The International Paper Settlement and the Continued Vitality of Excessive Fee Claims
One of the first long articles I wrote on ERISA (I had already penned some opuses on patent infringement litigation and insurance coverage disputes) was on excessive fee litigation, and was based, at heart, on the Seventh Circuit’s then recent decision in Hecker v. Deere. Titled “Retreat from the High Water Mark: Breach of Fiduciary Duty Claims Involving Excessive Fees After Tibble v. Edison International,” the article set forth my view that, in Civil War parlance, the decision in Hecker, which was being highly trumpeted by the defense bar at the time as a major victory, was, in fact, little more than the high water mark for plan sponsors and vendors in defending against excessive fee class actions. My thesis was that, when the decision was broken down and analyzed in its constituent parts (and particularly with a focus on the Court’s reasoning), it was unlikely that the decision would be replicated, and more likely that other courts would come to different conclusions in the future that would validate excessive fee claims and invigorate the theory as a basis for class action litigation.
From where I sit, four years of court decisions, settlements and courtroom results appear to have borne out my prognosis. Humble scribe that I am, I don’t believe I have ever pointed out before that I was right in this regard, but, as Thomas Clark pointed out earlier this week in an excellent post on the FRA PlanTools Blog, the recent $30 million settlement entered into by International Paper is solid evidence that I was right.
My real purpose for writing today, though, was to pass along his post on the settlement, which does an excellent job of breaking down the issues, the claims, the alleged breaches, and the settlement of the International Paper case. It comprehensively covers everything any outsider to the litigation would want to or need to know about the case.
To Boldly Go Where No Class Action Plaintiff Has Gone Before: Church Plan Class Actions
One of the interesting developments that caught my eye recently, and likely many of yours as well, was the filing of class action complaints challenging whether certain plans were, in fact, church plans for purposes of ERISA and thus, exempt from many of its requirements. This excellent paper on this development, by Wilber Boies and a cast of thousands at McDermott Will, delves into this issue with great insight. It is worth a read in and of itself if you want to understand both this development, and the legal arguments being pressed to challenge the status as church plans of the defendants in those cases.
Separately, though, I wanted to comment on a few points that the article focuses on, and how it relates to some of the thoughts on ERISA litigation and class action litigation that I have developed in posts over the years. First, I have discussed over the years that ERISA, to a large extent, is based on a private attorney general approach to plan discipline. There are limits to the resources of the DOL when it comes to enforcing the fiduciary obligations, funding requirements, prohibited transaction rules, and other aspects of benefit plans. ERISA, primarily through its breach of fiduciary duty provisions and the availability of the class action mechanism, relies on private enforcement actions to enforce those rules and obligations in the many, many cases where problems with a plan arguably exist, but for one reason or another are not resolved by action by the designated regulator. No matter what one thinks of class action plaintiffs’ firms, the reality is that both the threat of breach of fiduciary duty class actions and the changes imposed by suits that are successful play a significant role in maintaining the standards and integrity of benefit and pension plans. I have often written that most plan sponsors and fiduciaries, in my experience, want to run a sound and successful plan. They don’t, however, always succeed, and there are enough exceptions to this rule to demonstrate that at least some plans aren’t run with that goal in mind. The threat of breach of fiduciary duty class actions serves as a kind of Damocles’ sword hanging over the heads of all fiduciaries – both those who are trying to do a good job and those who have other motivations – leading, in my opinion, to better run plans in the cases of those sponsors who mean well and less egregiously run plans in the cases of those sponsors who mean less well. Of course, successful class action cases alleging breach of fiduciary duty in instances where a plan truly is poorly run also have the effect of actually fixing, to one degree or another, problems in those plans.
