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Ramirez v. Liberty Life Assurance Co. of Boston

United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Charlotte Division

September 4, 2019

ROSA RAMIREZ, Plaintiff,
v.
LIBERTY LIFE ASSURANCE COMPANY OF BOSTON and WELLS FARGO AND COMPANY LONG TERM DISABILITY PLAN, Defendants.

          ORDER

          Robert J. Conrad, Jr. United States District Judge

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion for Attorneys' Fees and Costs. (Doc. No. 35.)

         I. BACKGROUND

         This is 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).

         II. ATTORNEYS' FEES

         A. 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).

         Here, 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.

         1. Defendants' Culpability or Bad Faith

         This 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 attorneys' fees.

         2. Ability of Defendants to Satisfy an Award of Attorneys' Fees

         The 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.

         3. Deterrence

         As 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.

         4. Benefit All Participants or Resolve a Significant Legal Question

         Plaintiff 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.

         5. Relative Merits of the Parties' Positions

         As 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.

         Having considered all five factors, the Court finds that, in its discretion, an award of attorneys' fees is appropriate in this case.

         B. Reasonable Amount of ...


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