When Are Defense Counsel's Fees Relevant to an Attorney Fee Claim by a Plaintiff under ERISA?

Wow, this is fascinating. The “this” in question is an interesting little twist in litigation over an attorney fee award to plaintiff’s counsel in the long running ERISA litigation, Frommert v. Conkright. Attorney fee awards in ERISA litigation are a fascinating sub-issue in and of itself, for a number of reasons. First, it is one of the few areas of American law in which the American rule – all parties pay their own legal fees – is overridden in favor of a modified system of loser pays. While there are various statutes that allow such an award, few, if any, actually give rise to such awards on the frequency that they are granted in ERISA cases. Second, ERISA provides a great deal of flexibility and discretion to courts in making such awards, and the manner in which courts handle them suggests why tort reform advocates of a loser pays system across the board are likely barking up the wrong tree: 40 years of experience with a modified form of loser pays in ERISA litigation suggests that all sorts of exemptions, exclusions and rules of thumbs arise in such systems that are intended to enforce equity, even in the face of a loser pays regime. For instance, even though a court could theoretically grant attorneys fees to a prevailing plan sponsor that defends a case, when is the last time you saw that happen? And if you have, can you count on the fingers of one hand the number of times you have seen it happen?

Moreover, litigation over attorneys fee awards is often resolved without anyone wanting to look too closely under the hood of fee requests, for fear of what people might find. This article on fee litigation in Frommert is the perfect example. The defendant challenged the rates requested by the prevailing attorneys, claiming that a much lower rate would be reasonable. This is a common argument, and, when made by a losing party in motion practice over fees in an ERISA case, most often just leads to the judge declaring and then applying some particular rate that seems fair to the judge. In my experience, it is usually some discount off of what prevailing counsel wanted to have applied, but nothing like the haircut counsel for the losing party sought. In Frommert though, the Court has apparently responded to that argument by the defendant by ordering disclosure of the rates charged by the defendant’s counsel, on the thesis that it represents the best proxy for determining what a reasonable rate for plaintiff’s counsel should be in the case. I can guarantee you, by the way, that it is much higher than the relatively low rate that defense counsel argued, on the fee request, would be the reasonable rate to use in calculating a fee award (and I am sure the judge knows this as well).

I am sure the defendant has no desire to disclose this information. There is a more important point here, however, which is the lesson that you always have to be careful what you argue for in motion practice over fee awards in ERISA case, because otherwise you risk the court or the opposing party opening doors that you might have preferred stayed closed.
 

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