Second, the article explains the theories being pressed by the class action bar in these cases, which can be summed up in a soundbite as: the regulators have given plans a free pass in this area for years; the plans in question should not rightly be considered church plans; and the courts should now actually look closely at this issue and narrow the scope of the exception for church plans. I am not sure how persuasive an argument this will be, given the decades of regulatory rulings the argument challenges. However, the argument itself is a perfect example of my first point, above, concerning the beneficial private attorney general role played in the system by the class action plaintiffs’ bar: here, they are testing whether the controlling standards for church plans are correct, and giving the courts an opportunity to address this in detail. Eventually, these cases and this argument will almost certainly end up in the appeals courts, giving rise to a body of modern, well-developed authority on the issue. In the end, this can only benefit everyone (even if it ends up being expensive for the particular plans who are sued and/or for their insurers); plan sponsors, participants, and their lawyers will have a much better sense at the end of the day of exactly where the borders of church plan status rightly rest. There is a perfect corollary for this in the run of employer stock drop class action cases prosecuted over the past several years, which resulted in a series of extensive, well-reasoned appeals court opinions discussing and adopting what has come to be known as the Moench presumption. If you think about it honestly, without a bone to pick dependent on which side of the “v” you normally sit, this was an important and beneficial development for ERISA plans, and not just for litigation, but also for designing and running benefit plans: we now know, but did not before, exactly the context in which holding employer stock in a falling market can and cannot give rise to fiduciary liability. This is a tremendous boon to anyone designing a plan going forward, or trying to advise a plan sponsor or fiduciary of its obligations with regard to employer stock holdings in an existing plan.
Player Safety and the Absence of Guaranteed Contracts in the NFL
I don’t want to turn this into a sports law blog, or – heaven forbid – an NFL blog (heaven knows, there are more than enough of those), but the latest work of the Washington Post on player injuries was too good to ignore. I promise, after this one, I will go back to ERISA and insurance blogging. However, those of you who have read me for awhile on the real subjects of this blog know that I am a fan of data. You want to convince me of something, show me data, and your reasoning, sources and the methodology behind it; I have little use or interest in argument by anecdote.
In “Do no harm: Retired NFL players endure a lifetime of hurt,” their latest article on the NFL’s problem with seriously injured players, the Washington Post’s Sally Jenkins, Rick Maese and Scott Clement detail survey findings as to the post-career injuries and physical conditions of retired NFL players. You should read it – the findings should be enough to dissuade anyone from continuing to think that retired NFL players with serious health issues are the outliers, rather than the norm. I often think that the articulate, well-dressed, well-off, clearly not that injured retired players on ESPN’s pregame shows and the other network’s football shows leave us with the impression that they, and not the injured and complaining retired players, are representative of the population of retired players. The Post’s survey data should make clear that is not the case.
To me, the most interesting aspect of the story is the players’ refrain that they constantly felt it necessary to play while injured (and with injuries serious enough that most of the general population would be out on long term disability benefits if they suffered from them) out of fear they would lose their jobs otherwise. The reason for this, they consistently explain, is the fact that NFL contracts are not guaranteed, and thus, if they lose their roster spot, they lose their livelihood. The Post quotes one former player thusly: “If you don’t play, they don’t pay. You will get cut if you are not on the field. That is why we play through injuries: we have to feed our families.”
Frankly, the fear that ownership will terminate them if they are injured and can’t work sounds more like an issue from late nineteenth century mining in this country than from a modern workplace (if you have ever read J. Anthony Lukas’ “Big Trouble,” than you know what I am talking about; if you haven’t read it, you should). And its easily fixed – just make NFL contracts guaranteed, like they are in other major sports, and the fear of losing their paychecks that drives players to play while seriously injured disappears.
In the Post’s series of articles and in articles elsewhere on the subject, NFL representatives claim they are working to make the game safer and to better take care of players and retired players, but point out that it is slow work. The Post’s article includes a discussion of this point:
The league is also conducting an ongoing campaign to reform what executives say is a “culture” of playing through pain.“That culture has existed and it needs to change,” said NFL Executive Vice President Jeff Pash. “That is a big part of what Commissioner [Roger] Goodell is trying to do. We’re trying to move toward a player safety culture. It’s going to take time, but I think we’re making progress, seeing them being more honest about their injuries.”
