November 28, 2017
A recent Law 360 story by Adam Lidgett, “9th Circ. Backs Appellate Attys’ Fees for Benefit Plan,” reports that a Ninth Circuit panel reversed a lower court’s denial of appellate attorneys' fees for an employee benefit plan in its dispute with Sun Life Assurance Co. of Canada Inc., saying the district court failed to take into account the whole course of litigation in analyzing the fee request.
The panel reversed and remanded the denial of the fee request from the Group Disability Benefits Plan for California-based Gynecologic Oncology Associates Partners LLC. The plan sought attorneys' fees and costs it incurred defending an earlier award of attorneys' fees in an Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) case filed against the plan and Sun Life.
The Ninth Circuit said the district court has to take into account the entire course of litigation and that it was clear the plan is entitled to the appellate attorneys' fees after weighing five factors outlined in the case Hummell v. S.E. Rykoff & Co. in light of Sun Life’s conduct. Those factors included Sun Life's denial of a claim for disability benefits from a cancer surgeon with Gynecologic Oncology Associates Partners, the move that kicked off the initial lawsuit.
The appellate judges said the plan was forced into litigation after Sun Life wrongfully denied Dr. John Paul Micha’s claims and that Sun Life doesn’t dispute it can pay the fee award. The panel remanded the issue to the district court to calculate reasonable fees.
“A party like Sun Life should not be able to appeal from a litigation fee award, even on an issue justifying appellate review, and thereby impose significant costs on the appellee in defending the fee award, while taking comfort in the knowledge that any potential appellate fee award against it will be judged solely on the basis of its appellate arguments on the fee issue,” the published decision said.
The case dates back to 2009 when Micha filed the suit after he was denied disability benefits by Sun Life. The benefits of the plan were insured under a policy purchased from Sun Life, the plan has said. After Sun Life settled Micha’s suit, the plan said it moved for attorneys' fees, and the district court agreed, awarding more than $38,000. Sun Life appealed that award to the Ninth Circuit, but the appellate court affirmed the plan's win, prompting Sun Life to file a petition for a writ of certiorari in the U.S. Supreme Court, court papers show.
The Supreme Court denied the petition, however, and the plan sought an award for attorneys' fees and costs it incurred on appeal, according to court documents. However, it first filed with the Ninth Circuit to transfer consideration of appellate attorneys' fees to the district court, the plan has said. But when the issue went back to the lower court, the court denied the plan’s request for attorneys' fees incurred in defending the earlier award, the plan said.
The case is John Micha v. Sun Life Assurance of Canada et al., case number 16-55053, in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.