A Perfect Storm, ERISA Style

This is not, at this point, a novel idea, but I do take credit for being one of the first to blog regularly on the thesis that we are approaching, if haven’t by now already hit, a perfect storm when it comes to retirement benefits and ERISA. The perfect storm consists of a series of elements all coming together in the same place and time, which in this instance consists of the following. First, a move from pensions to 401(k) plans, with the corresponding shift of two key risks – investment performance and capital accumulation – from plan sponsors to participants, a change which most people paid little attention to for a long time, because pensioners were still the majority of people accessing retirement benefits, while the vast numbers who would have to instead rely on defined contribution accounts to fund retirements were still working; this kept both the impact of, and the fear of the impact of, that change relatively hidden for quite some time. Second, the impending boom (pun intended) in retirements of a generation whose retirements will be funded – or, actually, more often than not won’t be funded, if you believe the numbers – solely by 401(k) plans. Third, the swooning of the stock market contemporaneously with these events. Add it all up and you end up with a retirement crisis.

For ERISA litigation, you are already seeing some of the changes that this storm is rendering, and will continue to render, as legal rulings and regulatory initiatives occur that are making it and will continue to make it, roughly speaking, easier to sue for breach of fiduciary duty under ERISA and to recover under ERISA if you are a plan participant. Doctrinal development of case law does not happen in a vacuum, and the easing of the restrictions against suing and recovering in ERISA cases is not happening in a vacuum either, but is instead being firmly influenced by the changes in the retirement industry and environment that are causing this perfect storm.

This occurs in a number of influential but indirect ways, which includes more cases being filed, often by more sophisticated lawyers, providing more opportunities for the legal principles at issue to evolve. One manner in which you see this is the shifting, sometimes almost glacially, of principles created in the case law during the days of pensions, when – in my view – courts paid less analytical attention to certain issues because most disputes concerned problems between sponsors and outsiders to the system, such as vendors or lenders, and did not directly affect the ability of participants to be paid their pensions; this is because, absent outright collapse of the sponsor, the obligation remained to pay those benefits regardless of the dispute at issue. The same, of course, cannot be said with regard to defined contribution plans, and thus courts are looking more closely at disputes in this environment than they did when confronted with similar, pension based cases 20 years ago. Indeed, we have clear direction from the Supreme Court that lower courts should reconsider doctrines established back in the long ago days of pensions when they arise in the context of defined contribution plans. Another manner in which this occurs is regulatory change – clearly, the Department of Labor’s flurry of regulatory initiatives related to fee disclosure and fiduciary status concern the need to tighten up the legal structure with regard to defined contribution plans in a manner that was not needed back when pensions walked the earth, as they increasingly no longer do. Each of these regulatory changes, in turn, opens up greater avenues for litigation and fiduciary liability, further changing the legal environment concerning 401(k) plans and ERISA itself. In this way, the perfect storm comes to affect ERISA litigation and liabilities.

Now here is a new wrinkle to add to the perfect storm, one that if true will just add to the impetus towards change described above: the possibility that the impending boom in 401(k) funded retirements will in and of itself depress stock prices. This will in turn simply accelerate the cycle, described above, by increasing the investment risk and capital accumulation risks that the systemic changeover from pensions to defined contribution plans has transferred to participants. The more risk of this nature passed to participants, and the more they suffer as a result of the outcome of those risks running against them, the more litigation, the more recoveries, and the more doctrinal changes you will see.

Put this one in a blog time capsule, and come back and see me in 20 years. I bet I will be right on this one.
 

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