Fiduciary Prudence? 9.5 Million Reasons to Care.
Here’s something very interesting, which I thought I would pass along with a couple of comments. It is the Court’s order concerning the proposed settlement of the class action at issue in George v. Kraft Food. George, which I discussed here, involved a particularly minute attack on the stock fund structure in a company 401(k) plan and on the decision making process by which the recordkeeper’s fees were determined. A panel of the Seventh Circuit found those claims viable as presented at the summary judgment stage, and allowed them to move forward. I discussed at the time of the Seventh Circuit’s ruling the fact that the decision ran counter to a wide spread sentiment that the Seventh Circuit’s earlier decision in Hecker v. Deere, which threw out an excessive fee and revenue sharing case with great vim and vigor, effectively foreclosed breach of fiduciary duty claims premised on the expenses of running a plan. What George showed, however, is that all Hecker precluded were broad, sweeping attacks on the fee structure and design of a plan; precisely targeted criticisms, with factual support for them, addressed to specific issues concerning the fiduciary’s conduct regarding the plan’s pricing and structure, can still move forward, as it did in George. And to what end? The settlement order in George indicates a settlement fund being paid out to the plan participants of $9.5 million.
So what to make of that? Here’s a good start. First, carefully targeted and supported breach of fiduciary duty claims targeting plan expenses, fees and structures are not guaranteed to go away through motion practice, as though a motion to dismiss or for summary judgment is akin to a wand at Hogwarts. Many, many, many fiduciaries – or at least their lawyers - have become convinced in recent years of the opposite, in my view. Second, if they don’t go away, their settlement value becomes significant, because of the sheer amounts at risk in a breach of fiduciary duty case involving a plan of any meaningful size. Third, breach of fiduciary duty cases, especially class actions, targeting the design and expense structures of plans are going to continue, no matter what lesson anyone hoped to take from the outcome in what was one of the earliest cases, Hecker. They are simply going to have to be better targeted and designed, and more carefully grounded in facts, than were the earliest cases, for this line of litigation to continue.