It Depends on What the Meaning of the Word Prevail Is

I have been swamped for awhile, but have wanted to post on this case, by Judge Young of the U.S. District Court here, for almost as long, and I want to get it up today while I have a few minutes of daylight, because I think it is a very important opinion for practitioners. Long time readers will know that I am very fond of federal court decisions that give a scholarly, extensive overview of the case law on both sides of an issue, because it prevents a litigator from having to reinvent the wheel by creating his or her own survey of the law on that particular issue when it comes up in their own practices, since a court has already done it. In this opinion here, Judge Young gives a scholarly overview of the split among the circuits on what it means to be a “prevailing party” entitled to recover attorneys’ fees in an ERISA case. The particular issue before him was whether a participant who does not recover benefits, but instead attains a remand to the administrator for further review has prevailed, for purposes of ERISA’s attorney fee shifting provision. The court’s conclusion, after surveying the cases throughout the country, is: (1) maybe; and (2) sometimes. I am being a bit flippant, but the truth is it is an excellent analysis of an issue you don’t see that often and the court’s conclusion, in a nutshell, is that you have to look and see if the plaintiff, beyond just getting that relief, accomplished some significant goal of the suit; if so, then the plaintiff is a prevailing party entitled to an award of attorney’s fees. It is not a black and white issue, in the sense of remand either always does or always does not warrant such an award, but a fact based one dependent on what was actually accomplished in the lawsuit. For anyone who deals with these issues, it is certainly worth a read. The case is Colby v. Assurant Employee Benefits.