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Fitts v. Unum Life Insurance Co. of America

January 13, 2010

JANE FITTS, PLAINTIFF,
v.
UNUM LIFE INSURANCE COMPANY OF AMERICA, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Henry H. Kennedy, Jr. United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Plaintiff Jane Fitts and defendant Unum Life Insurance Company of America ("Unum") have reached a settlement agreement calling for the Court to determine the amount of reasonable attorneys' fees to which Fitts is entitled. Before the Court is Fitts's motion for attorneys' fees and costs [#211]. Upon consideration of the motion, the opposition thereto, the declarations and other submissions in support of both parties' positions, and the record of the case, the Court concludes that Fitts is entitled to $1,176,508.62 in reasonable attorneys fees and costs, an amount that is fifteen percent less than she has requested.

I. BACKGROUND

This case has been in the federal judicial system for over ten years. The litigation has involved substantial discovery, an evidentiary hearing, two appeals to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and three memorandum opinions by this Court. The opinions of this Court, Fitts v. Federal National Mortgage Association, 191 F. Supp. 2d 67 (D.D.C. 2002), Fitts v. Unum Life Insurance Company of America, 2006 WL 449299 (D.D.C. Feb. 23, 2006), and Fitts v. Unum Life Insurance Company of America, 2007 WL 1334974 (D.D.C. May 7, 2007), as well as the opinions of the D.C. Circuit, Fitts v. Federal National Mortgage Association, 236 F.3d 1 (D.C. Cir. 2001), and Fitts v. Unum Life Insurance Company of America, 520 F.3d 499 (D.C. Cir. 2008), set forth the extensive history of this case. Fitts and Unum, the only defendant remaining in the case, ultimately reached a settlement. The parties stated on the record during an appearance before this Court in October 2008 that they "have agreed that . . . Fitts' attorneys are entitled to attorney's fees under [the Employee Retirement Income Security Act ("ERISA"), 29 U.S.C. §§ 1001 et seq.], and that [the Court] will determine the reasonableness of the amount of fees being sought." Pl.'s Mot. for Att'ys' Fees at 2 (quoting Hr'g Tr. 5:11-15, Oct. 24, 2008).*fn1

Fitts seeks $1,384,127.79 in fees and costs. Accompanying her motion are, inter alia, records of time her attorneys, of the firm Ford Marrin Esposito Witmeyer & Gleser, L.L.P. ("Ford Marrin"), spent working on her case.*fn2 Unum contends that the Court should not award Fitts any more than half of the amount she seeks.

II. ANALYSIS

A. The Court Need Not Make a Prevailing Party Determination

Unum argues that Fitts's fees should be reduced because Unum was the "prevailing party" as to most of the claims Fitts initially alleged, whereas Fitts prevailed solely as to the one claim as to which the parties settled. Fitts responds that this argument is irrelevant because Unum has "agreed as part of its settlement with Fitts that Fitts is entitled to recover fees and costs." Pl.'s Reply at 4.

The Court agrees with Fitts. Although Unum's argument might be relevant to a determination of reasonable fees under a civil rights statute, see Farrar v. Hobby, 506 U.S. 103, 114 (1992) (stating that the "degree of success obtained" is relevant to reasonable fees following civil rights litigation (quoting Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 436 (1983))), the fees here are awarded, as per the agreement of the parties, under ERISA. The D.C. Circuit has made clear that analysis of such an award is distinct from that under civil rights statutes. See generally Eddy v. Colonial Life Ins. Co. of Am., 59 F.3d 201 (D.C. Cir. 1995) (providing guidance to district courts regarding the decision to award attorneys' fees under ERISA). Although that analysis does call for consideration of "the relative merits of the parties' positions" and "the value of the victory to plan participants and beneficiaries," those factors are part of a determination of whether fees are appropriate at all, not what amount of fees is reasonable. Id. at 206. Because the parties have already agreed that Fitts is entitled to fees, to what extent she prevailed is not relevant to the issue currently before the Court.

B. Comparison to the Amount of Fees Incurred by Unum is Not Relevant to this Analysis

Unum argues that Fitts's fees should be reduced because the amount she seeks is in "gross disproportion" to the amount Unum spent in defending itself in this suit. Unum points out that Fitts requests $400,000 more than Unum paid for its defense. Fitts responds that Unum is a repeat player in ERISA cases, whereas this case was a "one-time event" for Fitts. Pl.'s Reply at 3.*fn3

The Court is not persuaded that this disparity is evidence that Fitts's fees are unreasonable. First, Unum has provided no authority to support its contention that the fees and costs it incurred are relevant to an analysis of Fitts's reasonable fees. Second, that Unum regularly engages in litigation under ERISA whereas Fitts has never before done so is significant. It is not surprising that there is a difference between attorneys' fees and costs incurred by these opposing parties. Therefore, the Court will not reduce Fitts's fees based on this argument.

C. To Correct for Various Minor Flaws in the Billing Records Submitted, the Court Will Reduce Fitts's Award By Fifteen Percent

Unum asks, for a variety of reasons described below, that the Court reduce Fitts's fee award to half of the amount she has requested. Upon review of the billing records Fitts's attorneys submitted, the Court cannot conclude that Fitts's fee request is so wildly unreasonable as to merit such a large reduction. Because several of Unum's arguments have some merit, ...


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