Court Finds ERISA Expertise Worth More

September 24, 2002 ( - A federal trial court judge has granted attorneys' fees in an ERISA case despite the fact that the fees were higher than those normally awarded where the lawsuit was filed.

US District Judge Janet Bond Arterton of the US District Court for the District of Connecticut ruled the fees were justified because some ERISA lawyers have national practices and have to maintain a special expertise, according to Washington-based legal publisher BNA. Arterton’s decision came in a suit filed by Douglas Dobson against Hartford Life and Accident Insurance Co.

Dobson sought interest on monthly long-term disability benefit payments that were first withheld and then paid out as a lump sum by Hartford. The two sides eventually agreed Hartford was wrong in first withholding them.

Arterton listed the following factors in her attorneys’ fees ruling:

  • Hartford’s admission of liability in the Dobson benefits cutoff isn’t a strong as a bad faith admission, but it does generally bolster his case.
  • Second, the court said forcing Hartford to pay lawyers’ fees for improperly withholding benefits will help deter plan administrators or fiduciaries from unjustifiably terminating and then refusing to reinstate disability benefits in the future.
  • Third, the court said, the relative merits of Dobson’s and Hartford’s positions weighed marginally in Dobson’s favor.

Reasonable Rate

The court considered a reasonable hourly rate and the number of hours reasonably expended by each attorney to calculate the amount of fees.

Dobson sought the hourly amount of $425, $375, $325, and $300 for the various lawyers involved in the litigation.

Hartford challenged the rates of $425 and $375 per hour, arguing that the prevailing rate of ERISA litigators in Connecticut, rather than the San Francisco Bay area, where one of the attorneys was from, must be considered in assessing whether the rate charged is reasonable.

Arterton eventually awarded the attorneys $395 and $350 per hour, saying that while $425 per hour is high for Connecticut, the attorneys “have a nationwide ERISA practice and some degree of special expertise is necessary for complex ERISA litigation.”

The case is Dobson v. Hartford Financial Services Group Inc., D. Conn., No. 3:99cv2256 (JBA), 8/2/02.