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Bauman v. Publix Super Markets, Inc.

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

January 23, 2018

MICHAEL E. BAUMAN, by and through Michael E. Sumner, Conservator, Plaintiff,
v.
PUBLIX SUPER MARKETS, INC. EMPLOYEE STOCK OWNERSHIP PLAN, and PUBLIX SUPER MARKETS, INC., as Plan Administrator, Defendants.

          OPINION AND ORDER

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

         This matter is before the Court on Defendants Publix Super Markets, Inc. Employee Stock Ownership Plan (the “ESOP” or “Plan”) and Publix Super Markets, Inc.'s (“Publix”) (collectively, “Defendants”) Motion for Attorney's Fees [66], and Plaintiff Michael E. Bauman's (“Plaintiff”) Motion for Oral Argument [77].

         I. BACKGROUND

         This is an action, under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”), “to recover benefits due” under an employee stock ownership plan. 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(1)(B). Plaintiff, now a legally incompetent adult, worked at Publix for almost seventeen years. When he left his job at Publix, Publix sent him money to which he was entitled under the employee stock ownership plan. Plaintiff lost all of the money in an internet scam. Plaintiff claimed that, under the terms of the plan, Publix was required to send the money to his conservator-not to Plaintiff directly-because Publix knew Plaintiff, at the time, was legally incompetent. Publix denied Plaintiff's claim for reinstatement of the plan benefits he lost in the internet scam, and Plaintiff challenged Publix's denial under ERISA.

         On March 17, 2017, the Court granted Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment and denied Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment as untimely. ([63]). In granting Defendants' motion, the Court found that delivering a letter to the Publix location at which Plaintiff worked was insufficient to provide Defendants with actual notice that Plaintiff was legally incompetent, and therefore Defendants did not violate the provision of the ESOP prohibiting distributions directly to legally incompetent individuals. This holding was affirmed by the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. Bauman by & through Sumner v. Publix Super Markets, Inc. Emp. Stock Ownership Plan, No. 17-11709, 2017 WL 4510322 (11th Cir. Oct. 10, 2017).

         On March 31, 2017, Defendants filed their Motion for Attorney's Fees against Michael E. Sumner, “in his capacity as conservator under ERISA” and “in his capacity as counsel of record under 28 U.S.C. § 1927 for unreasonably and vexatiously multiplying these proceedings.” ([66]).

         II. DISCUSSION

         A. Attorney's Fees Under ERISA

         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 ...

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