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Prelutsky v. Greater Georgia Life Insurance Co.

United States District Court, N.D. Georgia, Atlanta Division

May 16, 2017

STEVEN D. PRELUTSKY, Plaintiff,
v.
GREATER GEORGIA LIFE INSURANCE COMPANY, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          WILLIAM S. DUFFEY, JR. UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This matter is before the Court on Plaintiff Steven D. Prelutsky's (“Plaintiff”) Amended Motion for Attorneys' Fees [28].

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff brought this action seeking review, under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”), of Defendant's denial of long term disability (“LTD”) benefits. Plaintiff was denied LTD benefits on the grounds that his injury was caused by, resulted from, or related to his being intoxicated. On August 8, 2016, the Court issued its Order [25] reversing Defendant's decision to deny LTD benefits. The Court found that Defendant Greater Georgia Life Insurance Company (“Defendant”) failed to perform an investigation sufficient to support that Plaintiff's disability was caused by, resulted from or related to his intoxication.

         On August 22, 2016, Plaintiff filed his Motion for Attorneys' Fees [27]. On August 31, 2016, he filed his Amended Motion for Attorneys' Fees, fixing a computational error in the amount of claimed back benefits due. Plaintiff seeks back benefits of $291, 798, pre-judgment interest, and attorneys' fees. Defendant opposes Plaintiff's request for attorneys' fees.

         II. DISCUSSION

         Pursuant to ERISA's fee-shifting provision, a district 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), if that party achieved “some degree of success on the merits.” Hardt v. Reliance Standard Life Ins. Co., 560 U.S. 242, 255 (2010). This standard requires more than “trivial success on the merits” or a “purely procedural victory.” Id. Once it is established that a party had “some degree” of success, the Eleventh Circuit requires district courts to consider five factors when deciding whether to award fees to a prevailing party:

(1) the degree of the opposing parties' culpability or bad faith;
(2) the ability of the opposing parties to satisfy an award of attorney's fees;
(3) whether an award of attorney's fees against the opposing parties would deter other persons acting under similar circumstances;
(4) whether the parties requesting attorney's fees sought to benefit all participants and beneficiaries of an ERISA plan or to resolve a significant legal question regarding ERISA itself; [and]
(5) the relative merits of the parties' positions.

AirTran Airways, Inc. v. Elem, 767 F.3d 1192, 1201 (11th Cir. 2014) (quoting Freeman v. Continental Ins. Co., 996 F.2d 1116, 1119 (11th Cir. 1993)). “No one of these factors is necessarily decisive, and some may not be apropos in a given case, but together they are the nuclei of concerns that a court should address in applying Section 502(g).” Iron Workers Local No. 272 v. Bowen, 624 F.2d 1255, 1266 (5th Cir. 1980).[1]

         It is uncontested here that Plaintiff achieved “some degree of success on the merits.” See Hardt, 560 U.S. at 255. The Court next considers the five factors. As to the first factor, the Court finds that there is no evidence that Defendant acted in bad faith in denying LTD benefits and engaging in litigation, and that its decision was grounded in a plausible interpretation of the facts and the language of the plan. The second element tips in favor of awarding attorneys' fees, because Defendant does not appear to contest that it is able to satisfy an attorneys' fee award. Because Defendant's decision was grounded in a plausible interpretation of the facts and the plan language, the third and fifth elements tip in favor of denying attorneys' fees. Regarding the fourth factor, Plaintiff admits he did not file his action for the benefit of other participants in his firm's benefits plan, but he claims the case resolves a significant legal issue. The Court disagrees, and finds the fourth factor tips in favor of denying ...


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