U.S. Supreme Court on Attorney's Fees in ERISA cases

The Supreme Court unanimously held that a court may award attorneys fees in ERISA benefits denial cases to any party without proving it is a "prevailing" party:
a fees claimant must show "some degree of success on the merits" before a court may award attorney’s fees under §1132(g)(1), id., at 694. A claimant does not satisfy that requirement by achieving "trivial success on the merits" or a "purely procedural victor[y]," but does satisfy it if the court can fairly call the outcome of the litigation some success on the merits without conducting a "lengthy inquir[y] into the question whether a particular party’s success was ‘substantial’ or occurred on a ‘central issue.’"

The ERISA attorney's fees statute awards fees to "any" party in the district court's discretion. Courts had read into that statute the requirement that a litigant be deemed the "prevailing" party. Under case law, a "prevailing" party has to demonstrate certain characteristics, like monetary gain, etc. The Supreme Court held that as a matter of statutory construction, courts could not simply add a prevailing party requirement.

So, in ERISA benefits denial cases, it will be easier for litigants to claim attorney's fees, even if they simply win a remand by the district court to the insurance plan administrator, rather than total victory.

Justice Stevens concurred in most of the opinion and in the judgment. The decision otherwise was unanimous.

The case is Hardt v. Reliance Standard Life Insurance Co. and the opinion is here.