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Bryner v. E.I. Dupont De Nemours & Co.

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia

March 27, 2013

MICHAEL A. BRYNER, Plaintiff,
v.
E.I. DUPONT DE NEMOURS & COMPANY, Defendant

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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For Michael A. Bryner, Plaintiff: Scott Gregory Crowley, LEAD ATTORNEY, Crowley & Crowley, Glen Allen, VA.

For E.I. Dupont De Nemours and Company, Defendant: James Patrick McElligott, Jr., LEAD ATTORNEY, McGuireWoods LLP, Richmond, VA; Bradley Allan Ridlehoover, McGuireWoods LLP (Richmond), Richmond, VA.

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MEMORANDUM OPINION (Granting Petition for Attorney's Fees, Costs and Prejudgment Interest)

Henry E. Hudson, United States District Judge.

THIS MATTER is before the Court on a Petition for Attorney's Fees, Costs and Prejudgment Interest pursuant to 29 U.S.C. § 1132(g)(1) and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 54(d), filed by Plaintiff Michael A. Bryner (" Plaintiff" or " Bryner" ) on January 10, 2013. (ECF No. 30.) This request arises from an underlying civil action brought against Bryner's employer, E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Company (" DuPont" ), under Section 502(a)(1)(B) of the Employee Retirement Security Act of 1974 (" ERISA" ), 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(1)(B). The parties have filed memoranda of law in support of their respective positions. (ECF Nos. 31, 36.) The Court dispenses with oral argument because the facts and legal contentions are adequately presented in the materials before the Court, and oral argument would not aid in the decisional process. For the reasons set forth herein, Plaintiff's Petition will be granted in part.

I. BACKGROUND[1]

Bryner and his spouse, Lorraine Bryner (" Mrs. Bryner" ) were covered by DuPont's " Beneflex Accidental Death Insurance Plan" (the " Plan" ). (Mem. Op. of Dec. 27, 2012 at 2, ECF No. 28.) Under the Plan terms, their lives were insured for any loss " directly related to the injuries from [an] accident." ( Id. ) The Plan excluded any death resulting from " sickness, disease or bodily infirmity except when a direct result

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of a covered accident." ( Id. ) However, the Plan failed to define the term " covered accident." ( Id. ) DuPont serves as " Plan Administrator" vested with " the discretionary right to determine eligibility for benefits ... and to construe the terms and conditions of [the] Plan." [2] ( Id. )

Mrs. Bryner suffered from a number of medical conditions, including gout and renal disease. ( Id. ) To treat her non-fatal gout, Mrs. Bryner's physicians prescribed a standard dose of twice-daily colchicine with instructions to increase this dose to five or six tablets per day when necessary to control pain. ( Id. at 2-3.) Mrs. Bryner took such a heightened dose around April 5, 2004, and soon thereafter her health quickly deteriorated. ( Id. ) After a weeklong hospitalization, Mrs. Bryner died on April 15, 2004. ( Id. ) Mrs. Bryner's death certificate indicated as her cause of death overwhelming sepsis and a possible unintentional colchicine overdose. ( Id. )

In December 2004, Bryner filed a claim for benefits under the Plan, based on evidence that Mrs. Bryner's death was due to accidental colchicine poisoning following a severe gout attack. ( Id. at 3.) DuPont initially denied Bryner's claim in March 2005, noting that the hospital records failed to indicate a colchicine overdose. ( Id. ) Bryner appealed, including an additional medical opinion concluding that the underlying cause of Mrs. Bryner's death was colchicine toxicity. ( Id. ) While acknowledging that Mrs. Bryner's cause of death was consistent with colchicine toxicity, DuPont concluded that her death resulted from a combination of factors and denied Bryner's claim on that specific basis. ( Id. at 4.)

In August 2006, Bryner again appealed to DuPont. ( Id. ) On September 8, 2006, DuPont denied Bryner's claim, emphasizing the exclusion for " sickness, disease or bodily infirmity except when a direct result of a covered accident" and specifically rejecting Bryner's assertion that colchicine toxicity was the sole cause of death. ( Id. ) DuPont relied on the existence of multiple causes of death to reject any contention that Mrs. Bryner's death was " a direct result of a covered accident." ( Id. ) DuPont did not indicate whether it would have denied benefits regardless of the cause of death. ( Id. )

In April 2009, Bryner filed an initial lawsuit (" Bryner I " )[3] in this Court challenging DuPont's denial of benefits. ( Id. ) Pursuant to a March 2010 settlement agreement reached in Bryner I, DuPont agreed to reconsider Bryner's claim de novo, including consideration of an additional medical opinion concluding that colchicine toxicity was the sole cause of death. ( Id. at 4-5.) In return for considering the new evidence, DuPont received: (1) dismissal with prejudice for its insurer, Prudential; (2) a series of deadlines imposed upon Bryner which, if missed, would result in dismissal with prejudice of all claims; and, (3) the discretion to consider any other evidence it deemed proper. ( Id. at n. 3.) Additionally, the Bryner I settlement agreement specifically permitted Bryner to " refile this action in this Court" if he was not satisfied with DuPont's decision. Bryner I, No 3:09cv230, Consent Order at ¶ 2(e) (E.D. Va. Order filed Mar.

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15, 2010) (emphasis added). The settlement agreement was silent as to attorneys' fees.

In reconsidering Bryner's claim as part of the Bryner I settlement, DuPont obtained an independent evaluation of Mrs. Bryner's records. This independent analysis, from DuPont's own expert, concluded that Mrs. Bryner's death was triggered solely by a toxic dosage of colchicine--undermining the factual basis for each previous denial. ( Id. at 5.) Nevertheless, in June 2011, DuPont again denied the claim and subsequent appeal. ( Id. ) For the first time, DuPont justified the denial based on the fact that Mrs. Bryner's death " was the direct result of a deliberate action rather than a covered accident," concluding that death due to a prescribed course of medical treatment does not fall within the definition of a " covered accident." ( Id. )

On February 10, 2012, Bryner brought this lawsuit against DuPont challenging the denial of his claim (" Bryner II " ). ( Id. at 1.) The parties filed cross motions for summary judgment, and the Court found that DuPont failed to employ a reasonable definition of the term " accident." ( Id. ) In doing so, DuPont abused its discretion in denying Bryner's claim. ( Id. ) Consequently, the Court denied DuPont's Motion for Summary Judgment and granted Bryner's Motion for Summary Judgment on December 27, 2012. ( Id. at 17.)

Bryner now requests an award of attorney's fees, costs, and prejudgment interest. Bryner seeks $63,600.00 in attorneys' fees and $700 in taxable costs. (Pet. for Atty's Fees at 1.) He also requests prejudgment interest calculated from at least April 15, 2009, at a rate of 12%. (Reply Mem. in Supp. of Pet. for Atty's Fees at 2.) DuPont does not challenge the awarding of costs. However, should the Court find attorneys' fees and prejudgment interest appropriate, DuPont requests a reduced fee award of $34,350.00 and ...


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