General Fiduciary Breach Litigation

By: Tom Horan and Sam Schwartz-Fenwick

Seyfarth Synopsis: A recent case from the Eastern District of Pennsylvania reaffirms the basic principle that a threshold element of any ERISA claim is pleading the existence of an ERISA plan.

In Dixon v. Washington, No. 18-cv-2838, 2018 WL 5046033 (E.D. Pa.), plaintiffs—members of the congregation of the First Baptist Church of Fairview—brought suit against the Church’s elected Pastor and CEO, and the members he selected to serve on the Church’s Board of Directors.

Plaintiffs asserted both state law claims and a breach of fiduciary duty claim under ERISA. The ERISA claim alleged that the defendant pastor stole money collected to award scholarships to two church members, who had never received the promised benefits, and misappropriated funds from the sale of real estate and from a FEMA grant intended to cover repairs related to damages caused by a flood. The ERISA claim did not allege the existence of an ERISA plan, a pre-requisite for any ERISA claim.

Defendants moved to dismiss both for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and for failure to state a claim for relief that was plausible on its face.

The court first considered whether it had subject matter jurisdiction. Because the complaint asserted claims arising under § 409 of ERISA, the court concluded that it presented a valid federal question. Accordingly, the court held that it could not dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.

Having found that it had subject matter jurisdiction from the face of the complaint, the court considered whether plaintiffs had presented a plausible claim for relief. Here, the court found the complaint deficient, holding that plaintiffs had not plead enough facts to make their ERISA claim plausible. Specifically, without deciding whether plaintiffs’ allegations regarding the misappropriation of funds constituted a breach of fiduciary duty, the court found that plaintiffs had not alleged sufficient facts to show the involvement of a plan covered by ERISA, which was necessary to make an ERISA claim plausible. The court thus dismissed the complaint, noting plaintiffs could amend the complaint if they could plead sufficient detail to make their claim plausible.

While the holding of the case is relatively straightforward—a claim under ERISA must involve a plan covered by ERISA—this case highlights the importance of evaluating whether a complaint is sufficiently pled as to all required elements.

Seyfarth Synopsis: Excessive fee complaint dismissed because the diverse selection of funds available to plan participants negates any claim that Defendants breached their duties of prudence simply because cheaper funds were available.

By Ron Kramer and Shannon Callahan

Nearly 20 universities have been sued under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (“ERISA”) over the fees paid in their Section 403(b) qualified employee benefit defined contribution plans.

Many of these actions have survived the motion to dismiss stage. Still, some courts have been willing to look carefully at ERISA’s requirements and quickly determine that these suits have no basis because they do not allege violations of ERISA. Most recently, the Southern District of New York ruled against plaintiffs, noting after a trial that plaintiffs have not proven a violation of ERISA, that prudent process does not require perfection, and that, relative to performance there is no such claim under ERISA. Sacerdote v. New York University, Case No. 16-cv-6284, 2018 WL 3629598 (July 31, 2018 S.D.N.Y.).

The latest blow to these largely cookie cutter cases is Davis v. Washington University, Case No. 17-cv-1641 (E.D. Mo.), which alleged that the plan paid excessive fees for administrative or investment management services, the plan should have consolidated to one recordkeeper (as opposed to two), that certain funds underperformed and that the plan’s fiduciaries caused the plan to engage in prohibited transactions.

On Friday, September 28, 2018, Judge Ronnie L. White dismissed Davis holding that Plaintiffs failed to allege a breach of fiduciary duties based upon Plan participants’ payment of purportedly excessive fees and recordkeeping fees. The court reasoned that the complaint starts with the false premise that just because the plan’s fees could have been lower, there must have been some breach of duty. Relying on precedent in other circuits, the court held that the diverse selection of funds available to the plan’s participants negates any claim that defendants breached their duties of prudence because cheaper funds were available. The court further held that allowing plan participants to pay fees on an asset basis is a pure question of where the burden of recordkeeping costs should be placed and that plaintiffs pled no basis for removing the discretion of a reasonable plan administrator. The court likewise dismissed the prohibited transaction claims, noting that plaintiffs pled the affirmative defense in their complaint.

