Second Circuit Awards Prevailing Plaintiff Attorneys fees in ERISA Lawsuit

One of the difficulties in prosecuting an ERISA governed claim is the deference the administrator has in making benefits determinations.  Accordingly, even when a Plaintiff prevails on a claim, courts have been unwilling to award the plaintiff attorneys fees. Recently, on March 11, 2014, the Second Circuit in Donachie v. Liberty Life Assurance Co. affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment to a plaintiff on the benefits determination but reversed the district court’s refusal to award attorney fees for prevailing. After finding that the summary judgment was proper because “Liberty ignored substantial evidence from Donachie’s treating physicians that he was incapable of performing his current occupation, while failing to offer any reliable evidence to the contrary. See Black & Decker Disability Plan v. Nord, 538 U.S. 822, 834 (2003) (holding that plan administrators may credit reliable evidence that conflicts with a treating physician’s evaluation,” but “may not arbitrarily refuse to credit a claimant’s reliable evidence, including the opinions of a treating physician.”) The district court denied his request for attorneys’ on the basis that he had “failed to show any bad faith by Liberty’s administrator in making its LTD benefits determination.”  “[I]f a court chooses to consider factors other than a plaintiff’s “success on the merits” in assessing a request for attorneys’ fees, Chambless still provides the relevant framework in this Circuit, and courts must deploy that useful framework in a manner consistent with our case law. A court cannot selectively consider some factors while ignoring others.” Hopefully, this recent decision will receive the attention of district courts among all the federal circuits and encourage them to award attorney fees when the plaintiff has achieved success in an ERISA matter.  If fee awards become more commonplace, perhaps insurance companies and administrators will think long and hard before denying worthy claims.