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Carty v. Metropolitan Life Insurance Co.

United States District Court, M.D. Tennessee, Nashville Division

February 17, 2017

GARY CARTY, Plaintiff,



         Before the court is plaintiff Gary Carty's Motion for Attorneys Fees (Docket No. 58), to which defendant Eastman Chemical Company ("Eastman") has filed a Response (Docket No. 62), defendant Metropolitan Life Insurance Company ("MetLife") has filed a Response incorporating Eastman's arguments by reference (Docket No. 63), and Carty has filed a Reply (Docket No. 67). For the reasons discussed herein, Carty's motion will be granted in an amount as reduced by the court, and Carty will be awarded $42, 186.50 in attorney's fees and costs for this matter.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The facts underlying this case are set forth in greater detail in the court's Memorandum Opinion of December 15, 2016. (Docket No. 55.) Carty is a former manager in Eastman's information technology department (Administrative Record ("AR") (Docket Nos. 18-27, 33) at 628) and is a beneficiary under the company's self-funded Long Term Disability ("LTD") Plan. (Docket No. 1 ¶¶ 6, 9; Docket No. 6 ¶¶ 6, 9.) In March of 2013, he applied for LTD benefits, citing his bipolar disorder, anxiety, and depression. (AR at 628.) He was approved for LTD benefits beginning on June 8, 2013. (Docket No. 1 ¶ 17; Docket No. 6 ¶ 17.) A MetLife log shows that its claim specialists continued to monitor Carty's treatment and status at least every few months through early 2015. (AR at 731, 736, 747, 758, 771, 779-80, 788, 796, 803, 810, 819.) In March of 2015, a MetLife senior psychological clinical specialist recommended a full file review of Carty's claim, due apparently to the infrequency of Carty's visits with one of his treating professionals, clinical psychologist Dr. Edward Latham. (Id. at 818-19.) Carty was also under the regular care of a psychiatrist, Dr. Ronald Smith. (Id. at 173-75.)

         By letter dated April 17, 2015, MetLife informed Carty that his LTD benefits were being terminated because his level of impairment no longer satisfied the Plan's definition of disability. (Id. at 231-32.) Carty appealed the decision. (AR at 81-190.) MetLife informed Carty by letter dated October 23, 2015, that it was upholding the termination of his benefits. (Id. at 4.) In the October 23, 2015 letter, MetLife echoed its earlier conclusion that Carty was no longer disabled, but also introduced a ground for termination that had not been clearly identified as a basis for the initial denial: that Carty was in violation of a provision of the Plan requiring him to receive “appropriate care and treatment.” (Id. at 7.) Shortly thereafter, Carty filed his Complaint in this case (Docket No. 1) challenging MetLife's determination under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, 29 U.S.C. § 1132 et seq. (“ERISA”). The parties filed respective motions for judgment on the record (Docket Nos. 38, 40, 41).

         The court granted Carty's motion and remanded the case to MetLife for reconsideration of Carty's challenge to the discontinuation of its benefits. (Docket No. 55.) The court described MetLife's initial denial letter as “fall[ing] far short of the clarity required to give Carty appropriate notice of why his Plan had revised its position on his disability” and observed that the “somewhat clearer denial on appeal” consisted in large part of “simply reclassifying Carty's disabling symptoms, with little explanation, as related to his character rather than his underlying bipolar disorder.” (Id. at 18.) The memorandum opinion also faulted MetLife's overreliance on two independent physician consultants, despite the fact that they had never examined Carty and their reports failed to “address[ ] the full array of potentially disabling symptoms identified by Dr. Smith and Dr. Latham.” (Id.) The court ultimately concluded that MetLife acted arbitrarily and capriciously in concluding that Carty was no longer impaired and that he was not receiving appropriate care and treatment. (Id. at 21.) The court did not, however, grant Carty his preferred remedy, full approval of his ongoing LTD benefits. Instead, the court concluded that, while Carty had established that MetLife's consideration of his claim had been deficient, he had not definitively shown that he was entitled to continued benefits. The court therefore remanded to MetLife for reconsideration. (Id. at 21-22.)

         Carty's motion for attorney's fees and costs followed shortly thereafter. (Docket No. 58.) Carty seeks a total of $55, 153 in attorney's fees and costs, reflecting the following rates and hours expended:





Hudson T. Ellis (as associate)



$5, 700

Hudson T. Ellis (as partner)



$46, 665




$2, 388

Filing fees




(Doc. No. 59-1.)

         II. ANALYSIS

         A. Entitlement to Fees

         In an action by a beneficiary challenging a plan administrator's denial of benefits, the court has discretion to “allow a reasonable attorney's fee and costs of action to either party.” 29 U.S.C. § 1132(g)(1). ERISA does not require a litigant to establish that he is the “prevailing party” in order to be awarded fee-shifting. Hardt v. Reliance Standard Life Ins. Co., 560 U.S. 242, 252 (2010). He must, however, demonstrate “some degree of success on the merits.” Id. at 255 (quoting Ruckelshaus v. Sierra Club, 463 U.S. 680, 694 (1983)). There is no “presumption that attorney['s] fees should ordinarily be awarded to the prevailing plaintiff.” Shelby Cty. Health Care Corp. v. Majestic Star Casino, LLC, 581 F.3d 355, 376-77 (6th Cir. 2009) (quoting First Trust Corp. v. Bryant, 410 F.3d 842, 851 (6th Cir. 2005)). Rather, the Sixth Circuit has identified five factors to guide a court's decision regarding whether to award attorney's fees in an ERISA case:

(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 under similar circumstances; (4) whether the party requesting fees sought to confer a common 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.

Trustees of Detroit Carpenters Fringe Benefit Funds v. Patrie Constr. Co., 618 F. App'x 246, 258 (6th Cir. 2015) (quoting Majestic Star, 581 F.3d at 376). These factors are “sometimes referred to in this circuit as the ‘King factors, '” Foltice v. Guardsman Prods., Inc., 98 F.3d 933, 937 (6th Cir. 1996), after Department of Labor v. King, 775 F.2d 666, 669 (6th Cir. 1985). “No single factor is determinative, and thus, the district court must consider each factor before exercising its discretion.” Patrie, 618 F. App's at 258. (quoting Gaeth v. Hartford Life Ins. Co., 538 F.3d 524, 529 (6th Cir. 2008)).

         Carty argues that, although he did not succeed in convincing the court to directly reinstate his benefits, the reversal and remand that he did obtain reflect a degree of success on the merits sufficient to support an invocation of ERISA's fee-shifting provision. Indeed, the Supreme Court has expressly held that, in at least some cases, a claimant whose claim is remanded to the claims administrator may nevertheless be entitled to fee-shifting under ERISA. Hardt, 560 U.S. at 255-56. Although he did not prevail completely, Carty was vindicated in many of his arguments and obtained both a reversal of the discontinuation of his benefits and an admonishment to his plan administrator to perform an adequate review of his claim. Carty's ...

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