Hecker and the Development of the Law on the 404(c) Defense

One of the Seventh Circuit’s most interesting tricks in its recent decision in Hecker was the extraordinary breadth it gave to the 404(c) defense. This was an aspect of the decision that raised a lot of hackles, and I noted in my own post on the case that I doubted this was the last word on the subject and that it would be interesting to see how the case law developed as other courts tackled this question. Well, here’s a decision from a week or so ago out of the United States District Court for the District of New Hampshire taking a much narrower approach in interpreting the amount of protection granted to fiduciaries by section 404(c), finding that the defense does not apply to “a fiduciary's designation of the investment options that are available to plan participants.” The court reached this conclusion because:

First, section 404(c) is unclear as to whether it can be used to bar a claim based on a fiduciary's designation of investment options. Second, section 404(c) requires the DOL to adopt regulations explaining when a participant or beneficiary has sufficient control over his assets to be subject to a section 404(c)defense. 29 U.S.C. § 1104(c)(1)(A). Third, the DOL's implementing regulations are themselves unclear as to whether section 404(c) applies to a fiduciary's decision to designate investment options. Fourth, the DOL reasonably determined in the preamble to its regulations that losses which result from a fiduciary's designation decision are neither a "direct" nor a "necessary" result of a participant's exercise of control over plan assets. Finally, both the Supreme Court and the First Circuit have recognized in similar circumstances that an agency's reasonable interpretation of its own regulations in a regulatory preamble is entitled to deference.

Frankly, I am inclined to think that a close review of the actual statutory text and regulations suggest that this judge is closer on the mark on this issue than was the Seventh Circuit in Hecker, leading to what I think is the real takeaway from the continued development of the case law on this issue: namely, that plan sponsors should not overly rely on Hecker in evaluating their potential exposure and their obligations. Rather, as I have said in other forums, Hecker should be understood by plan sponsors and their vendors as setting forth the base minimum in terms of how a plan should be structured with regard to investment option fees, and should not be seen as a get out of jail free card by a sponsor who does no more than build a plan consistent with the reasoning in that case.