The Supreme Court has agreed to decide whether the attorney's fees provision in the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) permits courts to award such fees to prevailing parties only. In Hardt v. Reliance Standard Life Ins. Co. (No. 09-448), the Fourth Circuit, in an unpublished opinion, held that an employee who filed a claim in district court alleging that her denial of long-term disability benefits was unlawful was not entitled to an award of attorney’s fees. The lower court had agreed with the claimant and remanded the matter back to the insurance underwriter for reconsideration, which eventually granted her the benefits sought. The Fourth Circuit reasoned that only enforceable judgments on the merits and court-ordered consent decrees render a claimant a “prevailing party” for attorney’s fees purposes.
In accepting this case for review, the Supreme Court will resolve whether Section 502(g)(1) of ERISA, the attorney’s fees provision, provides a district court discretion to award reasonable attorney’s fees only to a prevailing party; and whether a party is entitled to attorney’s fees under this section when she persuades a district court that a violation of ERISA has occurred, successfully secures a judicially-ordered remand requiring a re-determination of entitlement to benefits and subsequently receives the benefits sought on remand.