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Flaaen v. Principal Life Insurance Co.

United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Tacoma

December 21, 2017

ANTHONY R. FLAAEN, Plaintiff,
v.
PRINCIPAL LIFE INSURANCE COMPANY, Defendant.

          ORDER GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR AN AWARD OF ATTORNEY'S FEES

          BENJAMIN H. SETTLE UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This matter comes before the Court on Plaintiff Anthony Flaaen's (“Flaaen”) motion for an award of attorney's fees (Dkt. 51');">1');">1');">1). The Court has considered the pleadings filed in support of and in opposition to the motion and the remainder of the file and hereby grants in part and denies in part the motion for the reasons stated herein.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On December 1');">1');">1');">10, 201');">1');">1');">15, Flaaen filed a complaint for long-term disability benefits against Defendants McLane Company, Inc. (“McLane”) and Principal Life Insurance Company, Inc. (“Principal”). Dkt. 1');">1');">1');">1. Flaaen's sole claim was wrongful denial of benefits under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1');">1');">1');">1974, 29 U.S.C. § 1');">1');">1');">1001');">1');">1');">1, et seq. (“ERISA”). Id. On February 1');">1');">1');">1, 201');">1');">1');">16, Flaaen dismissed McLane. Dkt. 6.

         On June 22, 201');">1');">1');">16, Flaaen filed a motion for partial summary judgment arguing that the applicable long-term disability plan's (“LTD”) discretionary clause is invalid and unenforceable as a matter of law. Dkt. 1');">1');">1');">16. On December 22, 201');">1');">1');">16, the Court granted the motion and determined that the standard of review was de novo. Dkt. 28.

         On May 31');">1');">1');">1, 201');">1');">1');">17, the parties filed opening briefs for the bench trial. Dkts. 33, 34. On June 1');">1');">1');">16, 201');">1');">1');">17, the parties responded. Dkts. 36, 37. On June 30, 201');">1');">1');">17, the parties replied. Dkts. 39, 40. On July 20, 201');">1');">1');">17, the Court held a one-day bench trial. Dkt. 41');">1');">1');">1. On August 9, 201');">1');">1');">17, the Court requested supplemental briefing. Dkt. 42. On August 1');">1');">1');">18, 201');">1');">1');">17, the parties submitted additional responses. Dkts. 43, 44. On August 25, 201');">1');">1');">17, the parties submitted additional replies. Dkts. 46, 47. On September 27, 201');">1');">1');">17, the Court ruled in favor of Flaaen. Dkt. 48.

         On November 6, 201');">1');">1');">17, Flaaen filed a motion for attorney's fees. Dkt. 51');">1');">1');">1. On November 20, 201');">1');">1');">17, Principal responded. Dkt. 53. On November 21');">1');">1');">1, 201');">1');">1');">17, Flaaen replied. Dkt. 54.

         II. DISCUSSION

         A. Fee Award

         Under ERISA's civil enforcement provision, 29 U.S.C. § 1');">1');">1');">11');">1');">1');">132 (g)(1');">1');">1');">1), courts have discretion to award reasonable attorneys' fees and costs, where a party has achieved “some degree of success on the merits.” Hardt v. Reliance Standard Life Ins. Co., 560 U.S. 242, 256 (201');">1');">1');">10). In this case, it is undisputed that Flaaen was successful on the merits. Dkt. 53 at 4 (“Principal Life acknowledges [the ruling in favor of Flaaen] is likely ‘some success on the merits'”). Once a court determines that a litigant has achieved “some degree of success on the merits, ” the court must determine whether the five factors set forth in Hummell v. S.E. Rykoff & Co., 634 F.2d 446 (9th Cir. 1');">1');">1');">1980), weigh in favor of awarding that litigant fees and costs. Simonia v. Glendale Nissan/Infiniti Disability Plan, 1');">1');">1');">11');">1');">1');">11');">1');">1');">18');">608 F.3d 1');">1');">1');">11');">1');">1');">11');">1');">1');">18, 1');">1');">1');">11');">1');">1');">121');">1');">1');">1 (9th Cir. 201');">1');">1');">10) (quoting 29 U.S.C. § 1');">1');">1');">11');">1');">1');">132(g)(1');">1');">1');">1)). The Hummell factors are as follows:

(1');">1');">1');">1) the degree of the opposing parties' culpability or bad faith; (2) the ability of the opposing parties to satisfy an award of fees; (3) whether an award of fees against the opposing parties would deter others from acting under similar circumstances; (4) whether the parties requesting fees sought to benefit all participants and beneficiaries of an ERISA plan or to resolve a significant legal question regarding ERISA; and (5) the relative merits of the parties' positions.

Hummell, 634 F.2d at 453.

         When applying the Hummell factors, courts “must keep at the forefront ERISA's remedial purposes that should be liberally construed in favor of protecting participants in employee benefit plans.” McElwaine v. U.S. W., Inc., 1');">1');">1');">176 F.3d 1');">1');">1');">11');">1');">1');">167');">1');">1');">1');">176 F.3d 1');">1');">1');">11');">1');">1');">167, 1');">1');">1');">11');">1');">1');">172 (9th Cir. 1');">1');">1');">1999)(internal quotations and citation omitted). Further, “no single Hummell factor is necessarily decisive.” Simonia, at 1');">1');">1');">11');">1');">1');">122. Principal also notes that sometimes courts deny an award of fees when “special circumstances would render such an award unjust.” McElwaine, 1');">1');">1');">176 F.3d at 1');">1');">1');">11');">1');">1');">172.

         1');">1');">1');">1. ...


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