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Winkler v. Metropolitan Life Ins. Co.

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK


August 10, 2006

MARK WINKLER, PLAINTIFF,
v.
METROPOLITAN LIFE INS. CO., DEFENDANT.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Shira A. Scheindlin, U.S.D.J.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

I. INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff Mark Winkler sued Metropolitan Life Insurance Company ("MetLife") under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 ("ERISA") because he was denied long-term disability coverage. Both parties moved for summary judgment. On April 18, 2005, MetLife's motion was granted and this case was dismissed.*fn1 Winkler appealed MetLife's determination that he did not qualify as disabled under the MetLife employee benefits plan ("Plan"). On March 1, 2006, the Second Circuit held that the administrator's decision that Winkler was not disabled under the Plan was arbitrary and capricious.*fn2 This Court's decision was vacated and the case was remanded for further consideration by MetLife.*fn3

Winkler now moves for an award of attorney's fees and costs. Winkler's moving papers seek $328,985.30*fn4 in attorney's fees and costs of $916.52. Winkler's reply papers seek an additional $12,189.50*fn5 in attorney's fees, the majority of which represents the efforts of Winkler's attorney, Scott M. Riemer, in replying to MetLife's opposition to the motion. MetLife does not challenge the hourly rates charged by Riemer ($430/hour), his associate Steven S. Deibert ($280/hour), or his paralegal Ellen R. Mayer ($130/hour). MetLife does, however, argue that the fee request is excessive because it includes $33,000 worth of time Riemer devoted to unsuccessfully opposing MetLife's motion to apply the arbitrary and capricious standard of review to this case. Furthermore, MetLife claims that $63,000 worth of Deibert's time was duplicative of work performed by Riemer on Winkler's appeal. For the following reasons, Winkler's fee request is granted, but in a reduced amount.

II. DISCUSSION

District courts have the discretion to award attorney's fees and costs in ERISA actions.*fn6 And district courts have the discretion to "independently review and assess the reasonableness of the claimed rates as well as hours worked*fn7"' An award of fees and costs is appropriate where, as here, a plaintiff obtains the vacatur of an insurance company's denial of benefits.*fn8 Moreover, '"a losing argument in support of a successful claim for relief is fully compensable.*fn9" Even if a plaintiff's success was only partial, "the fee award should not be reduced simply because the plaintiff failed to prevail on every contention raised in the lawsuit."*fn10

In considering whether an award of fees and costs is appropriate, courts must consider the following 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.'"*fn11 "No one factor by itself is dispositive, and . .. a plaintiff need not satisfy all five factors in order to recover attorney's fees and costs."*fn12 Here, all five factors tip in favor of a fee award. First, MetLife engaged in culpable conduct.*fn13 Second, it is undisputed that MetLife has the financial resources to pay a fee award of the magnitude requested. Third, an award of attorney's fees would deter MetLife and other insurers from violating ERISA's requirements in the future. Without an award of attorney's fees, MetLife would have little incentive to comply with ERISA as any judicially-determined liability would be limited to what it should have paid in the first place. Fourth, the merits of the case favor Winkler who is the prevailing party against MetLife, an insurer who violated ERISA's requirements. Fifth, and finally, Winkler's action against MetLife conferred a common benefit to all insureds who may apply for benefits in the future.*fn14

Having determined that an award of fees and costs is appropriate, the next step is to determine the amount of that award. "In determining the number of hours reasonably expended for purposes [of] calculating the lodestar, the district court should exclude excessive, redundant, or otherwise unnecessary hours."*fn15 "In addition, a failure to delegate work to junior, less expensive attorneys may be grounds for reducing an award of attorney's fees."*fn16 Rather than comb through detailed time sheets, a court can "exclude excessive and unreasonable hours from its fee computation by making an across-the-board reduction in the amount of hours."*fn17 Numerous courts within the Second Circuit have exercised this authority and have reduced fee awards accordingly.*fn18

With these principles in mind, I turn to MetLife's arguments in support of a reduced fee award. MetLife's first argument, that time was unsuccessfully spent challenging the standard of review, is rejected. As noted, a plaintiff need not be successful in every argument in order to recover fees. MetLife's second argument, regarding the duplication of effort by two attorneys, is of limited value. It is difficult, if not impossible, for a court to review time sheets and determine whether work has been duplicated simply from a description of the entries. However, with a critical eye, a court can generally gauge whether excessive hours were spent on a particular task.

Here, some of the hours charged per task appear to be excessive. For example, in the Reply Affirmation of Scott M. Riemer, Riemer claims that he spent an additional 25.40 hours since June 14, 2006, the date of the fee request motion. A review of the detailed time entries attached to the Riemer Affirmation indicates that Riemer spent 24.5 hours on preparing reply papers. This represents over three business days to prepare a ten-paged memorandum in which most of the research was already completed in connection with the moving memorandum. Furthermore, none of the work was delegated to Riemer's associate, who could have done the work at a lower billing rate. This is just one example of the "fat" that needs to be trimmed from Winkler's fee request - the detailing billing sheets include numerous instances where a disproportionate number of hours were charged for what appear to be relatively straightforward tasks.*fn19 For these reasons - excessive charges and lack of delegation - I find that a twenty percent across-the-board reduction in the total lodestar figure of $377,728 is warranted, rather than the ten percent reduction proposed by plaintiff.*fn20

III. CONCLUSION

For the reasons stated above, Winkler is granted an award of attorney's fees and costs in the total amount of $303,098.92. This amount represents $302,182.4 in fees and $916.52 in costs. The Clerk of the Court is directed to close this motion (Document #69).

SO ORDERED


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