With the recent defense victories in Divane v. Northwestern University, Sacerdote v. New York University and Sweda v. University of Pennsylvania, Washington University brings another beacon of hope to the universities facing these claims and reinforces the discretion incumbent upon plan administrators.

 

 

By: Mark Casciari and Jim Goodfellow

Seyfarth Synopsis: The Ninth Circuit declined to enforce an agreement to arbitrate ERISA Section 502(a)(2) claims, but did not rule out enforcement in other ERISA claim contexts.

In Munro v. University of Southern California, et al., No. 17-5550, 2018 WL 3542996 (9th Cir. July 24, 2018), plaintiffs sought to represent a class of participants in two ERISA-governed defined contribution plans sponsored by the University of Southern California, alleging multiple breaches of fiduciary duty stemming from the administration of those plans. Plaintiffs sought equitable relief on behalf of the plans under ERISA Section 502(a)(2) in the form of monetary relief, removal of the breaching fiduciaries, a full accounting of losses, reformation of the plans, and an order regarding appropriate future investments.

The defendants moved to compel arbitration, as all of the potential class members had signed arbitration agreements to arbitrate all claims that the putative class members or USC had against one another. The agreements expressly covered claims under federal law, including ERISA. The defendants sought further to compel individual, and not class arbitrations, because the arbitration agreements did not specifically allow class arbitration.

The district court denied the motion, and the Ninth Circuit affirmed. The Ninth Circuit analogized the plaintiffs in this case to plaintiffs in a qui tam action brought on behalf of the U.S. Government under the False Claims Act. Citing to its 2017 decision in U.S. ex rel. Welch v. My Left Foot Children’s Therapy, LLC, 871 F.3d 791 (9th Cir. 2017), the Court stated that individual agreements to arbitrate do not extend to qui tam actions because those are brought on behalf of the government by the plaintiffs. Similarly, the Court said, an ERISA Section 502(a)(2) breach of fiduciary duty claim is brought on behalf of an ERISA plan by its participants.

There is more to take away from this decision, however. The Ninth Circuit specifically declined to rule that an agreement to arbitrate ERISA claims is always unenforceable. The Court suggested that it might disagree in a future case with its 1984 decision in Amaro v. Continental Can Co., 724 F.2d 747 (9th Cir. 1984), which it held that ERISA’s “equitable character” could not be satisfied in an arbitral proceeding. The Court referred to “intervening Supreme Court case law,” obviously referring to a number of Supreme Court decisions after 1984, including, most recently the Epiq Systems decision that broadly enforce agreements to arbitrate. So we have not heard the last word from the Ninth Circuit on the enforceability of agreements to arbitrate ERISA claims. And we should expect other Courts of Appeal to address arbitration of ERISA claims, and perhaps create a split in the Circuits that would lead to Supreme Court review. Notwithstanding the Ninth Circuit decision in Munro, arbitration agreements remain a hot topic in federal jurisprudence. Stay tuned.

By: Chris Busey, Tom Horan and Sam Schwartz-Fenwick

Seyfarth Synopsis: The Fourth Circuit found in favor of an insurer on a claim for life insurance benefits, finding the insured’s failure to submit the required evidence of insurability was not excused by his employer having wrongly deducted premiums for that coverage from his pay.

In Gordon v. CIGNA Corp., Plaintiff sought to represent a putative class of participants and beneficiaries who were deemed ineligible for additional life insurance benefits despite having paid premiums for the for the additional coverage, because they failed to submit the requisite evidence of insurability (“EOI”).

Plaintiff, as her deceased husband’s beneficiary, made a claim for supplemental life insurance benefits from the insurer and claims administrator, Life Insurance of North America (“LINA”). LINA denied the claim because the decedent never submitted the EOI required for supplemental coverage. Plaintiff claimed the employer and insurer breached their fiduciary duties by failing to notify the insured of the EOI requirement while continuing to accept premiums for that coverage. Plaintiff also alleged that, if any defendant was not a fiduciary under the plan, it was liable for knowingly participating in a breach of trust.

