Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Attorney's Fees in ERISA - "Some Success on the Merits"

On Monday, the Supreme Court issued two employment law decisions. Of course, readers of this blog already know about the Court's disparate impact statute of limitations decision in Lewis v. City of Chicago. In a second case, Hardt v. Reliance Standard Life Ins. Co., the Court addressed when attorney's fees are available to an ERISA claimant.

"In most lawsuits seeking relief under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) . . . 'a reasonable attorney's fee and costs' are available 'to either party' at the court's 'discretion.' §1132(g)(1)." The Supreme Court held "that a fee claimant need not be a 'prevailing party' to be eligible for an attorney’s fees award under §1132(g)(1)." So, under what circumstances may a court award attorney's fees? Where "the court can fairly call the outcome of the litigation some success on the merits."

Fans of canons of statutory construction/interpretation will note that the Supreme Court dusted off an oldie but goodie: "Congress knows how to." The Court noted a separate provision that stated attorney's fees are available only when plaintiffs obtain "judgment in favor of the plan." The Court then explained, "Congress knows how to impose express limits on the availability of attorney’s fees in ERISA cases."

Posted by Philip Miles, an employment lawyer with McQuaide Blasko in State College, Pennsylvania.