Could the Deepwater Horizon Alter the Trajectory of ERISA Stock Drop Litigation?
BP has a giant employee savings plan, making it a prime target for stock drop type ERISA breach of fiduciary duty claims in light of the Deepwater Horizon leak, as I mentioned here in this post, and the lawsuits and the investigations that will eventually result in lawsuits are coming out of the woodwork as fast as vampires in one of the Twilight movies. As I noted in this earlier post, I am beyond skeptical of any such claims that are premised on the simple thesis that the fiduciaries breached their duties by not anticipating and accounting for the risk of this type of a loss when deciding to include or emphasize company stock in the plan. However, less flippantly and more exactingly, the same is not necessarily true for the alternative thesis, which I assume to be what many of these claims will play out as, that the fiduciary breach doesn’t relate to this specific environmental loss and its impact on the stock holding, but rather is that, in light of the regulatory and environmental universe in which BP operates, it was imprudent to hold or allow employees to hold a disproportionate amount of company stock; in other words, that the risk profile of the accounts as a whole was too high because too much of the investment was in company stock in an industry subject to unique and potentially catastrophic risks. Just a quick, non-analytical glance at BrightScope indicates a large company stock exposure in the BP employee savings plan, incidentally. In this sense, these claims, and the BP fiduciaries’ exposure, is no different than other instances of companies whose stock fell at a time that employee retirement accounts held a disproportionately high share of that one stock. What makes the claim here a little different, however, is the argument that there is something unique to the industry that calls for less company stock being offered to employees and instead a greater fiduciary emphasis on diversification than would be the case in other industries. For instance, if a Gillette or a Grace is sued after a stock drop, the argument is essentially that prudent investing practice as a whole calls for greater diversification, and the claims against the fiduciaries, to dress them up, may also include the argument that the fiduciaries should have anticipated stock market risks based on their knowledge of the company and its industry that should have caused them to prevent the excessive accumulation of company stock. With the BP claims, though, what you would have, I suspect, is less the argument that greater diversification was needed as a general principle, in favor instead of the argument that the oil industry itself is so subject to unique, stock value demolishing risks - from tanker crashes, to oil well blow outs, to nationalization, to wars - that it was simply imprudent to allow an excess exposure to the industry and certainly to any one particular company in that industry. (Incidentally, there is no better overview of these topics and the peculiar risks of the oil industry than Daniel Yergin’s The Prize, which may perhaps be necessary background reading for the law clerk of any judge assigned one of these cases).
Its an alluring theory, but one that raises the question of whether it plays out against the backdrop of past case law and the development of fiduciary standards when it comes to employer stock holdings, which would suggest that the claims on their merits have weaknesses, or whether instead they play out against the political backdrop of the Deepwater Horizon event and the economic losses it is strewing across a range of actors, including but not limited to the employee shareholders. If it plays out against that later backdrop - as a, perhaps, unseen or unspoken influence - the question becomes whether this fact pattern could shift the nature of these types of claims in a direction that could give them far more traction than the past history of claims of this nature suggests would otherwise be the case.
Can the Deepwater Horizon Spill Sink the Fiduciaries of BP's 401(k) Plan as Well?
Well, someone thinks so. You can count me, though, as monstrously skeptical that you could tag the fiduciaries of the BP 401(k) plan with breach of fiduciary duty for overexposure to company stock because they failed to expect the Deepwater Horizon explosion and account for it by greater diversification. On the other hand are two notes: (1) perhaps there is a circuit, somewhere out there, with fiduciary liability standards for company stock investment that are so loose that including BP stock ahead of such an event could be deemed an actionable breach; and (2) the decline in the value of the plan’s assets may be so large that, if a class gets certified, even a minor settlement to avoid a potential ruling against the fiduciaries could easily run into the tens of millions.