Making contracts guaranteed can be done almost instantaneously, and would significantly alter the culture of “playing hurt.” The NFL often likes to hide behind the collective bargaining agreement (“CBA”) as a reason why certain things can or cannot be done: I have little doubt though, that even to the extent changing to guaranteed contracts might relate to the CBA, that the players would agree pretty much immediately to amend the CBA to allow them, or even better, to mandate them.
I will tell you one thing. If I was representing the retired players in any of the class actions being prosecuted against the league for safety related issues, the first thing I would do when the Commissioner or anyone else testified that they were working to improve the situation, is cross them on why, if that’s true and the jury should believe them on that, they still don’t have guaranteed contracts that would give players some security in deciding to sit out when injured.
And a Third Post on Tibble: Thoughts on Revenue Sharing and the Small Recovery for the Class
A few more thoughts to round out my run of posts (you can find them here and here) on the Ninth Circuit’s opinion in Tibble. First of all, where does revenue sharing go as a theory of liability at this point? The Ninth Circuit essentially eviscerated that theory, and I doubt it has much staying power anymore, at least as a central claim in class action litigation. Revenue sharing hasn’t, generally speaking, had much traction in court, and I think it is because, at some level, judges understand that someone has to pay for the plan’s operations. That said, you should still expect to see it as a claim in cases against DC plans and their vendors, even if only as a tag along, with liability only likely to follow in cases where someone comes up with a smoking gun showing that the plan sponsor acted in ways harmful to participants specifically because of a desire to save money for the plan sponsor through its revenue sharing decisions. But revenue sharing in and of itself as an improper act or a fiduciary breach that can warrant damages? Probably not much of a future for such claims.
Second, there is a lot of talk about the expansion of litigation against DC plans and their providers, and has been for sometime now. How does that fit with the minimal recovery by the class in Tibble? To some extent, Tibble, although affirming a trial court award to the class, is not much of a victory, given that the class only recovered a few hundred thousand dollars. In fact, to call it a victory for the plaintiffs, while correct , reminds me of nothing so much as the comment of British General Henry Clinton after the Battle of Bunker Hill, when he noted, given the extent of British casualties, that “"a few more such victories would have surely put an end to British dominion in America." Likewise, a few more victories similar to this one for class plaintiffs in excessive fee cases will put an end to this area of litigation quicker than anything else could, as these types of cases simply would no longer be worth the costs and risks to the class action plaintiffs’ bar. However, it is important to remember that the dollar value of the recovery in Tibble was likely driven down substantially by the statute of limitations ruling, which took much of the time period of potential overcharging out of the case and with it, presumably much of the recovery. If participants bring suit over fees closer to the time that the investment menu that included the excessive fees was created, they will not face that barrier to recovery and the likely recovery could easily be high enough to justify the risks and costs of suit. This, interestingly, is where fee disclosure should come into play – participants, and thus the plaintiffs’ bar, should have enough information about fees to bring suit early enough to avoid the statute of limitations problem that impacted the plaintiffs in Tibble. As a result, there should be more than enough potential recovery in many possible excessive fee cases to motivate plaintiffs’ lawyers to pursue the claims.
And the Ninth Circuit Swings Away at Tibble v. Edison . . .
Well, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has affirmed the District Court’s well-crafted opinion in Tibble v. Edison. I discussed the District Court’s opinion in detail in my article on excessive fee claims, Retreat From the High Water Mark. From a precedential perspective, as well as from the point of view of what the opinion foretells about the future course of breach of fiduciary duty litigation in the defined contribution context, there is a lot to consider in the opinion. There is too much, in fact, for a single blog post to cover, or at least without the post turning into the length of a published paper. I try to avoid that with blog posts because otherwise, to misquote a poet, what’s a journal or law review for?
I plan instead, however, to run a series of posts, each tackling, in turn, a separate point that is worth taking away from the Ninth Circuit’s opinion. The first one, which I will discuss today, concerns ERISA’s six year statute of limitations for breach of fiduciary duty claims. The Court held that, in this context, ERISA’s six year statute of limitations starts running when a fiduciary breach is committed by choosing and including a particular imprudent plan investment. The Court held that the fact that it stayed in the investment mix did not mean that the breach continued, and the statute of limitations therefore did not start running, for so long as the investment remained in the plan.
