A Primer on Fiduciary Status Under ERISA

I liked the recent opinion in Bonilla v. Bella Vista Hospital, Inc., out of the United States District Court for the District of Puerto Rico (not available online from the court, but here's a Lexis cite for it: 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 79939) for really only one reason, namely this terrific overview of the law of fiduciary status and duty:

ERISA reserves fiduciary liability for "named fiduciaries," defined either as those individuals listed as fiduciaries in the plan documents or those who are otherwise identified as fiduciaries pursuant to a plan-specified procedure. 29 U.S.C. § 1102(a)(2); see also Beddall v. State St. Bank & Trust Co., 137 F.3d 12, 18 (1st Cir. 1998). However, the statute also extends fiduciary liability to functional fiduciaries, who are persons that act as fiduciaries (though not explicitly denominated as such) by performing at least one of several enumerated functions with respect to a plan. Beddall, 137 F.3d at 18. Under 29 U.S.C.S. § 1002(21)(A), a person is a fiduciary with respect to a plan to the extent (i) he exercises any discretionary authority or discretionary control respecting management of such plan or exercises any authority or control respecting management or disposition of its assets, (ii) he renders investment advice for a fee or other compensation, direct or indirect, with respect to any moneys or other property of such plan, or has any authority or responsibility to do so, or (iii) he has any discretionary authority or discretionary responsibility in the administration of such plan.

The key determinant of whether a person qualifies as a functional fiduciary is whether that person exercises discretionary authority in respect to, or meaningful control over, an ERISA plan, its administration, or its assets (such as by rendering investment advice). See Beddall, 137 F.3d at 18; O'Toole v. Arlington Trust Co., 681 F.2d 94, 96 (1st Cir. 1982); see also 29 C.F.R. § 2509.75-8, at 571 (1986). The exercise of physical control or the performance of mechanical administrative tasks generally is insufficient to confer fiduciary status, a person is a plan fiduciary only "to the extent" that he possesses or exercises the requisite discretion and control. 29 U.S.C. § 1002(21)(A); see also Beddall, 137 F.3d at 18.

An ERISA fiduciary, properly identified, must employ within the defined domain "the care, skill, prudence, and diligence under the circumstances then prevailing that a prudent man acting in a like capacity and familiar with such matters would use." Id. (quoting 29 U.S.C. § 1104(a)(1)(B)). The fiduciary should act "solely in the interest of the participants and beneficiaries," and his overarching purpose should be to "provide benefits to the participants and their beneficiaries" and to "defray reasonable expenses of administering the plan." Id. (quoting 29 U.S.C. § 1104(a)(1)). A fiduciary who fails to fulfill these responsibilities is "personally liable to make good to [the] plan any losses to the plan resulting from... such breach." Id. (quoting 29 U.S.C. § 1109(a)).

Reads like a beautiful nutshell summation of the law of fiduciary duty under ERISA, doesn’t it?

Nutshells, by the way, for you non-lawyer readers, are relatively brief condensations of particular areas of the law that multiple generations of law students have read instead of law textbooks themselves, which not only often run the length of “War and Peace” but are also often as comprehensible as that classic - in its original Russian.

Written By:Paul Gewirtz On November 15, 2007 11:04 AM

Yes, it does.