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Bradford v. Metropolitan Life Insurance Co.

June 22, 2007

SUSAN BRADFORD, PLAINTIFF,
v.
METROPOLITAN LIFE INSURANCE COMPANY, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Thomas A. Varlan United States District Judge

(VARLAN/GUYTON)

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

This civil action is before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion for Attorney's Fees [Doc. 47] and Motion for Order of Benefits and Other Damages [Doc. 50]. Plaintiff moves the Court to order defendants to pay plaintiff's reasonable attorney's fees, costs, and past due benefits with prejudgment interest. Defendants oppose plaintiff's motions [Docs. 52, 53, 54]. For the reasons set forth herein, the Court will grant plaintiff's motion for order of benefits and other damages [Doc.50] and deny plaintiff's motion for attorney's fees [Doc. 47].

I. Relevant Facts

Plaintiff Susan Bradford ("Plaintiff") was previously employed as a Senior Auditor for Bechtel Jacobs LLC ("Bechtel"). Plaintiff was eligible for benefits under Bechtel's Long Term Disability Plan (hereinafter the "Plan"). The Plan is funded through a Metropolitan Life Insurance Company ("MetLife") insurance policy, and MetLife also administers the Plan. Plaintiff ceased work on August 19, 2002, and filed an application for short term disability benefits. Plaintiff was granted the maximum period of short term disability benefits, payable from August 20, 2002 through February 22, 2003. On December 15, 2002, Plaintiff applied for Long Term Disability ("LTD") benefits, alleging disability because of chronic pain, confusion, lack of short term memory, inability to follow directions, and falling asleep without warning. Plaintiff's LTD initial application was denied, as were Plaintiff's subsequent applications and administrative appeals.

In response, Plaintiff filed the instant action. On March 29, 2007, the Court granted Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment and denied Defendants' motion for summary judgment. In ruling for Plaintiff, the Court found that in light of the Plaintiff's various diagnoses, including, but not limited to, fibromyalgia and depression, in light of the effect Plaintiff's various prescribed medications had on Plaintiff's ability to work, and in light of the entire record as a whole, the Court finds that Plaintiff is totally disabled as defined by the Plan and that MetLife's conclusion that Plaintiff is not disabled was arbitrary and capricious. [Doc. 45]. The Court ordered the parties to brief the issues of prejudgment interest and attorney's fees. The parties subsequently filed the instant motions and briefs, which are now ripe for adjudication.

II. Motion for Attorney's Fees

Plaintiff moves the Court for an order requiring defendants to pay Plaintiff's reasonable attorney's fees and costs. Defendants oppose the motion, arguing that attorney's fees and costs are not warranted in this case.

Under ERISA, an award of attorney's fees is at the discretion of the district court. 29 U.S.C. § 1132(g)(1). The Sixth Circuit has established a five factor test for district courts to use in determining whether an award of fees is warranted: (1) the degree of the opposing party's culpability or bad faith; (2) the opposing party's ability to satisfy an award of attorney's fees; (3) the deterrent effect of an award on other persons in similar circumstances; (4) whether the party requesting the fees sought to confer common legal benefit on all participants and beneficiaries of an ERISA plan or resolve significant legal questions regarding ERISA; and (5) the relative merits of the parties' positions. Schwartz v. Gregori, 160 F.3d 1116, 1119 (6th Cir. 1998). No single factor is determinative. Id.

A. Degree of Culpability or Bad Faith

Defendants contend that they did not act in bad faith or with a great degree of culpability. Defendants argue that their consulting doctors relied on the fibromyalgia criteria established by the American College of Rheumatology and point out that those standards have been endorsed by other courts. See Johnson v. Metropolitan Life Ins. Co., 437 F.3d 809, 814 (8th Cir. 2006). With regard to Plaintiff's diagnosis of depression, Defendants argue that they relied on the lack of abnormal mental status exams and neuropsychological testing. With respect to Plaintiff's medications, Defendants contend that the medications were contraindicated for Plaintiff's medical condition and that, in the absence of those improperly prescribed medications, many of Plaintiff's problems would be resolved. Plaintiff counters that the Court found that Defendants acted arbitrarily and capriciously, thus they must have acted with some level of culpability and bad faith.

The Sixth Circuit has noted that fibromyalgia presents "no objectively alarming signs," and that it is an "elusive" and "mysterious disease." Rogers v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., No. 05-4369, 2007 U.S. App. LEXIS 12103, at *21 (6th Cir. May 24, 2007) (citations omitted). Given the elusive nature of the disease, and given the difficulty in diagnosing it, the Court does not find that the Defendants acted with bad faith or a high degree of culpability. Certainly, the Court has found that Defendants' decision was erroneous, arbitrary, and capricious, but that does not automatically equate to a finding of bad faith and culpability. Based upon the record as a whole, the Court finds that there is insufficient evidence of bad faith and culpability. Accordingly, this factor weighs in favor of Defendants and against an award of attorney's fees.

B. Ability to Satisfy an Award of Attorney's Fees

It is clear that defendant Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, a large insurance company, is capable of satisfying an award of attorney's fees. However, the Sixth Circuit has held that this factor "is weighed more for exclusionary, than inclusionary purposes." Gribble v. Cigna Healthplan, No. 93-6115, 1994 WL 514529, at *4 (6th Cir. Sept. 20, 1994). Accordingly, while this factor does not ...


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