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Rothwell v. Chenango County Nysarc Pension Plan

January 17, 2006


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Gary L. Sharpe U.S. District Judge


I. Introduction

Pending before the court is an application for attorney's fees and costs by plaintiff, Beverly Rothwell (Rothwell). This action was commenced after Rothwell voluntarily resigned from employment with the Chenango County Chapter NYSARC (ARC). Rothwell instituted this lawsuit seeking retirement benefits owed her by ARC. Following a bench trial, the court entered judgment in favor of Rothwell on the first cause of action. Rothwell now seeks attorney's fees in the amount of $31,856.18. For the reasons that follow, the motion for attorney's fees and costs is GRANTED with some modifications as to the amounts requested.

II. Procedural History

On May 23, 2003, Rothwell brought this action against ARC alleging, inter alia, violations of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), 29 U.S.C. §§ 1001-1461.*fn1 Following a bench trial, the court permitted supplemental briefing. After reviewing the post-trial submissions, the court issued a written decision on September 19, 2005. Dkt. No. 76. In that decision, the court entered judgment for Rothwell in the amount of $18,870.88 plus 9% simple interest from December 24, 2001, to the date of judgment. Id. The court dismissed Rothwell's other claims as duplicative, but it reserved decision regarding her application for attorney's fees. Id.

On September 30, Rothwell filed the instant motion for attorney's fees. On October 13, ARC filed its opposing memorandum of law.

III. Facts

The court incorporates by reference the factual summary in the Memorandum-Decision and Order dated September 19, 2005. Dkt. No. 76.

IV. Discussion

A. ERISA and Attorney's Fees

"An application for attorney's fees in an ERISA case is governed by 29 U.S.C. § 1132(g)(1)." Chambless v. Masters, Mates & Pilots Pension Plan, 815 F.2d 869, 871 (2d Cir. 1987). "ERISA's attorney's fees provision must be liberally construed to protect the statutory purpose of vindicating retirement rights, even when small amounts are involved." Id. at 872. "Ordinarily, the decision is based on five factors: (1) the degree of the offending party's culpability or bad faith, (2) the ability of the offending party to satisfy an award of attorney's fees, (3) whether an award of fees would deter other persons from acting similarly under like circumstances, (4) the relative merits of the parties' positions, and (5) whether the action conferred a common benefit on a group of pension plan participants." Id. at 871 (citation omitted). "The decision of whether to award fees lies within the discretion of the district court." Id.

If the court determines that an award of attorneys' fees is warranted, then it must determine the reasonable hourly rate. A reasonable hourly rate must be "in line with those prevailing in the community for similar services by lawyers of reasonably comparable skill, experience and reputation." N.Y. State Teamsters Conference Pension & Ret. Fund v. United Parcel Serv., Inc., 2004 WL 437474, at *2 (N.D.N.Y. Feb. 27, 2004) (citation omitted). "The 'prevailing community' has been interpreted as the district where the court sits." Id. (internal quotation and citation omitted).

Generally, when awarding attorneys' fees, courts in the Northern District follow the lodestar method, where a determination is made of hours reasonably spent by counsel multiplied by the reasonable hourly rate. See O'Grady v. Mohawk Finishing Prods., Inc., 1999 WL 309888, at *2 (N.D.N.Y. Jan. 15, 1999). At the relevant time, the prevailing rates*fn2 in this district were $175 per hour for the most experienced attorneys, $125 per hour for attorneys with four or more years of experience, $100 per hour for attorneys with less than four years of experience, and $65 per hour for work done by paralegals. N.Y. State Teamsters, 2004 WL 437474, at *2 (citing I.B.E.W. Local No. 910 Welfare, Annuity and Pension Funds ex rel. Love v. Dexelectrics, Inc., 98 F. Supp. 2d 265, 275 (N.D.N.Y. 2000)). The work of law clerks is also compensable under the lodestar method. Hannigan v. Bd. of Ed. of the Brunswick Cent. Sch. Dist., 1997 WL 10971, at *3 (N.D.N.Y. Jan. 9,1997) (citation omitted).

As mentioned, "the relevant community for calculation of the lodestar [rate] with respect to an attorney's services in the district court is normally the forum district." Arbor Hill Concerned Citizens Neighborhood Ass'n v. County of Albany, 369 F.3d 91, 96 (2d Cir. 2004). The Second Circuit "and other circuits have strayed from this rule only in the rare case where the 'special expertise' of non-local counsel was essential to the case, [or] it was clearly shown that local counsel was unwilling to take the case, or other special circumstances existed." Arbor Hill, 369 F.3d at 96 (alteration in original) (citation omitted). In other words, the lodestar amount is used unless a party demonstrates that a departure is ...

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