Beware future arguments over this holding. You can expect defendants to regularly argue that this case stands for the proposition that the six years always runs from the day an investment option was first introduced, and that any breach of fiduciary duty claims involving that investment that are filed later than six years after that date are untimely. You can also expect defendants to argue to expand this idea into other contexts, and to ask courts to rule that anytime the first part of a breach began more then six years before suit was filed, the statute of limitations has passed. This would not be correct. The opinion only finds this to be the case where there were no further, later in time events that, as a factual matter, should have caused the fiduciaries to act, or which, under the circumstances of those events, constituted a breach of fiduciary duty in its own right; if there were, then those are independent breaches of fiduciary duty from which an additional six year period will run. Those independent, later in time breaches would presumably be their own piece of litigation, evaluated independent (to some extent) of the original breach.
Some Thoughts on Kirkendall v. Halliburton
I have passed along on Twitter (https://twitter.com/SDRosenbergEsq) some of the better reviews that have crossed my desk of the Second Circuit’s recent decision in Kirkendall v. Halliburton, Inc., in which the Court held that a plan participant did not have to exhaust administrative remedies in an ERISA plan where the plan document itself was unclear in imposing such an obligation. Frankly, I wasn’t sure the case itself warranted any more extensive discussion, because I don’t find the Court’s conclusion particularly unusual or controversial in any manner. That said, though, the amount of commentary the case has generated reminds me that, at the end of the day, the Second Circuit is like E.F. Hutton: when they talk, people listen. So to expand on my Twitter thoughts about the case, here are some more expansive thoughts, ones that require more than 140 letters to communicate.
The most important way of viewing the decision, in my thinking, is to remember that exhaustion of administrative remedies in this scenario is not a statutory requirement, and is instead a judge-made doctrine that is based on certain assumptions about ERISA plans and certain premises that are thought to be implicit in the statute. In practice, the imposition of an exhaustion of administrative remedies standard on ERISA claims has generally not been a problem, has worked well, and has been effective in effectuating many of the goals for the statute, such as cost efficiency, limited litigation, and encouraging employers to create benefit plans. That said, however, there is certainly no clear cut basis in the statute for believing that, if a plan sponsor doesn’t clearly communicate the need to appeal within the plan, a plan participant should be required to do so or be shown the courthouse door for having failed to do so. This is essentially all that the Second Circuit concluded: if the plan sponsor doesn’t make it clear to the participant in the relevant documents that certain internal administrative appeals are required, along with explaining how to do that, an obligation to do so cannot be imposed on a plan participant.
This is not a new issue, although the decision in Kirkendall may be the most significant authority to date for this proposition. I have litigated this issue in the past, but most often you see it in one-offs like top-hat plans (or virtual one-offs, like SERPs for just a few executives), where a custom document is created for certain employees to address compensation-related issues, and the ERISA procedural component of doing so is not front and center in the authoring attorney’s mind. Usually, the outcome of any dispute over administrative exhaustion in those situations ends up the same as the ruling by the Second Circuit in Kirkendall for all intents and purposes, but getting to that result is harder than just citing a leading decision from a prominent appellate bench; you instead had to rely on a collection of lower court decisions finding exhaustion to not be required for a multiple of different reasons. Certainly, at the end of the day, Kirkendall will make it easier for lawyers for plan participants faced with this scenario to support their arguments that they can prosecute a claim in court without first exhausting internal administrative appeals, but I don’t think it will much change the outcome from what would have occurred without that decision.
Lanfear, Home Depot and Moench
If you like an extended metaphor – and anyone who has read this blog for awhile knows I do – you should enjoy the Eleventh Circuit’s decision this week in Lanfear v Home Depot, adopting the Moench presumption and explaining exactly how it is to be applied in that circuit. What’s a better analogy than the hard working ant who stores food up for winter, to stand in for plan participants?
