Attorney fees in ERISA cases continue to be a challenge.
What happens when both sides can claim wins during a case?
What is a reasonable hourly rate for Plaintiff’s attorneys?
Here’s the case of Barboza v. California Association of Professional Firefighters, 2016 WL 3125996, (E.D. Ca. June 3, 2016).(This case involved years of litigation and two prior appeals to the Ninth Circuit.)
The case also highlights additional considerations when addressing the attorney fee issue.
FACTS: The Plan granted Barboza ERISA-governed disability benefits. However, Barboza failed to disclose he operated an alpaca ranch and also settled a worker comp claim for $18,000. The Plan brought an amended counterclaim for offset and an equitable lien on undisclosed earnings. The Ninth Circuit concluded, among other things, that the Plan had not abused its discretion in offsetting undisclosed worker comp settlement amounts. Barboza did overturn a trial court summary judgment and a ruling regarding prejudgment interest.
Both sides sought attorney fees.
ISSUE: Who should be awarded attorney fees, and how much?
DISTRICT COURT HELD: Plaintiff was the “partially prevailing” party, entitled to fees, but fees and hourly rates were reduced.
- Although parties achieving “trivial” successes and “purely procedural” victories may not be awarded fees, “partially prevailing parties—parties achieving some success, even if not a major success” may be enough. Op. at 3 (emphasis in original).
- Barboza argued he had some success when the Ninth Circuit held he had exhausted administrative remedies. BUT the parties already negotiated a fee award, so that could not be used as a basis for the current attorney fee motion. Op. at 3.
- Barboza did overturn a trial court summary judgment and prejudgment interest and therefore had “some degree of success.” Op. at 4.
- “The fee applicant bears the burden to document these hours and …the requested hourly rate are reasonable.” Op. at 7.
- Plaintiff sought hourly rates of $650, $625 and $600 per hour. Defendant argued the local Sacramento rates are much lower—$300-$400 per hour. The Court concluded that an ERISA practice is more a state-wide practice, and reduced the rates to $500-$550 per hour. Op. at 8.
- The Court eliminated hours claimed for the administrative appeal and early stages of the litigation. Op. at 9.
- Plaintiff was not entitled to hours for the appeal because he failed to file a timely request for fees with the circuit court. The district court is not authorized to rule on a post-remand request for attorney fees incurred on appeal. Op. at 9.
- Plaintiff failed to detail how 21 hours was spent drafting a declaration, and reduced it by 15 hours. Op. at 10.