On Backdating, ERISA, and the Possibly Unintended Consequences of the Diamond Hypothetical

If you have an interest in both ERISA and in well written, logical judicial opinions, I can’t recommend highly enough this opinion, by Judge Gertner of the United States District Court for Massachusetts, in Bendaoud v. Hodgson, deciding a number of issues at the motion to dismiss stage. I have a trial starting on Monday, so, unfortunately, I can’t delve as deeply today into the range of issues the opinion discusses and that warrant comment as I would like, but a few issues are worth commenting on right off the bat, even in the limited time I have today.

First, I have discussed before the trend, which others are recognizing as well, of ERISA replacing securities law as a preferred structure for attacking stock drop and similar stock related manipulation type cases. Judge Gertner comes as close as anyone has to demonstrating in her opinion why this state of affairs has come to pass, in her analysis of standing and the question of whether the plaintiff, since he sold his stock holdings in the company plan before the stock manipulation in question came to light and drove down the stock price, could still show he suffered injury. The court found that the plaintiff could show injury by demonstrating that the alleged fiduciary breaches resulted in less profit than the plaintiff would have earned “had the funds been available for” other purposes than the investment made by the plaintiff. This is a pretty open damages theory, and not one as closely tied to the actual timing of disclosures and its impact on stock prices that the court recognizes would control the issue if it were more of a traditional stock manipulation securities action.

Second, the case raises questions about whether, after Justice Breyer’s famous diamond hypothetical in LaRue, a single plan participant can actually sue for losses to the plan anymore in defined contribution cases, if the diamond that was lost did not actually come from that participant’s account (or safe deposit box, in the terms of the hypothetical). The court suggests that such a plan participant may not seek recovery for the other plan members on his or her own, but that instead a class action structure may be required.

And finally, reading the court’s opinion and the analysis of the damages issue, I couldn’t help but think of the LA Times ESOP case that I discussed here and my thought that, regardless of the merits of that particular case, it certainly illustrated the risks of using ESOP held stock in corporate transactions, because the interests of those pursuing the transaction, while not by definition wrong in any way, may not line up perfectly with the best interests of the employees holding that stock in the ESOP, raising risks of breach of fiduciary duty. The damages analysis in Bendaoud goes right to this point; under that analysis, the issue is not whether the stock holding employees made out okay in the deal, but whether the ESOP assets would have been worth more had the stock been used in a different manner or different transaction. That analysis suggests a broad range of attacks on a complicated ESOP implicating transaction such as that in the LA Times case.