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Testa v. v Becker

United States District Court, W.D. New York

November 6, 2017

ROBERT TESTA, Plaintiff,
v.
LAWRENCE BECKER, as plan administrator of the Xerox Corporation Retirement Income Guarantee Plan, and XEROX CORPORATION RETIREMENT INCOME GUARANTEE PLAN, an Employee Pension Benefit Plan, Defendants.

          DECISION AND ORDER

          DAVID G. LARIMER United States District Judge

         INTRODUCTION

         On May 9, 2017, the Court issued a Decision and Order (Dkt. #57) granting certain relief to the plaintiff, Robert Testa, in this case arising under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (“ERISA”), 29 U.S.C. § 1101 et seq. 2017 WL 1857384. For purposes of this Decision and Order, familiarity with that decision, which sets forth the factual background of this case, is presumed.

         The gist of the Court's order was that defendants--the Xerox Corporation Retirement Income Guarantee Plan (“RIGP”) and the administrator of the RIGP--had to “take immediate steps to recalculate and pay plaintiff [retirement] benefits, both prospectively and retroactively, according to the ‘new hire' formula set forth in this Court's Decision and Order” in a related case, Frommert v. Becker, 00-CV-6311, which was issued on January 5, 2016. See Frommert, 153 F.Supp.3d 599. The Court also directed that the award of additional benefits to Testa had to include prejudgment interest, also in accordance with the formula set forth in Frommert.

         Both plaintiff and defendants have appealed from that Decision and Order to the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. See Dkt. #61, #63. The reason for the plaintiff's appeal was that the relief ordered by this Court differed from the specific relief that plaintiff sought. The appeals are currently pending before the Second Circuit.

         Plaintiff Testa has moved for an award of attorney's fees, pursuant to 29 U.S.C. § 1132(g) and Fed.R.Civ.P. 54, in the amount of $148, 799 in fees and $689.32 in costs. That award would be for work performed by three attorneys, John Strain, Amber Ziegler, and Shaun Martin, all of whom were attorneys of record in the Frommert case as well. Defendants oppose plaintiff's motion, and assert that it should either be denied outright or that the amount of fees awarded should be substantially-if not drastically-reduced from what plaintiffs seek.

         DISCUSSION

         I. Attorney's Fee Awards Under ERISA

         ERISA's fee-shifting statute provides that “the court in its discretion may allow a reasonable attorney's fee and costs ... to either party.” 29 U.S.C. § 1132(g)(1). “It is well-established that ‘Congress intended the fee provisions of ERISA to encourage beneficiaries to enforce their statutory rights.'” Donachie v. Liberty Life Assurance Co. of Boston, 745 F.3d 41, 45-46 (2d Cir. 2014) (quoting Slupinski v. First Unum Life Ins. Co., 554 F.3d 38, 47 (2d Cir. 2009)). See also Locher v. Unum Life Ins. Co. of America, 389 F.3d 288, 298 (2d Cir. 2004) (“ERISA's attorney's fee provisions must be liberally construed to protect the statutory purpose of vindicating retirement rights”) (quoting Chambless v. Masters, Mates & Pilots Pension Plan, 815 F.2d 869, 872 (2d Cir. 1987)).

         In that regard, the Second Circuit has explained that “in light of the ERISA fee provision's ‘statutory purpose of vindicating retirement rights, ' granting a prevailing plaintiff's request for fees is appropriate absent ‘some particular justification for not doing so.'” Donachie, 745 F.3d at 47 (quoting Locher, 389 F.3d at 298, and Birmingham v. SoGen-Swiss Int'l Corp. Ret. Plan, 718 F.2d 515, 523 (2d Cir. 1983)).

         As explained by the Supreme Court, § 1132(g)(1) allows a court, in its discretion, to award fees and costs to either party, “as long as the fee claimant has achieved ‘some degree of success on the merits.'” Hardt v. Reliance Standard Life Ins. Co., 560 U.S. 242, 245 (2010) (quoting Ruckelshaus v. Sierra Club, 463 U.S. 680, 694 (1983)). The Hardt Court stated that an attorney's fee claimant

does not satisfy that requirement by achieving trivial success on the merits or a purely procedural victory, but does satisfy it if the court can fairly call the outcome of the litigation some success on the merits without conducting a lengthy inquiry into the question whether a particular party's success was substantial or occurred on a central issue.

Id. at 255 (internal quotes and alterations omitted).

         Thus, where a party has achieved some degree of success on the merits, the Court may conclude that an award of attorney's fees is appropriate. Donachie, 745 F.3d at 46. See also Scarangella v. Group Health, Inc., 731 F.3d 146, 151, 152 (2d Cir. 2013) (stating that “ERISA does not contain a prevailing party standard and instead provides district courts with broader discretion in determining when and to whom attorney's fees should be awarded, ” and that “[t]he Supreme Court in Hardt appears to have left room for many factual scenarios to satisfy the standard of some success on the merits”).

         In addition to whether the fee applicant has obtained some degree of success on the merits (which the court must consider) the court may also consider the five so-called Chambless factors:

(1) the degree of opposing parties' culpability or bad faith;
(2) ability of opposing parties to satisfy an award of ...

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