Katherine P. v. Humana Health Plan, Inc., No. 19-50276 (5th Cir. 2020)

Annotate this Case
Justia Opinion Summary

The Fifth Circuit denied plaintiff's motion for attorneys' fees under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act. The court held that 29 U.S.C. 1132(g)(1) does not provide unfettered discretion to courts to award fees. The court explained that a fees claimant whose only victory was an interlocutory ruling by the Court of Appeals that his complaint should not have been dismissed for failure to state a claim has not received any relief on the merits. In this case, plaintiff persuaded the court to reverse the district court's summary judgment ruling in favor of Humana. If plaintiff achieves some success on the merits on remand, she may then ask for fees.

This opinion or order relates to an opinion or order originally issued on May 14, 2020.

Download PDF
Case: 19-50276 Document: 00515471008 Page: 1 Date Filed: 06/29/2020 IN THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FIFTH CIRCUIT United States Court of Appeals Fifth Circuit No. 19-50276 KATHERINE P., FILED June 29, 2020 Lyle W. Cayce Clerk Plaintiff - Appellant v. HUMANA HEALTH PLAN, INCORPORATED, Defendant - Appellee Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas Before KING, COSTA, and HO, Circuit Judges. JAMES C. HO, Circuit Judge: Having persuaded us to reverse the district court’s summary judgment ruling in favor of Humana, see generally Katherine P. v. Humana Health Plan, Inc., 959 F.3d 206 (5th Cir. 2020), Katherine P. now seeks attorneys’ fees under 29 U.S.C. § 1132(g)(1). That provision states that courts “in [their] discretion may allow a reasonable attorney’s fee and costs” in ERISA suits. But § 1132(g)(1) does not provide unfettered discretion to courts to award fees. “[A] fees claimant must show ‘some degree of success on the merits.’” Hardt v. Reliance Standard Life Ins. Co., 560 U.S. 242, 255 (2010) (quoting Ruckelshaus v. Sierra Club, 463 U.S. 680, 694 (1983)). The Supreme Court has held that a fee claimant whose only “victory” was “an interlocutory ruling [by Case: 19-50276 Document: 00515471008 Page: 2 Date Filed: 06/29/2020 No. 19-50276 the Court of Appeals] that his complaint should not have been dismissed for failure to state a claim” has not received any relief on the merits. Hewitt v. Helms, 482 U.S. 755, 760 (1987). See also Farrar v. Hobby, 506 U.S. 103, 110 (1992) (observing that “Helms obtained no relief”). There is no principled difference between an appellate court’s conclusion that a plaintiff has stated a claim and its conclusion that a district court should not have granted summary judgment. Both decisions simply allow a plaintiff to proceed with her claim. Neither alters the parties’ legal relationship or requires that the defendant do something besides what it was already doing— litigating the case. So in neither case has the claimant achieved any success on the merits. Both are “purely procedural victories” and cannot support a fee claim. Ruckelshaus, 463 U.S. at 688 n.9. Cf. Ariana M. v. Humana Health Plan of Tex., Inc., 792 F. App’x 287, 290 (5th Cir. 2019) (“Securing a change in the standard of judicial review of Humana’s factual determinations is certainly a procedural success, but it’s not success on the merits of Ariana’s benefits claim.”). 1 We deny the motion. If Katherine P. achieves some success on the merits on remand, she may ask for these fees then. Kathrine P. does not cite any ERISA cases awarding fees for obtaining a reversal of summary judgment on appeal. And the cases she does cite are not analogous to this case— they involve either a remand to the plan administrator, see, e.g., Gross v Sun Life Assurance Co. of Canada, 763 F.3d 73, 79 (1st Cir. 2014), or a settlement that provided some payment of benefits, see Koehler v. Aetna Health Inc., 915 F. Supp. 2d 789, 797 (N.D. Tex. 2013). We have no occasion to decide whether the cases she cites meet the standard for an award of fees under 29 U.S.C. § 1132(g)(1). 1 2
Primary Holding
29 U.S.C. 1132(g)(1) does not provide unfettered discretion to courts to award fees.

Disclaimer: Justia Annotations is a forum for attorneys to summarize, comment on, and analyze case law published on our site. Justia makes no guarantees or warranties that the annotations are accurate or reflect the current state of law, and no annotation is intended to be, nor should it be construed as, legal advice. Contacting Justia or any attorney through this site, via web form, email, or otherwise, does not create an attorney-client relationship.