The district court granted LINA’s motion for summary judgment on the bases that LINA was not acting as a fiduciary with respect to enrollment for coverage, and there was no evidence it had knowledge of the employer’s collection of a premium for the additional coverage. The court also rejected Plaintiff’s argument that the motion was premature because she had not conducted discovery. On appeal, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s opinion in full.

First, the court found the employer, and not LINA, was tasked with day-to-day administration of the plan, including billing and screening applications. Given this allocation of duties, LINA was not responsible for notifying the decedent of the EOI requirement, and therefore could not be liable for a breach of that duty.

Second, the court found that, even if breach of trust was a cause of action, Plaintiff’s claim would still fail. The record lacked evidence that LINA had any knowledge of the employer’s acceptance of premiums on behalf of the decedent for coverage above the guaranteed amount. To the contrary, the evidence showed that the employer remitted premiums to LINA as a lump-sum and did not provide employee names or associated coverage amounts.

Finally, the court rejected the argument that discovery was required before ruling on the motion. It noted Plaintiff had a reasonable opportunity to conduct discovery, also further found that the information sought would not have created a genuine issue of material fact given the clear allocation of fiduciary duties in the plan documents and, especially, the employer’s concession that it erred in collecting premiums and failing to obtain EOI.

This case is positive for insurers and claims administrators, and stands in stark contrast to the Ninth Circuit’s recent opinion in Salyers v. MetLife, 871 F.3d 934 (9th Cir. 2017) (finding employer acted as insurer’s agent in collecting premiums, thereby imputing knowledge of premium collection to insurer). The finding that LINA did not owe a fiduciary duty to the decedent with respect to enrollment, as the plan did not vest it with that duty, will help insurers defend against similar cases where premiums paid to the employer exceed the actual level of coverage.

By Michelle Scannell and Mark Casciari

Seyfarth Synopsis: The Supreme Court appears to have barred equitable tolling under ERISA Section 413’s six-year statute of repose for fiduciary breach claims, subject only to well-pled allegations and proof of fraud or concealment.

Statutes of repose begin to run after a defendant’s last culpable act or omission–regardless of when a plaintiff is injured—and give defendants a complete defense to any lawsuit commenced after the repose limitations period. ERISA Section 413 provides a six-year statute of repose for fiduciary breach claims, with a narrow exception, “in the case of fraud or concealment.” If the exception applies, the claim may be brought within six years of discovery of the breach.

The Supreme Court recently shut down the argument that the tolling doctrine in American Pipe & Construction Company v. Utah, 414 U.S. 538 (1974) applies to an unconditional statute of repose.  The American Pipe rule allows the equitable tolling of individual claims during the pendency of a class action until class certification is denied or the individual is no longer part of the class.  So the equitable tolling doctrine allows courts to extend limitations periods beyond the limitations period set forth by Congress, and creates substantial uncertainty for defendants.

In California Public Employees Retirement Sys. (CALPERS) v. ANZ Securities, Inc., No. 16-373 (June 26, 2017), the Court dismissed as untimely a securities case filed by CALPERS after the statute of repose expired.  CALPERS argued that the lawsuit was timely because the same claim was timely asserted in another securities class action that CALPERS opted out of after filing its own case.  The Court rejected the CALPERS argument that the timely filing of the class action equitably tolled statute of repose for its individual case.

The Supreme Court said that unconditional statutes of repose may not be tolled under any circumstances. The Court said that statutes of repose reflect a legislative intent to protect defendants from an “interminable threat of liability,” which displaces the traditional power of courts to modify statutory time limits based on equitable doctrines, including the one applied in American Pipe. Statutes of repose, the Court stated, offer “full and final security after” the repose period expires.

By direct analogy, the CALPERS decision should apply to the ERISA Section 413 statute of repose, with one caveat.

Section 413, unlike the securities limitation statute at issue in CALPERS, is not unconditional.  Its “fraud or concealment” exception, as the Supreme Court noted in CALPERS, “demonstrates the requisite intent to alter the operation of the statutory period.”

