finds no evidence in the record regarding
Defendants' ability to satisfy an award of attorneys'
fees. Although Plaintiff points to evidence that Lincoln
Financial Group, which acquired Liberty, maintains $253
billion in assets, this has no bearing on Liberty's
ability to satisfy an award of attorneys' fees.
stated above, this Court found that Liberty violated the
express language and purpose of the Plan and operated under a
conflict of interest. Id. at *6 (stating that a plan
administrator should “follow the plain language of its
plan” and concluding that the deterrence factor weighed
in favor of awarding attorneys' fees). In addition,
“it seems only common sense to the Court that an award
of attorneys' fees against Defendant[s] would further
deter” the wrongful conduct. Porter v. Elk
Remodeling, Inc., No. 1:09-cv-446, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS
89037, at *6 (E.D. Va. Aug. 27, 2010). Therefore, the Court
finds that the third Quesinberry factor weighs in
favor of awarding attorneys' fees.
Benefit All Participants or Resolve a Significant Legal
argues that the fourth factor weighs in favor of awarding
attorneys' fees because Plaintiff's case will
ultimately benefit many similarly situated employees and
Plaintiff's efforts highlighted the insufficiency of the
Plan language. (Doc. No. 35-1, at 8.) “While this case
may have an effect beyond Plaintiff and the instant dispute,
the Court finds this to be a case largely of a personal
nature rather than one in which Plaintiff ‘sought to
benefit all participants and beneficiaries of an ERISA plan
or to resolve a significant legal question regarding ERISA
itself.'” Vincent, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS
123780, at *7 (quoting Quesinberry, 987 F.2d at
1029). Therefore, the Court finds that this factor weights
against awarding attorneys' fees.
Relative Merits of the Parties' Positions
stated above, this Court found that Defendants violated the
express language and purpose of the Plan and abused their
discretion in denying Plaintiff LTD benefits. Accordingly,
“[t]he merits of Plaintiff's position clearly
outweighed those of Defendants, and the Court finds that this
factor weighs in favor of awarding attorneys' fees to
Plaintiff.” Id. at *8.
considered all five factors, the Court finds that, in its
discretion, an award of attorneys' fees is appropriate in
Reasonable Amount of ...