ERISA is a remedial law designed to make sure that employees receive the full benefits they earn under their employer’s benefit plans. Part of ERISA requires employee benefit plans that wrongfully withhold benefits and force employees to sue to recover those benefits to pay the employee’s attorney’s fees. Otherwise, the employee will not have received the full amount of benefits owed under the ERISA plan because they will have had to pay the enormous legal expenses involved in litigating an ERISA case. Without this guarantee, employees would often wind up with a legal bill that’s higher than the benefits they recovered.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently re-affirmed that successful ERISA claimants should be awarded their attorneys’ fees virtually automatically in Herrman v. Lifemap Assurance Company, Case No. 19-35182 (June 25, 2020). Courts have recognized for many years that an employee who wins their ERISA case should recover attorneys’ fees absent “special circumstances” that would make a fee award “unjust.” In the Ninth Circuit, courts also look at several different sets of circumstances (called the “Hummell factors” after the name of the case where they originated) to decide whether to award attorneys’ fees to ERISA plaintiffs. The lower court in the Herrman case declined to award attorneys fees to the plaintiff even though she recovered benefits from her ERISA plan because the lower court believed the Hummell factors did not support awarding fees under the circumstances.
The Ninth Circuit reversed the lower court. The Ninth Circuit emphasized that:
“the presumption in favor of fees in such cases [i.e., where an ERISA plaintiff successfully recovers benefits] means that the district court need not discuss the Hummell factors before granting the motion [for attorneys’ fees].”
Thus, the court concluded that judges may not deny attorneys’ fees to successful ERISA plaintiffs–even if the Hummell factors suggest fees should not be awarded–without identifying “special circumstances” that would render a fee award unjust.
The Hermann decision is a helpful reminder that Congress’ guarantee in enacting ERISA that employees receive the full amount of their benefits requires that employees not have to pay thousands of dollars in legal fees to obtain those benefits.