ERISA fiduciaries therefore still face indeterminate liability in cases of alleged fraud or concealment. But it is difficult for plaintiffs to allege, let alone prove, fiduciary fraud or concealment.  Strict pleading standards dictated under Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007), may provide fiduciaries with a strong motion to dismiss argument that, if successful, could provide a quick win, and obviate the need to expend substantial time and money associated with the rigors of discovery.

The CALPERS decision is good for fiduciaries sued on claims accruing more than six years before a suit is filed. CALPERS removes equitable tolling from the arsenal of plaintiff arguments, leaving only the much harder “fraud or concealment” argument to revive what otherwise would appear to be a stale case.

 

By: Jon Karelitz and Amanda Sonneborn

On April 14, 2015, the DOL issued a new proposed rule to expand the definition of “fiduciary” under ERISA. This is the second time in recent years that the DOL has gone down this path. The first proposed rule (issued in 2010) was met with strong resistance from the financial services industry, which claimed that anticipated additional compliance costs and increased legal liability for advisors would result in fewer education and advice arrangements that were largely beneficial to investors. The DOL withdrew the 2010 proposed rule in 2011.

In short, this latest proposal takes a holistic approach to determining whether an individual or entity is acting in a fiduciary capacity towards a funded ERISA benefit plan, including a pension or 401(k) plan or IRA. The DOL has also proposed new and revised class exemptions from certain prohibited transactions resulting from a fiduciary engaging in self-dealing and receiving compensation from third parties in connection with transactions involving a plan or IRA.

The new proposal is primarily focused third party service providers to retirement plans that make recommendations on the selection, retention or disposition of plan assets but are not necessarily “fiduciaries” under the current rule. Consequently, the proposal may not affect the relationship between a plan and its fiduciaries who are employees of the plan sponsor, but those individuals may need to consider revisiting the plan’s existing relationships with certain service providers.

The DOL’s current fiduciary rules were created before 401(k) plans and IRAs became common. The market for financial services and investment advice has become more diverse, with more individuals directing the investment of their own retirement income — frequently, based on the advice of professional brokers, consultants and financial planners. Under the current DOL “fiduciary” definition, any person who renders investment advice for a fee or other compensation is a fiduciary, but the definition of “investment advice” is very narrow. An individual who’s not otherwise a fiduciary only provides “investment advice” if he/she satisfies a highly-specific five part test. The preamble to the new proposed rule cites arrangements in which investment professionals make recommendations to plans regarding the allocation of a significant portion of plan assets on an irregular basis, or provide regular advice but subject to a disclaimer that no mutual agreement exists. These types of arrangements are not covered by the current definition of “investment advice.”

The new proposal replaces the old rule’s five-part test with a list of communications and relationships that would be investment advice if provided in exchange for a fee or other direct or indirect compensation, unless a specific carve-out exists:

  • A recommendation on acquiring, holding or disposing of or exchanging plan assets, including whether to take a distribution of benefits and, if so, how to invest the amount distributed;
  • A recommendation as to the management of plan investments, including amounts to be rolled over or otherwise distributed;
  • An appraisal or valuation of plan assets in connection with the acquisition, disposition or exchange of such assets; or
  • A recommendation of a person who would also receive a fee or other compensation for one of the types of advice described in the first three bullets.

Carve-outs exist for certain services/arrangements, including many that are utilized by employer-sponsored 401(k) plans: (i) arm’s length transactions in which the plan fiduciary has financial expertise and the investment advisor does not receive fees directly from the plan or the plan fiduciary for providing the advice; (ii) certain “swap” or “security-based swap” transactions involving a benefit plan; (iii) services by recordkeepers or third-party administrators that offer a platform of investment vehicles to 401(k) plans or IRAs; and (iv) investment education that doesn’t rise to the level of providing specific recommendations or advice.

In addition, if even a carve-out does not apply, the DOL has proposed class exemptions for select arrangements, including (i) advice provided to small 401(k) plan participants and IRA beneficiaries by a financial institution or its independent agents that’s in the participants’ and beneficiaries’ best interests, not misleading and for reasonable compensation; and (ii) advice by a financial institution or its independent agents regarding the purchase of certain debt securities.

