LaRue v DeWolff, Broberg and the Concept of Administration Risk in ERISA Plans

Oral argument at the Supreme Court is scheduled for Monday in LaRue v DeWolff, Broberg & Associates, which presents the technical question of whether a loss to only one participant’s 401(k) plan is actionable as a breach of fiduciary duty causing a loss to the plan, but which on a broader level concerns the question of who should bear the administration risk (defined as the problems of mistakes or malfeasance in the operation of a benefit plan) inherent in the operation of a 401(k) plan. Is it the participant or instead the plan fiduciaries who should bear that risk? To LaRue, who focuses his arguments around this idea, mistakes attributable to the administrators that harm the account balances of a particular plan participant represent a risk that should be borne by the erring administrator, and should therefore be actionable under ERISA even if the only losses in the entire plan from the mistake were suffered by one particular plan participant. The respondents reply, quite correctly, that ERISA provides limited remedies and some losses are simply - and quite intentionally under the terms of the statute - not actionable; to the respondents, LaRue’s loss, which stemmed from the administrator not following his specific investment instructions related to his specific account, is exactly such a non-remediable event under ERISA.

While the respondents are right that ERISA, presumably intentionally and certainly consistently with the general understanding of the statute and its history, provides only limited rights of recourse and leaves some losses to be borne by the affected plan participant, the statutory language itself at issue in the case - concerning whether an individual’s loss of the type described by LaRue qualifies as an actionable loss to the plan when only the individual was harmed - does not specifically leave in or leave out the circumstances of LaRue’s particular loss from the category of losses that are actionable under ERISA. And that is really where the Supreme Court’s involvement here comes into play, on the question of whether the type of administration risk described by LaRue belongs within or without the statute’s remedies; how the Court interprets the specific statutory language at issue will decide that question.

Personally, I’m of the view that the Court will find that the statutory language allows for the type of claim that LaRue is presenting. The language in question is capable, without any stretching of the language, of including the kind of claim at issue, and past jurisprudence doesn’t bar - or even present a significant impediment - to such an interpretation of the particular statutory language at issue. Moreover, and interestingly given the respondents’ - quite appropriate - tactical reliance on the general theme underlying past Court opinions on ERISA cases that suggest a claim such as LaRue’s is not actionable, the body of law that bears on this issue really was not created in response to one of the primary economic developments in American life over the last handful of years, namely the transition over to a regime of individual responsibility for retirement by means of defined contribution plans such as 401(k) plans and the accompanying transfer to individuals of the risks of retirement investing, and the corresponding disappearance of a defined benefit regime in which all such risks were borne not by individuals, but instead by their employers. Questions like the one presented by the petitioner in LaRue haven’t really been addressed at the high court level in the context of this new economic reality, and I am not convinced of the utility of past ERISA decisions concerning other contexts in resolving the statute’s application in the defined contribution context. I suspect that LaRue will present an early example of the Court accepting that the statutory language in ERISA that remains open to differing interpretations should be understood as transferring at least some of the administration risk inherent in the world of 401(k) plans from the individual saver and onto the party in the best position to avoid the risk, namely the administrator.

At the same time, I am not convinced that this is going to do much good for LaRue himself. The respondents take the tactical approach in their briefing of focusing on the particular flaws in LaRue’s presentation of himself as the poster boy for plan participants confronted by erring administrators, in an attempt to show that the particular claim he presented to the courts below does not justify interpreting the statutory language in a manner that would allow his claim to proceed. It’s a pretty good argument, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a final opinion that opens up the type of claim he is arguing for, but puts him outside of its scope.