United States District Court, D. Massachusetts
EUGENE J. WHITE and SHAWN M. ROY, Individually and on Behalf of all Others Simarly Situated, Plaintiffs,
JEROME K. CHASE, JR., as he is the Trustee of Framingham Ford Defined Benefit Pension Plan Trust Agreement, Adopted in 2002 and again in 2004, Defendant.
ORDER AND MEMORANDUM OF DECISION ON DEFENDANT'S
MOTION FOR ATTORNEYS' FEES
TIMOTHY S. HILLMAN, DISTRICT JUDGE
Plaintiffs, Eugene J. White (“White”) and Shawn
M. Roy (“Roy”), on behalf on themselves and other
similarly situated employees of Framingham Ford Auto Sales,
Inc. d/b/a Framingham Ford Lincoln (“Framingham
Ford”), filed suit against Jerome K. Chase, Jr., as
Trustee/Plan Administrator (“Defendant”) of the
Framingham Ford Defined Pension Plan (the “Plan”)
alleging claims for violation of the notice requirements set
forth in Section 204(h) of the Employee Retirement Income
Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”), 29 U.S.C.
§1054(h), and ERISA §402, 29 U.S.C.
§§1102 and 1104 (governing the establishment of
benefit plans). Plaintiffs, who were participants in the
Plan, sought money damages on the grounds that the Plan was
frozen effective April 1, 2007 without proper notice, and
subsequently terminated. On March 30, 2018, I granted
Defendant's motion for summary judgment after finding
that the record evidence established that notice of the Plan
freeze was timely mailed to Plan participants and therefore,
Plaintiffs' claims failed on the merits.
Memorandum of Decision and Order addresses Defendant's
Motion for an Award of Attorney's Fees Pursuant to ERISA
§502(g) And F.R.C.P. 54(d)(2)(Docket No. 77) pursuant to
which Defendant requests an award of attorneys' fees of
$252, 561. For the reasons set forth below, that
motion is denied.
prevailed on summary judgment, Defendant asserts that he is
entitled to recover reasonable attorneys' fees under
ERISA, which permits the court to make such an award to a
party that has achieved “some degree of success on the
merits.” Gross v. Sun Life Assur. Co. of
Canada, 763 F.3d 73, 76-77 (1st Cir. 2014).
“The favorable result must be more than a
‘trivial success' or ‘a purely procedural
victory,' but it is enough if the court can fairly call
the outcome of the litigation some success on the merits
without conducting a lengthy inquiry into the question
whether a particular party's success was substantial or
occurred on a central issue… such success [has been
described] as a merits outcome [that] produces some
meaningful benefit for the fee-seeker.”Id.
(internal quotations, citations and citations to quoted cases
omitted). There is no question that Defendant achieved a
“degree of success on the merits” which makes him
eligible for attorneys' fees under Section 1132(g).
[e]ligibility for attorney's fees is not sufficient to
entitle a party actually to receive attorney's fees
… and in the First Circuit, a five-factor test is used
to review fee requests under ERISA. The factors are:
(1) the degree of culpability or bad faith attributable to
the losing party; (2) the depth of the losing party's
pocket, i.e., his or her capacity to pay an award;
(3) the extent (if at all) to which such an award would deter
other persons acting under similar circumstances; (4) the
benefit (if any) that the successful suit confers on plan
participants or beneficiaries generally; and (5) the relative
merit of the parties' positions.
This test is only a guide. No single factor is determinative,
not every factor must be considered in every case, and
additional factors should be considered where relevant.
Hatfield v. Blue Cross & Blue Shield of
Massachusetts, Inc., 162 F.Supp.3d 24, 44 (D. Mass.
2016)(internal citations and citations to quoted case
they ultimately lost on the merits, I do not find that the
Plaintiffs acted in bad faith. Through the limited discovery
permitted by the Court, Defendant was able to definitively
establish that appropriate notice of the Plan freeze was
mailed to Plan participants. However, Plaintiffs have no
recollection of ever receiving the notice and the Court has
no reason to doubt that they are sincere in their belief that
they did not receive the notice. As to the second factor,
Plaintiffs simply state that as former employees of a car
dealership, they do not have the means to pay an award,
particularly as high as the one that the Defendant is
seeking. While it would have been preferable for the
Plaintiffs to file a sworn affidavit detailing their
inability to pay a significant award, the circumstances of
this case suggest that Plaintiffs would not have the
resources to pay the amount of money requested by Defendant.
The next factor is somewhat neutral. I agree with the
Plaintiffs that an award in favor of Defendant would deter a
plaintiff who has a good faith belief that his/her right to
ERISA benefits has been violated. On the other hand,
Plaintiffs arguably pursued this matter long after the Court
had made it clear that their case was paper thin and after
the record evidence produced by the Defendant and that
obtained in the limited discovery permitted by the Court
established beyond doubt that their claims were doomed to
fail. An award in Defendant's favor could deter a
plaintiff from continuing to prosecute his/her suit once it
becomes clear it has no merit. Plaintiffs failure to
“give up the ship” when it became increasingly
clear that their claims were baseless is also relevant to the
last relevant factor-the merits of the parties'
positions. However, I again find it compelling that the
Plaintiffs had a good faith belief that the Defendant did not
properly amend the Plan, which led to them being deprived of
expected retirement benefits. After limited discovery and
production of documentation by the Defendant, the Court
ultimately found that the Defendant had not acted improperly.
While the Defendant ultimately prevailed, I am not willing to
find that Plaintiffs' claims were totally devoid of
merit, and I most certainly do not find that they engaged in
frivolous or vexatious litigation.
in mind that the court is not limited to considering the
previously enumerated factors, the Plaintiffs have also
argued that the motion for attorneys' fees should be
denied because the requested award of over $250, 000 is
“grossly excessive.” I will note that this matter
was resolved at the summary judgment stage. There was some
wrangling which required multiple rounds of briefing of other
dispositive motions (none of which was terribly complex), and
some limited discovery. Given these circumstances, I agree
that the amount of attorneys' fees requested seems to be
on the high end of what would be expected. However,
Defendant's counsel has not provided any substantive
detail regarding the hours spent by attorneys who worked on
the case, their rates charged, or the expenses incurred.
Under these circumstances, it would be unfair and
inappropriate for me to pass judgment on the propriety of the
amount of attorneys' fees charged by Defendant's
with the Defendant that the Plaintiffs pursued their case
beyond the point that it became clear that their claims
lacked merit. While that fact makes it a close call,
balancing the recited factors and the equities as a whole, I