Obviously these new rules raise potential concerns from an ERISA litigation perspective as well. It remains to be seen whether this seeming expansion in certain circumstances of the definition of fiduciary will give rise to new claims by the plaintiffs’ bar. If that occurs, one can certainly expect defendants to attempt to dismiss these new claims early through testing of the legal definition of fiduciary. That said, the potentially fact-intensive nature of the fiduciary status inquiry under these new rules may make it problematic for plan sponsors and alleged fiduciaries to dismiss litigation at the motion to dismiss stage.

 

By Kathleen Cahill Slaught and Michelle Scannell

In the latest chapter in a long-running battle about retiree health and life insurance benefits, the Tenth Circuit recently brought retiree Plaintiffs’ fiduciary breach claims back to life.  In doing so, the Tenth Circuit sided with the Second Circuit in a circuit split on the applicable statute of limitations for ERISA fiduciary breach claims.  Fulghum v. Embarq Corp, No. 13-3230 (10th Cir. 2/24/15).

Our sole focus today is the Tenth Circuit’s interpretation of ERISA Section 413, which provides that a fiduciary breach claim must be brought within 6 years of the last alleged breach, or the latest date the fiduciary could have cured the breach, whichever occurs first.  In cases of “fraud or concealment,” however, a claim may be brought within 6 years of discovery of the breach.  Here, Plaintiffs argued that their claims were timely because they were filed within 6 years of plan amendments that led to discovery of the alleged fraudulent breaches.  The core dispute was whether the “fraud or concealment” exception to the general limitations period requires proof of concealment by the fiduciary, or applies in all cases of alleged fraudulent breach.

The district court ruled that the “fraud or concealment” exception requires proof of the fiduciary’s affirmative concealment of the alleged breach and was thus inapplicable.  On appeal, the Tenth Circuit acknowledged the circuit split on the issue.  The majority view, shared by several circuits including the First, Seventh, and Ninth, is that the “fraud or concealment” exception requires concealment of an alleged breach.

On the other hand, the Second Circuit has refused to “fus[e] the phrase ‘fraud or concealment’ into the single term ‘fraudulent concealment.’”  It therefore applies the exception when a breach claim is based on fraud or there is proof of fiduciary concealment.  Here, the Tenth Circuit adopted the Second Circuit’s interpretation of the scope of the exception.  The Tenth Circuit reasoned that its interpretation remedies “what would otherwise be a harsh result in situations where a fiduciary has engaged in prohibited conduct that cannot readily be discovered.”  According to the court, this is consistent with ERISA’s goal of ensuring adequate disclosures to plan participants.  The court noted that because Plaintiffs did not allege concealment of the breach, on remand Plaintiffs’ fiduciary breach claims would be found timely only if the alleged breach was based on a theory of fraud.

Now that the Tenth Circuit has driven a further wedge into this circuit split, it would be nice to get some clarity from the Supreme Court on the issue.  For now, the Second and Tenth Circuits will remain plaintiff-friendly venues for more tenuous fiduciary breach claims that would be untimely in most other jurisdictions.

By Mark Casciari and Jim Goodfellow

Once again, the Supreme Court will opine on how to write ERISA plans to maximize the right of fiduciaries to sue to recover monetary relief.

On March 30, 2015, the Supreme Court agreed to review the decision of the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit in Board of Trustees of the National Elevator Industry Health Benefit Plan v. Montanile. The issue that will be presented to the Supreme Court is:

Does a lawsuit by an ERISA fiduciary against a participant to recover an alleged overpayment by the plan seek “equitable relief” within the meaning of ERISA section 502(a)(3), 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(3), if the fiduciary has not identified a particular fund that is in the participant’s possession and control at the time the fiduciary asserts its claim?

The Eleventh Circuit answered this question in the affirmative, stating that plan terms allowed the settlement funds received by the plaintiff to be “specifically identified.” The Court also said that the plan provided a first priority claim to all payments made by a third party to plaintiff, even though the plaintiff no longer possessed the settlement money.

