Fiduciary Advisors, Due Diligence, and Avoiding Fiduciary Liability

Michael Pratico, a fiduciary advisor to retirement plans throughout New England for Captrust Financial Advisors, and one of my favorite touchstones for real world - i.e. non-lawyer - information about the actual operation of retirement benefit plans, pointed out an interesting conundrum to me the other day concerning the operations of retirement plans and the fiduciary obligations of those who operate them. As I have discussed in other posts, the fiduciary obligations of those who sponsor or administer such plans clearly require, at this point in time and in light of current developments in the law, a certain level of due diligence, requiring at a minimum a regular comparison of fees and other aspects of a 401(k) or other retirement plan to the broader market as a whole.

Michael points out an interesting side effect of this, however, which is that once a plan sponsor or other fiduciary undertakes such due diligence, the plan becomes obliged, for all intents and purposes, to act on any bad news uncovered by the due diligence. What this means is that, yes, the plan sponsor is obligated to do the due diligence, and it seems to me is a sitting duck for a stock drop or excessive fees type suit if it fails to do so based simply on that failure.  But that is certainly not the end of it.  Instead, it means as well that once the sponsor has done that, if the due diligence shows a disjunct between better results or costs in the market as a whole and what the particular plan is earning or paying in expenses, the plan sponsor or other fiduciary becomes obligated to act on that information and change the plan to address those problems, with the failure to take that step likewise then becoming a legitimate basis for a breach of fiduciary duty lawsuit.

This is what Michael and other fiduciary advisors of his ilk do, take the existing plan, see where it is off base relative to the mutual fund world as a whole, and then recommend how to fix it. Taking both steps, and not either playing ostrich and skipping the due diligence entirely or else doing the due diligence but skipping the action it points out is needed, is really the best way to avoid incurring liability from excessive fee and similar types of claims.