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Marquardt v. North American Car Corp.

decided: June 30, 1981.

LAVERN MARQUARDT, AND EARLINE MARQUARDT, PLAINTIFFS-APPELLEES,
v.
NORTH AMERICAN CAR CORPORATION, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of Illinois, Springfield Division. No. 79 C 3141 -- J. Waldo Ackerman, Judge .

Before Swygert and Sprecher, Circuit Judges, and Wyatt, Senior District Judge.*fn*

Author: Sprecher

North American Car Corporation ("Company") appeals from the district court's order denying the Company's motion for attorneys' fees and costs. In the underlying action, Lavern and Earline Marquardt sued the Company pursuant to section 510 of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 ("ERISA"), 29 U.S.C. § 1140. The Marquardts later voluntarily dismissed the suit. The Company claims that, under any standard this court might adopt governing the award of attorneys' fees and costs to defendants in ERISA cases, the district court should have awarded attorneys' fees and costs to the Company pursuant to section 502(g) of ERISA, 29 U.S.C. § 1132(g). Furthermore, the Company argues that the district court abused its discretion by denying attorneys' fees and costs without an explanation of its reasons. On the basis of this argument, the Company asks for a remand to the district court.

We find that, while an explanation by the district court would have been helpful, there is no need for a remand to the district court since we find that the record in this case can only support a denial of attorneys' fees and costs to the Company. Indeed, we find the Company's delay tactics in this action reprehensible. We are tempted to impose sanctions pursuant to Rule 38 Fed. R. App. P. for a frivolous appeal because it is obvious that an award of fees to the Company would be unjust. But, because this appeal presents an issue of first impression concerning the standard for awarding fees to ERISA defendants, we will not impose the Rule 38 sanctions.

I

On May 31, 1976, the Company closed its Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, facility. At that time, Lavern Marquardt had worked at the plant for approximately 40 years and was 61 years old. The Company claims that Marquardt was offered the option of transferring to one of the Company's other facilities in Chicago Ridge, Illinois, or Waterloo, Iowa, and that he declined the offer. Marquardt contends he was not offered an option to transfer instead of being terminated. Under the terms of the Company's pension plan, by terminating at age 61 Marquardt was entitled to only an actuarily reduced pension, rather than the full pension he would have received had he worked until age 62.

The Marquardts instituted this action against the Company, alleging that the Company violated section 510 of ERISA, 29 U.S.C. § 1140.*fn1 Marquardt claims that the Company discriminated against him in order to interfere with his pension rights under ERISA by (1) denying him the option to remain employed with the Company until age 62, and (2) permitting another employee to "age into" pension benefits although he had not yet reached age 60 at the time of the Fond du Lac closure.

The district court never reached the merits of the Marquardts' complaint because the Marquardts voluntarily moved to dismiss the action with prejudice on the day of trial, July 7, 1980. The court granted this motion. The Company then orally moved for attorneys' fees and costs pursuant to section 502(g) of ERISA, 29 U.S.C. § 1132(g). The court allowed both parties to brief the issue and denied the Company's motion on September 19, 1980. The Company appeals, arguing that the Marquardts' action was "baseless, frivolous, and vexatious," so that under any standard, the district court abused its discretion by refusing to award attorneys' fees and costs.

II

Section 502(g)(1) of ERISA, 29 U.S.C. § 1132(g)(1), provides that "the court in its discretion may allow a reasonable attorney's fee and costs of action to either party." This provision commits the decision whether to award attorneys' fees to the discretion of the district court. Therefore, the district court's determination should be reversed only for abuse of discretion. Hummell v. S. E. Rykoff & Co., 634 F.2d 446, 452 (9th Cir. 1980); Landro v. Glendenning Motorways, Inc., 625 F.2d 1344, 1356 (8th Cir. 1980).

The law is not settled regarding the standards for determining abuse of discretion in denying attorneys' fees under ERISA. Some courts of appeal have found it necessary to remand the case to the district court where, as here, the trial court rendered its decision without giving reasons for its decision. Hummel, 634 F.2d at 452-53; Iron Workers Local No. 272 v. Bowen, 624 F.2d 1255, 1266 (5th Cir. 1980). In each of these cases, the court listed the following factors that the district court should consider in exercising its discretion under § 1132(g):

(1) the degree of the opposing parties' culpability or bad faith; (2) the ability of the opposing parties to satisfy an award of fees; (3) whether an award of fees against the opposing parties would deter others from acting under similar circumstances; (4) whether the parties requesting fees sought to benefit all participants and beneficiaries of an ERISA plan or to resolve a significant legal question regarding ERISA; and (5) the relative merits of the parties' positions.

Hummel, 634 F.2d at 452; Iron Workers, 624 F.2d at 1266. See also Eaves v. Penn, 587 F.2d 453, 465 (10th Cir. 1978); Baeten v. Van Ess, 474 F. Supp. 1324, 1332 (E.D.Wis.1979).

We do not hold that these five factors constitute the only test which the district court can use in deciding whether to award attorneys' fees under ERISA. We do find, however, that these factors are relevant and useful in our analysis of whether the district court ...


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