Bacon on Hardt v. Reliance Standard Life Insurance Company

Bacon on Hardt v. Reliance Standard Life Insurance Company

In Hardt v. Reliance Std. Life Ins. Co., 2010 U.S. LEXIS 4164 (U.S. May 24, 2010), the Supreme Court rejected a "prevailing party requirement" for an award of attorney's fees under ERISA because it was contrary to the statute's plain text in 29 USCS § 1132(g)(1). Instead, it held that a district court has the discretion to award attorney's fees and costs under ERISA "to either party" as long as the fee claimant achieved "some degree of success on the merits." In this Analysis, David Bacon discusses ERISA's attorney's fees provision and examines the Supreme Court's decision in Hardt. He writes:

Construction of ERISA's Attorney's Fees Provision.

     ERISA does not contain the "prevailing party" status requirement language found in most federal fee-shifting statutes, such as the attorney's fee provision in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. ERISA simply states that "the court may in its discretion allow a reasonable attorney's fee and costs of action to either party."

     Parties seeking attorney's fees under many federal statutes face obstacles. Parties are ordinarily required to bear their own attorney's fees; the "prevailing party" has no right to collect from the loser. The Supreme Court has expressed "a general practice of not awarding fees" even to a "prevailing party" "absent explicit statutory authority." In Kaiser Steel Corp. v. Mullins [455 U.S. 72, 89 (U.S. 1982)], the Supreme Court stated that attorney's fees under ERISA are "normally" awarded only to "prevailing parties." The Supreme Court reversed an award of attorney's fees in favor of the respondent, but it did not decide whether 29 U.S.C. § 1132(g)(1) or another federal statute applied.

     A threshold issue the Supreme Court faced in Hardt was whether the difference in language between ERISA and a typical federal fee-shifting statute requiring "prevailing party" status means that Congress' purpose is that parties would not be subject to this requirement. Ms. Hardt correctly interpreted the difference as meaning that Congress did not impose a "prevailing party" requirement, reading ERISA as granting the district court the discretion to award attorney's fees to "either party" regardless of traditional "prevailing party" status.

     . . . .

The Supreme Court's Opinion.

     In her writ of certiorari, Ms. Hardt sought review of two issues: first, whether the Fourth Circuit correctly ruled that 29 U.S.C. § 1132(g)(1) allows courts to award attorney's fees only to a "prevailing party"; second, whether the Fourth Circuit correctly identified the circumstances under which a fee claimant is entitled to attorney's fees under § 1132(g)(1).

     In delivering the Supreme Court's opinion, Justice Thomas summarily rejected the Fourth Circuit's interpretation of 29 U.S.C. § 1132(g)(1) as requiring that a fee claimant be a "prevailing party." The Court explained that the first task in statutory construction is to analyze the statutory language, assuming that the language's ordinary meaning accurately expresses the legislative purpose. The Court will enforce plain and unambiguous statutory language according to its terms. The Court reasoned that the Fourth Circuit's interpretation is contrary to the statute's plain meaning: the language in the statute does not include the words "prevailing party." Rather, § 1132(g)(1) grants district courts "discretion" to award attorney's fees to "to either party." The Court explained that this language contrasts sharply with § 1132(g)(2)(D), which governs actions to recover delinquent contributions to a multiemployer plan. Under that section, only plaintiffs who obtain a "judgment in favor of the plan" may seek attorney's fees. The contrast between the two sections makes clear that Congress knows how to impose express limits on the availability of attorney's fees in ERISA cases.

     Thus, the Fourth Circuit's decision requiring that Hardt must be a "prevailing party" adopted an express requirement of "prevailing party" status that Congress itself had not placed in the statute. Citing Pasquantino v. United States [544 U.S. 349 (U.S. 2005)], the Supreme Court stated that the Fourth Circuit's decision adding the term of art "prevailing party" to a fee-shifting statute from which it is conspicuously absent more closely resembles "invent[ing] a statute rather than interpret[ing] one."

(footnotes and citations omitted)

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