But the decision has other things going for it that are much more useful than a nice analogy. In particular, it nicely synthesizes the current state of the case law among those circuits that apply the presumption, and explains exactly how, under its synthesis, a stock drop case needs to be analyzed. In so doing, it also explains how to plead one if you want to get around the barriers that the Moench line of cases has created. Its as good and workable an explanation of a standard as any of the cases offer, and one that, frankly, seems to grant participants as fair a shot at recovering on a stock drop claim as they are likely to see. In my view, it nicely balances the conflicting interests and obligations that come into play when you allow, as occurs in stock drop cases, corporate insiders, securities laws and ERISA to intersect.
On the Other Hand, There May Not Be Any Structural Impediments to Breach of Fiduciary Duty Class Actions in the Sixth Circuit
An astute and clearly knowledgeable reader passed along the point that the recent Sixth Circuit decision in Pfeil v. State Street Bank implicitly rejected the structural barriers to bringing class actions over fiduciary breaches that had been created by the developing case law in other circuits and which were discussed in my recent article, Structural Impediments to Breach of Fiduciary Duty Claims. The Pfeil decision, in allowing the putative class action to proceed past the stage of motion practice, refused to allow a stock drop type case to be ended, prior to the full development of the facts needed for the plaintiffs’ case, by the early application of lowered – or merely altered and fact specific, depending on your point of view - fiduciary standards with regard to employer stock holdings in defined contribution plans, in circumstances in which the plaintiffs could not have, at the outset of the case, full and complete information about the fiduciary breaches at issue. In this way, the Sixth Circuit, deliberately or not, mitigated the difficulties for plaintiffs, identified in my article, that are caused by the intersection of the Iqbal and Twombly pleading standards with the limited information available to plaintiffs at the outset of the case.
Pfeil is interesting for a couple of other reasons as well. One is that, in some ways, it is not a pure stock drop claim, because the plan documents imposed an obligation on the fiduciary to divest under certain circumstances, and the question is whether the fiduciaries failed to comply with those plan terms, rather than simply being the question of whether the holding of the stock under the stock drop scenario in and of itself constituted a breach. Second, I have always felt that the stock drop case law reflected an attempt, implicitly at least and perhaps even subconsciously, to balance the obligations of a company under the securities laws and under ERISA when it comes to stock held in employee plans; Pfeil, by focusing on the liability of an outside fiduciary, does not have that dynamic. Three, I have written before about the evolutionary nature of plaintiffs’ class actions in ERISA, with the idea being that, over time and in response to early defeats – such as Hecker or the stock drop cases – the plaintiffs’ bar will craft more sophisticated and carefully targeted theories of liability, that will eventually pass muster. You see that here in Pfeil, in which a more nuanced approach to a fiduciary breach involving employer stock is able to leap a hurdle – a motion to dismiss – that earlier, less nuanced stock drop theories were not able to clear.
The Dam Breaks: Tussey v. ABB
Tussey v ABB, Inc., an excessive fee and revenue sharing case decided on the last day of March after a full trial before the United States District Court for the District of Western Missouri, is a remarkable decision, imposing extensive liability for acts involving the costs of and revenue sharing for a major plan, on the basis of extensive and detailed fact finding. It is hard to sum up in a quick blurb, and I recommend reading it in full. However, Mark Griffith of Asset Strategy Consultants has a terrific write up of its its import here on his blog, and here is a nice case summary from Dorsey. Beyond that, I would highlight a few key points about the case, viewed from 30,000 feet (the case itself is going to provide grist for tree level, finding by finding analysis for some time to come).
