WASHINGTON BUREAU — A party to an Employee Retirement Income Security Act lawsuit may be able to collect attorney’s fees from the other side without winning the case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled today in a 9-0 decision.
The fact that the term “prevailing party” does not appear in the ERISA provision that governs attorney’s fees means that district court judges have discretion to award attorney’s fees to either party, the court held in Hardt vs. Reliance Standard Life Insurance Company, No. 09-448.
The next provision of ERISA governs the availability of attorney’s fees in ERISA actions involving recoveries of delinquent employer contributions to a multiemployer plan. That provision does refer to the term “prevailing party,” and, in multiemployer cases, only plaintiffs who obtain “a judgment in favor of the plan” may seek attorney’s fees, Justice Clarence Thomas has written in an opinion for the court.
“The contrast between these two paragraphs makes clear that Congress knows how to impose express limits on the availability of attorney’s fees in ERISA cases,” Thomas writes.
Justice John Paul Stevens concurred in part with the opinion and concurred with the decision.
The U.S. solicitor general filed a brief stating that the ERISA provision involved in Hardt “authorizes courts to use their discretion to determine whether to award fees and does not limit fees only to a prevailing party.”
The case concerns Bridget Hardt, who was employed by Dan River Inc., Danville, Va. After complaining of pain in her neck and shoulders, Hardt was diagnosed with carpal-tunnel syndrome and underwent surgery on both wrists.
She stopped working in January 2003 and filed for long-term disability under her employer’s long-term disability program, which was provided by Reliance Standard Life Insurance Company, Philadelphia.
Hardt sued after her claim was denied.