The dispute arose when the plan paid the plaintiff’s medical expenses after the plaintiff was injured in a car accident. The plaintiff received a settlement from the other driver, and the plan sought from the settlement funds reimbursement of plan medical expenses.

Affirmance of the Eleventh Circuit’s decision would represent a practical solution to a common problem faced by fiduciaries who attempt to recover from non-fiduciary plan participants or service providers asserting a right to plan benefits based on assignment. Often times, overpaid funds have been spent by the recipients. Should the Supreme Court reverse, non-fiduciary recipients of plan funds would be provided with a perverse incentive to spend plan money immediately upon receipt so as to avoid any repayment obligations set forth by plan terms.

Montanile may have implications in the provider fraud context, where fiduciaries routinely sue providers to recoup overpayments. The decision also may affect reimbursement claims that fiduciaries often assert to recover overpaid benefits.

Montanile also could address an open question after the Supreme Court’s decision in Cigna Corp. v. Amara, 131 S.Ct. 1866 (2011), which has been interpreted by the Fourth and Ninth Circuits to mean that SPDs are not plan documents for the purposes of determining enforceable plan terms. The Eighth and Eleventh Circuits have reached the opposite conclusion, creating a Circuit split.

By Kathleen Cahill Slaught and Michelle Scannell

Since the Supreme Court’s CIGNA v. Amara decision, courts have grappled with the scope of the permissible forms of equitable relief under ERISA, including the surcharge remedy, the sole focus of today’s blog.  Surcharge is generally a type of monetary relief awarded to remedy a fiduciary breach.  In June, the Ninth Circuit sharply limited the scope of surcharge.  See Gabriel v. Alaska Elec. Pension Fund, 12-25458 (6/6/14).  Recently, however, there was a slight change of heart, and the Ninth Circuit replaced that June decision with one that potentially opens the door to surcharge, to be addressed on remand.  Id. (12/16/14).

Gabriel involves a pension plan participant who received benefits for several years, even though he knew he never met the plan’s vesting requirements.  After the error was discovered, his benefits were terminated.  He sued for benefit denial and equitable relief, seeking remedies including surcharge.  He claimed that he was entitled to surcharge in the form of the benefits he would have received had he been credited with the hours erroneously reflected in the fund’s records when he applied for benefits.

Before the Ninth Circuit, plaintiff claimed that under Fourth Circuit authority surcharge could provide make-whole relief, even if it came at the expense of the plan.  The court disagreed, observing that the Fourth Circuit decision and similar decisions in other circuits did not define the scope of surcharge.  Further, those decisions involved remand to district courts to determine the availability of surcharge in the first instance.  The court ruled that under prior circuit precedent, surcharge was recoverable only to remedy unjust enrichment and to restore plan losses.  It further ruled that plaintiff wasn’t entitled to surcharge because there was no unjust enrichment, and also because the remedy he sought would not “restore the trust estate, but rather would wrongfully deplete it by paying him benefits” he wasn’t entitled to.

This June decision was met with criticism.  The plaintiff sought a full panel review.  A few district courts judges within the Ninth Circuit also declined to follow it, noting that due to the pending rehearing petition, the ruling was not yet final.

In its recently issued amended ruling, the Ninth Circuit explained that because the district court concluded the plaintiff wasn’t entitled to monetary relief, it didn’t consider whether plaintiff was entitled to surcharge.  The court noted that under Amara, the proper approach is to vacate the judgment and remand to the district court.  “Consistent with” sister circuits, the court did just that.

In a concurring opinion that surely won’t be overlooked in any remand proceedings, Chief Judge Kozinski expressed “serious[] doubt” that plaintiff could recover surcharge.  He was skeptical of the plaintiff’s ability to prove required elements of harm and causation, because the sole harm he alleged arose out of his “unreasonable” reliance “on the Fund’s misrepresentations.”  Judge Kozinski “couldn’t imagine [that surcharge] extends to a reliance claim where the plaintiff was apprised of the true facts.”  He noted that a contrary conclusion would make bad policy, by imposing a form of “strict reliance for every mistake that’s claimed to be relied on, even if the reliance was unreasonable.”

