The Ninth Circuit Adopts Moench and Why It Matters
Now here’s an interesting tale, namely the story of the Ninth Circuit’s adoption of the Moench presumption with regard to breach of fiduciary duty claims alleging that fiduciaries erred by allowing a plan to hold too much employer stock or otherwise failing to act to protect participants from the risk of holding that stock as an investment option. As I discussed in this post, the Moench presumption essentially shields the fiduciaries from such claims where the plan expressly authorizes employer stock as an investment unless the company and/or its stock value had been placed at extreme risk. As the blog post on the Ninth Circuit’s decision notes, and as I have commented elsewhere, courts vary in how they frame the circumstances in which the presumption can be overcome and a breach of fiduciary duty claim maintained, but in all circumstances it can fairly be described as requiring a significant risk to the investment, beyond just a major stock decline. The Ninth Circuit, in its opinion, notes the variance in formulating the standard, and then formulates a pretty high bar for overcoming the presumption.
As I discussed in this post, the Department of Labor is in the process of arguing to the Second Circuit that this presumption should not exist, and the outcome of this at the Second Circuit becomes key, I think, for the future of this theory of liability against fiduciaries. If the Second Circuit joins the Ninth and a few other circuits in adopting this presumption, this becomes a very unattractive potential theory of liability for the class action bar or anyone else to pursue; large scale breach of fiduciary duty cases against large, well run and sophisticated plans are tough cases to win in the first place, before adding in the significant defense at the motion practice stage that this presumption grants to plan fiduciaries. If, on the other hand, the Second Circuit agrees with the Department of Labor and rejects the Moench presumption, it doesn’t take a soothsayer to suspect the issue goes from there to the Supreme Court, given the obvious circuit split on a significant issue of federal law that such a decision would create. On that front, with regard to the question of what the Second Circuit may do in response to the Department of Labor's arguments, it is worth noting that the Ninth Circuit's opinion in many ways anticipates and provides the rejoinder to much of the Department of Labor's argument in its briefing to the Second Circuit, on whether the presumption is compatible with ERISA; the opinion actually presents a well reasoned framework for viewing the presumption as consistent with the statutory framework.
The Ninth Circuit decision, in Quan v. Computer Sciences Corporation, adopting the presumption, is interesting for another reason. I will confess - and frequently do, to anyone who will listen - to a preference for issues being decided on their merits and, preferably, at trial, after thorough investigation and vetting. As discussed in this interview I did awhile back with Tom Gies, right after he argued the LaRue case before the Supreme Court, I believe the jurisprudence develops better, and we get more accurate results, when key issues are decided after an evidentiary record is developed that will shed light on the propriety, or lack thereof, of challenged conduct, than is the case when such issues are decided based upon the legal arguments, hypotheses and assumptions that checker any decision made in advance of factual development, such as at the motion to dismiss stage. My experience as a trial lawyer has taught me to put my trust in facts, and to believe that they are more likely than not to lead one to the right result. They are, as the saying goes, stubborn things, far less manipulable than legal doctrine and argument.
That said, though, the Ninth Circuit case adopting the presumption presents a perfect justification for the presumption. As detailed in this blog post, the stock drop at issue in the case, and on which the claim of breach of fiduciary duty rested, was a 12% single day decline, which was recovered in a reasonable length of time. Given the variability and the volatility of the market in general, it is extremely hard to think of a convincing rationale for imposing fiduciary liability simply because of a moderate, but not company threatening, short term decline in the value of the company stock, or for allowing expensive, time consuming litigation over that stock drop. In that particular case, the presumption resolves this, by establishing that the stock drop alone isn’t enough, and much more must be shown to justify the suit going forward.