Protecting Corporate Officers from Fiduciary Exposure

Here’s an interesting article on one particular aspect of ERISA breach of fiduciary duty cases, namely the targeting as defendants of executive officers of the company sponsoring a pension or 401(k) plan; the gist of the article is that there are tactical and psychological benefits that accrue to counsel representing plan participants when they name officers of a company as defendants in such actions and allege that they are plan fiduciaries. Discretionary authority of any nature, of course, can render someone a fiduciary under a company’s pension or 401(k) plan, and those individuals can thereafter be rightfully targeted as defendants in a breach of fiduciary duty action related to that plan. As the article points out, allowing senior officers or directors of the company to engage in such activities can leave them open to suit, a bad idea because of the distraction and injury to company reputation of having senior management named as defendants in any major piece of litigation. The article’s suggestion to solve this problem? The old ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure approach. The authors recommend that, well in advance of any litigation and even with none hovering off, threateningly, on the horizon, companies return to the plan documents and make sure they are structured to keep senior management out of the operation and decision making of the company’s pension plans. In essence, delegate that job downward in the company, as far away from senior management as day to day operational concerns - as opposed to concerns of preventive lawyering - allow. In a company retirement plan structured in that manner, the ability to credibly assert that any member of senior management exercised discretionary authority over the company’s retirement plan - and to therefore charge them as fiduciaries - is very limited and possibly non-existent.