On our reading of the case, we think that this plaintiff probably isn’t a poster child for a surcharge award.  Stay tuned…

By Mark Casciari

Today, the Supreme Court, in a 9-0 decision authored by Justice Breyer, issued its decision in Fifth Third Bancorp v. Dudenhoeffer, stating, “We hold that no such presumption [of prudence] applies. Instead, ESOP fiduciaries are subject to the same duty of prudence that applies to ERISA fiduciaries in general, except that they need not diversify the fund’s assets.”  The Court did not address the ERISA duty of loyalty.

Even though the Court has firmly placed the presumption of prudence, created in Moench v. Robertson, 62 F. 3d 553, 571 (3d Cir. 1995) and adopted in some form by all of the Courts of Appeal, see our prior articles, into the dustbin of American jurisprudence, there is much in Dudenhoeffer to warm the hearts of ERISA fiduciaries.

The Court reversed the decision of the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.  The Sixth Circuit had held that a complaint alleging that the fiduciaries should have sold publicly traded stock (or take other action not specifically authorized by ESOP documents) just before a substantial decline in stock prices stated a valid ERISA claim.

Practitioners, employee benefits professionals, and of course fiduciaries, should note these statements of the Court in Dudenhoeffer:

• The Court expressly recognized that a goal of Congress is to encourage the establishment of ESOPs, and that Congress “is deeply concerned that the objectives sought by this series of laws will be made unattainable by regulations and rulings which treat [ESOPs] as conventional retirement plans, which reduce the freedom of the employee trusts and employers to take the necessary steps to implement the plans, and which otherwise block the establishment and success of these plans.”  This passage could be cited to the Department of Labor, which, for years, has exhibited antagonism towards ESOPs.

• The Court stated that plaintiffs should be unable to survive a motion to dismiss and thereby engage in discovery merely by alleging that the fiduciaries should have taken action to protect publicly-traded company stock in light of publicly available information.  Discovery, of course, dramatically increases settlement values.  Prior Supreme Court decisions allow discovery only if the complaint makes “plausible” allegations.  The Court in Dudenhoeffer said:  “[W]here a stock is publicly traded, allegations that a fiduciary should have recognized from publicly available information alone that the market was over- or undervaluing the stock are implausible as a general rule, at least in the absence of special circumstances.”  (Emphasis added.)

• The Court stated that plaintiffs will not enter the discovery door without strong allegations that the fiduciaries breached their duties on the basis of inside information:  “To state a claim for breach of the duty of prudence on the basis of inside information, a plaintiff must plausibly allege an alternative action that the defendant could have taken that would have been consistent with the securities laws and that a prudent fiduciary in the same circumstances would not have viewed as more likely to harm the fund than to help it.”  (Emphasis added.)  For a further analysis of the relation between securities laws and ERISA, see M. Casciari and I. Morrison, “Should the Securities Exchange Act be the Sole Federal Remedy for an ERISA Fiduciary Misrepresentation of the Value of Public Employer Stock,” John Marshall Law Review, Vol. 39 No. 3 (Spring, 2006).

• The Court stated that plaintiffs cannot survive a motion to dismiss without plausible allegations of conduct the fiduciaries should have undertaken:  “[L]ower courts faced with such claims should also consider whether the complaint has plausibly alleged that a prudent fiduciary in the defendant’s position could not have concluded that stopping purchases—which the market might take as a sign that insider fiduciaries viewed the employer’s stock as a bad investment—or publicly disclosing negative information would do more harm than good to the fund by causing a drop in the stock price and a concomitant drop in the value of the stock already held by the fund.”  (Emphasis added.)

These statements of the Court may help fiduciaries win motions to dismiss not only in the company stock context, but also in other contexts.  The Court’s statements may be seen as having the effect of raising the plausibility bar applicable to all ERISA fiduciary breach claims.