Whitley v. BP, Stock Drops, and the Outer Limits of Fiduciary Responsibility

There is an old political saying that where you stand depends on where you sit, which, roughly translated, means that people tend to assert positions that are beneficial to their own organizations and employers, rather than based upon a consideration of broader issues. The author of the maxim, Rufus Miles, thinks the idea goes all the way back to Plato.

I often think of this maxim, known as Miles’ law, when ERISA litigators comment on prominent court decisions affecting ERISA claims, particularly breach of fiduciary duty actions. Lawyers from firms who primarily or exclusively represent major financial companies or plan sponsors always speak well of defense oriented decisions, and those who represent participants, particularly class action lawyers, always speak poorly of such decisions. The reverse, of course, tends to occur when a court issues a decision that seems to expand liability under ERISA or to favor participants on even a superficial or procedural level.

For me, probably because I represent the full range of actors in the ERISA universe, from participants to plan sponsors to third party administrators to fiduciaries and back again, I tend to be pretty agnostic about prominent decisions issued by courts on key ERISA issues. Some are good, some are bad, some are just plan poorly reasoned and worthy of criticism no matter which side of the “v” you favor.

One I am not particularly critical of is the clear trend line against participants in the so-called stock drop suits, involving claims of breach of fiduciary duty based upon collapse in the stock price of company stock held in employer plans, at least in cases where plan participants always had the option of diversifying out of those holdings but instead voluntarily kept too much of their retirement holdings in company stock. As I have written before, how many economic cycles does one have to live through to know that keeping a large portion of your retirement assets or other wealth, voluntarily, in the stock of your publicly traded employer might just not be the best idea?

But leaving that caveat aside, it is necessary to maintain some strong bars to such claims, because otherwise they simply become a back door avenue for plaintiffs’ firms to prosecute securities litigation, only in this instance, under ERISA, which – for all its reputation as a defense-oriented statute – is a more flexible basis for pursuing such claims than are the securities laws at this point. Stock drop claims more properly belong under the securities laws and its doctrines, and should be evaluated under them. Now don’t get me wrong: I am not saying there cannot be a fiduciary breach for purposes of ERISA related to employer stock that warrants a claim under ERISA under all circumstances, but only that stock collapse, without more, is really simply securities litigation in ERISA clothing.

I have always believed that the Supreme Court’s decision in Dudenhoeffer was a fine piece of line drawing in this regard, allowing such claims in a narrow class of circumstances but limiting them to a degree sufficient to maintain a firm distinction between securities law and ERISA’s fiduciary standards. I believe the post-Dudenhoeffer decisions out of the district courts and federal courts of appeal have demonstrated that this is an accurate view of that decision, including the most recent high profile decision on this issue, the Fifth Circuit’s decision this week in Whitley v. BP, PLC. Whitley was a stock drop claim arising from one of the more notorious environmental disasters in recent years, with the participants claiming that the loss in the value of their company stock holdings that resulted from it was attributable to fiduciary violations by the plan’s fiduciaries. As the Fifth Circuit explained:

On April 20, 2010, the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig exploded, causing a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and a subsequent decline in BP's stock price. The BP Stock Fund lost significant value, and the affected investors filed suit on June 24, 2010, alleging that the plan fiduciaries: (1) breached their duties of prudence and loyalty by allowing the Plans to acquire and hold overvalued BP stock; (2) breached their duty to provide adequate investment information to plan participants; and (3) breached their duty to monitor those responsible for managing the BP Stock Fund.

After much procedural maneuvering by the plaintiffs to try to plead a viable breach of fiduciary duty theory involving this fact pattern, the Fifth Circuit eventually dismissed the action, finding that the plaintiffs could not satisfy the standards for stock drop claims after Dudenhoeffer. Procedurally and doctrinally, it reads to me as a correct ruling. But there is more to it than that. If you step back and think about this case as a whole – and not just based on where you sit in terms of who should bear the losses from a stock drop, the employees or instead the employer – the decision makes even more sense. There is an awful long distance – both literally and metaphorically - between an offshore drilling rig and the plan fiduciaries sitting in an office somewhere deciding to offer company stock in a retirement plan. To borrow a concept from tort law, there is an almost inconceivable number of breaks in the chain of causation between the decision making of the fiduciaries and a loss stemming from this event. Although I fully understand how one can connect the dots, it is really pushing the outer limits of fiduciary responsibility to do so.