The Future After Hardt

Well, everybody and their mother’s lawyer has an article, blog post or client advisory memo out on the Hardt case, and I suspect that is because, frankly, its about as easy a Supreme Court decision to understand as you can find. What’s it hold? Procedural victory requiring remand of an ERISA denied benefit claim is sufficient to justify an award of attorney’s fees to the claimant so long as there is some substantive achievement by the claimant in moving his or her case forward. The question left open? What more than just a simple order of remand is necessary to trigger an award of attorneys’ fees, since that alone isn’t enough. The answer? Frankly, on a practical level, it is hard to conceive of a remand that isn’t driven by the claimant showing some significant problem in the administrative record whose existence advances the claimant’s case sufficiently to justify an award under the Hardt ruling. That said, however, I am sure there are going to be factual scenarios in which the issue is arguably close, and one can predict that the development of the case law on that point going forward will be driven by how certain fact patterns intersect with the quality of the lawyering, the quality of the administrative record at issue (and thus of the administrator in question as well, since the caliber of the administrative record in a given case is, in essence, a stand in for the quality of the work done by the administrator and is its physical representation), and with the approach of the particular judge to which the case is assigned. How’s that for an easy and safe prediction? The great southern novelist Walker Percy once commented to the effect that a well written horoscope is one that many people can fit themselves into, and, similarly, this prediction is one into which you can shoe horn pretty much any future development of the case law on this issue. That doesn’t make it any less accurate, though.

This is all a preamble to this link, registration required, to a Lawyers USA story on the decision, in which yours truly is quoted:

Stephen D. Rosenberg, a partner at the McCormack Firm in Boston and author of the Boston ERISA and Insurance Litigation blog, said the relaxed standard could result in more cases being filed.

“I can see more cases being brought by plaintiffs’ lawyers because they can file a case with a procedural problem, knowing they don’t have to win the whole case at the end of the day to collect a fee,” he said.

But a remand order to a plan administrator might not be enough by itself to be considered success on the merits, Rosenberg noted. . . .

“The fight that is going to play out in these cases [involves] the question of how much beyond just a failure to dot an “I” on remand does [a claimant] need to have,” Rosenberg said.

I have a lot more thoughts on the case, some of which are actually more subtle than these broad brush thoughts, but an important one to pass along relates to the issue I am quoted on, of the possibility of Hardt opening the door to more cases being filed. Certainly, there is room and motivation now for participants’ lawyers to bring cases where a clear procedural problem is present, thus making recovery of attorneys’ fees more likely and making filing suit more feasible economically from their perspective, in cases where previously the relatively low dollar value of the benefits at issue combined with a reasonably high degree of difficulty in prevailing on the substantive claim to reverse the denial of the benefits itself would have argued against filing suit. But even that dynamic, in terms of its likelihood of producing more lawsuits, is tempered by a dynamic somewhat peculiar to ERISA litigation, namely the relative paucity of participant lawyers who can spot both a procedural error and a strategic path from it to remand; that is not something just any old plaintiff side lawyer or moonlighting personal injury attorney is going to be able to do. As a result, you may see more cases filed by the better ERISA focused participant lawyers on claims that they otherwise would not have seen as financially worth pursuing, but I doubt you are going to see a noticeable or measurably significant increase in the filing of such suits across the legal and participant population as a whole.