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Robert M. Howley v. Mellon Financial Corporation

June 27, 2011

ROBERT M. HOWLEY, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MELLON FINANCIAL CORPORATION, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hon. Faith S. Hochberg

NOT FOR PUBLICATION

ORDER & OPINION

HOCHBERG, District Judge.

This matter comes before the Court upon Plaintiff Robert Howley's Amended Motion for Attorney's Fees. This Court has reviewed the written submissions of the parties pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 78.

BACKGROUND

Howley initiated this action on December 14, 2006, asserting claims for benefits and for unlawful discrimination under ERISA, as well as several related state law claims. On January 29, 2008, this Court issued an Opinion granting Howley's Motion for Partial Summary Judgment and denying Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment.*fn1

On February 27, 2008, Defendants filed a Notice of Appeal of this Court's summary judgment decision.

On September 17, 2008, this Court denied Howley's Motion for Attorney's Fees without prejudice and explicitly permitted Howley to: re-file a motion for attorney's fees and costs with annotated billing records that indicate to the greatest extent practicable groups of line-by-line time entries for billable hours and related costs according to the count or counts on which Plaintiff prevailed; the necessary background inquiry into the legal or factual issues related to such counts; and any additional details that may shed light on whether the hours claimed are reasonable for the work performed, ensuring that such hours and costs relate solely to the non-settling defendants.

Howley v. Mellon Financial Corp., No. 06-5992 (FSH), September 17, 2008 Order at 2 (D.N.J.) (Dkt. No. 80). On the same day, this Court denied Defendants' Motion for a Stay pending appeal.

On August 31, 2010, the Third Circuit issued an opinion affirming this Court's summary judgment decision and finding that it was "clear on this record that the denial of Howley's claim for benefits constituted an abuse of discretion." Howley v. Mellon Financial Corp., C.A. No. 08-1748, August 31, 2008 Opinion at 22 (3d Cir.). The Third Circuit further reasoned that "[a]dministering benefits in a way that controverts a plan's stated purpose, renders plan language meaningless, and creates benefits that can exist only on paper, is unreasonable. In these circumstances, ERISA requires that we provide a remedy."*fn2 Id. at 32.

Howley now brings an Amended Motion for Attorney's Fees and Costs, seeking payment of $591,668.45 in attorney's fees and costs, as well as $33,197.00 in fees incurred during the administrative review period.*fn3

DISCUSSION

I. ENTITLEMENT TO FEES AND COSTS PURSUANT TO 29 U.S.C. §§ 1132(g)(1) ERISA provides for the recovery of reasonable attorney's fees and costs pursuant to 29 U.S.C. § 1132(g), which states that "in any action ... by a participant, beneficiary, or fiduciary, the court in its discretion may allow reasonable attorney's fees and costs of action to either party."

A. Success on the Merits

In Hardt v. Reliance Standard Life Insurance Company, 130 S.Ct. 2149 (2010), the Supreme Court rejected the view of many courts that 29 U.S.C. § 1132(g)(1) should be read to limit the availability of attorney's fees in an ERISA case to the "prevailing party." Id. at 2152. Instead, the Court held that the statute permits courts, in their discretion, to award fees to either party, "as long as the fee claimant has achieved 'some degree of success on the merits.'" Id. (quoting Ruckelshaus v. Sierra Club, 463 U.S. 680, 694 (1983)).

Howley claims that he achieved success on the merits here because both this Court and the Third Circuit found him entitled to benefits under the Displacement Program, which in turn qualified him for the ancillary benefits he sought in other claims asserted in the Amended Complaint.*fn4 This represented the total relief he sought to obtain in the Amended Complaint.

Defendants take the position that Howley cannot recover fees and associated costs for the claims on which he did not prevail or for work he expended on non-culpable Defendants.*fn5

In Battoni v. IBEW Local Union No 102 Emple. Pension Plan, No. 05-934 (FSH), 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 27971 (D.N.J. Apr. 1, 2009), this Court awarded the full fee requested where "the overwhelming legal issue that drove this litigation is the one on which Plaintiffs prevailed" and Plaintiffs "achieved virtually all of the relief requested," such that "[h]ad Plaintiffs succeeded on their other claims, their relief would not have been materially increased." Id. at *11-12.

Here, Plaintiff was successful on Claim 1 and received all of the benefits he sought as a result. All of his remaining claims were deemed moot as a result. Thus, he achieved success on the merits. To discount his fees because some of the claims asserted in the Amended Complaint were mooted by Howley's success on his primary claim would elevate form over substance.

B. The Ursic Factors "In determining whether to make any award of fees under ERISA, courts have considered five policy factors: (1) the offending parties' culpability or bad faith; (2) the ability of the offending parties to satisfy an award of attorneys' fees; (3) the deterrent effect of an award of attorneys' fees against the offending parties; (4) the benefit conferred on members of the pension plan as a whole; and ...


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