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Hardt v. Reliance Standard Life Insurance Company   (09-448) 
 ERISA claimant can get attorney fees if there is "some degree of success on the merits."
May 24, 2010 
[Full text of opinion

Hardt sued claiming that Reliance Standard violated the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) by wrongfully denying her long-term disability benefits. The trial court denied Reliance summary judgment, finding that because the carrier had acted on incomplete medical information, the benefits denial was not based on substantial evidence. Though also denying Hardt summary judgment, the court stated that it found "compelling evidence" in the record that she was totally disabled and that it was inclined to rule in her favor, but concluded that it would be unwise to do so without giving Reliance the chance to address the deficiencies in its approach. The court therefore remanded to Reliance, giving it 30 days to consider all the evidence and to act on Hardt’s application, or else the court would enter judgment in Hardt’s favor. Reliance did as instructed and awarded Hardt benefits. The trial court then awarded Hardt $39,149 in attorney fees. The 4th Circuit reversed, holding that (1) ERISA § 1132(g)(1) provides a district court discretion to award attorney fees only to a prevailing party, and (2) Hardt was not a prevailing party because Hardt’s only request for relief was the award of benefits, which the district court did not award.

The US Supreme Court unanimously reversed, holding that a fee claimant need not be a "prevailing party" to be eligible for an attorney's fees award under §1132(g)(1).  Section §1132(g)(1) expressly grants district courts "discretion" to award attorney’s fees "to either party." A court may award fees and costs under §1132(g)(1), as long as the fee claimant has achieved "some degree of success on the merits."

Case below: Hardt v. Reliance Standard Life Insurance Company (4th Cir 05/14/2009)
Official docket sheet 
Certiorari granted January 15, 2010.
Oral argument:  April 26, 2010. The Solicitor General participates in this oral argument, in support of Petitioners.

Question presented:   

Section 502(g)(1) of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) provides: "In any action under this subchapter by a participant, beneficiary, or fiduciary, the court in its discretion may allow a reasonable attorney’s fee and costs of the action to either party." 29 U.S.C. § 1132(g)(1). 

The Fourth Circuit in the decision below held that "only a prevailing party is entitled to consideration for attorneys’ fees in an ERISA action," while the Second, Fifth and Eleventh Circuits have declined to read a "prevailing party" requirement into § 502(g)(1) and other circuits have issued conflicting authority. The Fourth Circuit also held that the "prevailing party" standard was not met and vacated an award of attorneys’ fees to petitioner, even where the district court found "compelling evidence that [petitioner] is totally disabled," ruled that petitioner "did not get the kind of review to which she was entitled under applicable law" and remanded for a redetermination of benefits with an instruction that respondents "act on [petitioner’s] application by adequately considering all the evidence discussed within this Opinion within thirty (30) days of its date of issuance" or "judgment will be issued in favor of [petitioner]" and petitioner obtained the requested long-term disability benefits upon remand. 

The questions presented are: 

1. Whether the Fourth Circuit erred in holding that ERISA § 502(g)(1) provides a district court discretion to award reasonable attorney’s fees only to a prevailing party? 

2. Whether a party is entitled to attorney’s fees pursuant to § 502(g)(1) when she persuades a district court that a violation of ERISA has occurred, successfully secures a judicially-ordered remand requiring a redetermination of entitlement to benefits and subsequently receives the benefits sought on remand? 

Certiorari Documents: 

Briefs on the merits: 


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