To Be or Not to Be (a Fiduciary, That Is)

I talked about a case last week that addressed the damages aspect of making out a breach of fiduciary duty claim related to stock drop type issues, and pointed out the broad, ambiguous and easy to manipulate nature of a damages claim in that scenario. Another case last week, also out of the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts, points out that other aspects of making out a breach of fiduciary duty case on a class action basis based on the administration of 401(k) plans provide a real check on such cases. The issue in that case? Namely that not everyone involved in operating a 401(k) plan is a fiduciary, and that while deep pockets involved in allegedly inappropriate behavior with regard to such a plan may make tempting targets, they cannot be sued successfully for breach of fiduciary duty if the prerequisite of having acted as a fiduciary is not satisfied.

As Judge O’Toole’s opinion in Columbia Air Services v. Fidelity Management Trust Company illustrates, an administrator of a plan - and who is not a named fiduciary of the plan - is only a functional fiduciary with regard to those specific limited areas in which it exercised discretionary, decision making authority; alleged wrongdoing by it with regard to other areas of its work for the plan do not subject it to fiduciary liability because the administrator is not deemed to have been serving as a fiduciary in those other contexts, regardless of the fact that it served as a fiduciary for other purposes. Thus, in that case, claims that improper fees were paid to the administrator as part of the structure of the 401(k) plan it was administering could not be the basis for a breach of fiduciary duty class action, because that did not occur as part of the activity where the administrator was, in fact, a fiduciary. As a result, ERISA granted no avenue for redressing those allegations of improper fees being paid to the administrator as part of its work for the 401(k) plan in question.

Although, as I have discussed in the past and as is discussed as well in this interesting article here, ERISA is becoming a favored structure for bringing securities related class actions, as this case shows, there are hurdles to these types of claims as well, ones that should dissuade anyone who thinks that bringing a stock manipulation class action under ERISA rather than the securities laws themselves equates with shooting fish in a barrel.

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