Even when plaintiffs win ERISA disability lawsuits, their attorney’s fees can cut into their awards. In some ERISA disability cases, however, plaintiffs can recover their attorney’s fees (and costs) under federal law.
What do plaintiffs need to show in order to be awarded their attorney’s fees in an ERISA disability lawsuit? In Sec’y of Dep’t of Labor v. King (1985), the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, the circuit which includes federal courts in Tennessee, set out five guidelines for district courts to apply when deciding whether to award attorney’s fees under ERISA. They include:
(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.
Sixth Circuit courts regularly use the above guidelines–referred to as the “King Factors”– in evaluating claims for attorney’s fees. For example, in Moon v. Unum Provident Corp. (2006), the Sixth Circuit applied the King Factors in awarding the plaintiff attorney’s fees even though the lower court initially ruled against her claim for long-term disability benefits. After the Sixth Circuit reversed the district court’s ruling (Moon 1), the case was remanded to the district court to decide whether the plaintiff was entitled to attorney’s fees.