Bunch v. W.R. Grace: What a Breach of Fiduciary Duty Doesn't Look Like

I cannot do better by anybody interested in fiduciary obligations under ERISA than to recommend to you the First Circuit’s decision the other day in Bunch v. W.R. Grace & Co.. For those of you not familiar with the lower court proceedings in that case, what was at issue is whether it was a breach of fiduciary duty to sell company stock, rather than maintain it as an investment option, after retaining outside advisors to investigate the stock’s value, potential and appropriateness as an investment option. At the District Court level, and again now on appeal, the courts have found the fiduciaries’ conduct to be almost literally above reproach with regard to the handling of this issue. The First Circuit’s brief is notable for two points. The first is its synopsis of the duties of a fiduciary with regard to investment options, including company stock, and the court’s emphasis on the fact that it is the appropriateness of the fiduciaries’ conduct in the face of uncertainty that must be judged, not the dollar value outcome of any particular investment decision in isolation. As the First Circuit opinion noted:

what ERISA calls for from a fiduciary is that it use 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 in the conduct of an enterprise of a like character and with like aims." 29 U.S.C. § 1104(a)(1)(B). As the district court aptly stated, "in common parlance, [what] ERISA fiduciaries owe participants [are] duties of prudence and loyalty," Bunch, 532 F. Supp. 2d at 288 (citing Moench v. Robertson, 62 F.3d 553, 561 (3d Cir. 1995)). The district court noted that other courts faced with allegations similar to those of appellants in this case had looked at the totality of the circumstances involved in the particular transaction. Id. Among the key decisions relied upon by the district court for reaching this conclusion was DiFelice v. U.S. Airways, Inc., in which that court stated: [W]e examine the totality of the circumstances, including, but not limited to: the plan structure and aims, the disclosures made to participants regarding the general and specific risks associated with investment in company stock, and the nature and extent of challenges facing the company that would have an effect on stock price and viability.

And second, if you want to read an outline of what a thorough and, once in court, easily defensible, course of conduct by a fiduciary looks like when it comes to investment options, it’s the underlying course of action by the fiduciaries that is described in the First Circuit’s opinion.