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Strope v. Unum Provident Corp.

November 4, 2010

JEAN STROPE, PLAINTIFF,
v.
UNUM PROVIDENT CORP., ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: John T. Curtin United States District Judge

BACKGROUND

This is an action, brought pursuant to § 1132(a)(1)(B) of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act ("ERISA"), 29 U.S.C. § 1132, in which plaintiff seeks benefits under the Short Term Disability Plan of her former employer, defendant HSBC Bank USA. Plaintiff's claim for benefits under the plan was denied and she instituted this action on September 15, 2006 (Item 1). Defendants filed their answer to the complaint on November 16, 2006 (Item 7) and filed a motion for summary judgment on January 19, 2007 (Item 9). In response to the motion for summary judgment, plaintiff argued that discovery was necessary to respond to the motion (Item 17) and, in a decision and order filed March 26, 2008, the court ordered limited discovery "solely for the purpose of determining whether the plan administrator operated under an actual conflict of interest and whether that conflict affected the reasonableness of the decision to deny benefits to plaintiff." (Item 24, p. 5).

Thereafter, the court entered a discovery schedule and plaintiff served limited discovery demands, to which defendant responded. On August 29, 2008, plaintiff filed a motion for additional discovery on the authority of Metropolitan Life Ins. Co. v. Glenn, 554 U.S. 105 (2008) (Items 31, 32). In a Memorandum and Opinion dated March 11, 2009, the court denied plaintiff's motion for additional discovery and directed her to file a substantive response to the defendant's motion for summary judgment (Item 36). Plaintiff filed a response to the motion and a cross motion for summary judgment April 17, 2009 (Item 37). On March 25, 2010, the court issued a Decision and Order denying defendant's motion, granting plaintiff's motion in part, and remanding the case for reconsideration (Item 39).

Plaintiff has now filed a motion to alter the judgment and for attorney's fees (Item 41). Defendant filed a response to the motion on May 14, 2010 (Items 43, 44), and plaintiff filed a reply on June 2, 2010 (Item 46). For the reasons that follow, the motions are denied.

DISCUSSION

1. Motion to Alter or Amend the Judgment

Plaintiff asks the court to reconsider its remedy and to award benefits to the plaintiff rather than remand the case for further consideration. She argues that a remand would be futile, as she has produced all the available medical evidence. Additionally, she argues that an Independent Medical Examination ("IME") would be of no use, as she has recovered from her disability and seeks short term disability benefits only for a period of six months. Plaintiff contends that defendant should not be given the opportunity to review her claim a second time and improperly deny benefits once again. Defendant argues that this is a close case in which remand is the proper remedy. Remand would allow for a physician's review of the existing medical evidence, which was not previously done. Additionally, plaintiff could submit evidence of her occupational duties.

Under Fed. R. Civ. P. 59(e), the district court may alter or amend a judgment to correct a clear error of law or prevent manifest injustice. Schwartz v. Liberty Mut. Ins. Co., 539 F.3d 135, 153 (2d Cir. 2008) (citation omitted). "The standard for granting such a motion is strict, and reconsideration will generally be denied unless the moving party can point to controlling decisions or data that the court overlooked - matters, in other words, that might reasonably be expected to alter the conclusion reached by the court." Shrader v. CSX Transp., Inc., 70 F.3d 255, 257 (2d Cir. 1995).

The court has considered the plaintiff's argument in favor of reconsideration.

Plaintiff has failed to demonstrate that the court overlooked controlling decisions or data. In this case, the evidence is not so overwhelmingly one-sided that a reasonable person could only conclude that plaintiff was totally disabled. The proper remedy in this situation is not for the court to substitute its judgment for that of the [administrator], but to remand the case back to the [administrator] with the instruction that [it] reconsider plaintiff's application and comply with the requirements of 29 U.S.C. § 1133 in issuing [a] new decision.

Brown v. Board of Trustees of Bldg. Service 32B-J Pension Fund, 392 F.Supp.2d 434, 445 (E.D.N.Y. 2005)(plaintiff entitled to "full and fair review" under section 1133 following denial of claim). Accordingly, the motion to alter or amend the judgment is denied.

2. Attorneys' Fees

ERISA § 502(g) provides that "the court in its discretion may allow a reasonable attorney's fee and costs of action to either party." 29 U.S.C. § 1132(g)(1). In determining whether to grant such an award, courts in the Second Circuit must consider:

(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) ...


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