First, and to me most interesting, is that it confirms several conclusions about excessive fee litigation that I have come to in the past and written on extensively, including my insistence that the pro-defense ruling in Hecker was not the last word on this issue (despite the desire of much of the defense bar to believe it was) but was instead the high water mark in defending against such claims. I argued in the past, with regard to the Seventh Circuit’s handling of this issue in Hecker, that the entire issue of fees and revenue sharing would look different than it did to the court in Hecker once courts began hearing evidence and conducting trials on the issues in question, rather than making decisions on the papers, and this ruling bears that out. Like the trial court decision in Tibble, another key early excessive fee case to actually reach trial, the taking of evidence by the court on how fees were set and revenue shared has, in Tussey, resulted in a finding of fiduciary breach in this regard. Tibble and Tussey reflect a central truth: when courts start hearing evidence on what really went on, it becomes apparent to them that plan participants were not fully protected when it comes to the setting and sharing of fees in the design and operation of the plans in question. To deliberately mix my metaphors, what Tussey reflects is that when courts start looking under the hood of how plans are run, they are not liking how the sausage was made. They quickly (relatively speaking, of course, since it takes a long time to get a case from filing through to a trial verdict) conclude that the fees were set and shared in ways that did not properly benefit the participants.
This particular aspect of Tussey is very important. Tussey involved a major plan and a market making investment manager and recordkeeper, applying what the court characterized as standard industry practices in some instances. It is therefore unlikely that the scenarios found by the court in Tussey to be problematic are unique to that case. Other excessive fee and revenue sharing cases that, like Tibble and Tussey, get past motions to dismiss and into the merits are therefore likely to uncover factual scenarios and problems similar to those identified by the court in Tussey.
What also jumps out at me about Tussey is the extent to which revenue sharing, which has often been characterized in the professional literature as harmless in theory, is strongly depicted as problematic as practiced with regard to the particular plan and by the sponsor and service providers at issue. I would have real question, going forward as a plan sponsor, as to whether it makes any sense at all to continue with revenue sharing. Better to just pay a fixed cost, than to risk extensive liability for engaging in revenue sharing. Absent that choice, the treatment of revenue sharing in Tussey makes clear the need for extensive, on-going, documented analysis by the plan’s fiduciaries of whether the level of compensation generated by the revenue sharing was, and remained at all times, appropriate.
Other aspects of Tussey worth noting include these two. First, the opinion provides as good an explanation, in detail, of what revenue sharing really is and how it works as you are going to find. If you want to understand what all the hullabaloo about revenue sharing is about, this opinion is as good a place to start as any.
Second, the opinion contains a nice analysis of one of the most misunderstood issues in ERISA breach of fiduciary duty litigation, namely the six year statute of limitations and how it applies to the implementation of a fiduciary’s decisions related to plan investments. A decision to change a plan investment takes time, starting with an analysis of whether to do so, followed by the steps needed to effectuate it, and eventually resulting in the final steps needed to permanently conclude the change. As the court explained in Tussey, the statute of limitations in that scenario does not start to run – for any of the losses related to that event – until the last act in that run of conduct occurred.
Structural Impediments to Breach of Fiduciary Duty Claims
As many of you know, I write a regular column on ERISA litigation for Aspen’s Journal of Pension Benefits, usually focused on whatever issue has my attention at the moment, although I try to balance that against what readers might have an interest in as well. When it came time to write my article for the publication’s winter issue, I was musing on what seemed to me to be a contradiction in a webinar I had listened in on, in which two prominent experts – who shall remain nameless to protect the innocent – discussed liabilities arising out of the operation of defined benefit and defined contribution plans. The contradiction resided in the fact that they discussed the range of problems and difficulties facing such plans, and the seemingly incongruous fact that, nonetheless, plan sponsors and fiduciaries were unlikely to face liability in a courtroom for their handling of such problems and difficulties. How could that be, I wondered? So I fleshed out an answer, which became this article, titled Structural Impediments to Breach of Fiduciary Duty Claims.
Although I didn’t spell it out explicitly, the article focuses on the barriers to prosecuting such claims as class actions, because that is the forum in which these issues and impediments really manifest themselves, although the issues apply as well to breach of fiduciary duty claims brought by individuals solely on their own behalf. I also used ESOP class actions as an exemplar, for several reasons, running from my own experience with litigation over them to my somewhat morbid fascination – as a lover of newspapers - with the legal morass that the ESOP of the Chicago Tribune (and other affiliated papers) tumbled into.