Church Plan Litigation and My New Article On It
When courts first started tackling the new wave of suits challenging the church plan status of certain health care entities, I thought it an amusing curiosity, at best. I did grasp, however, the impetus from the perspective of the class action bar, which is that, if able to overturn the claimed exemptions of the defendants in court, there were potentially large amounts of money at stake, as well as potentially large fees. What I didn’t quite grasp at the time, because I was looking at the question solely from the point of view of an ERISA litigator, was the substantive impact on plans if the case law, as a result of the filing of those suits, started to put into question the propriety of church plan status for entities, not involved in the suit, who had long relied on the church plan exemption as the framework for structuring their employee benefit plans. For instance, I was having a conversation the other day about a particular plan’s obligations in light of Windsor and same sex marriage issues, and whether the obligations of a plan entitled to the church plan exemption might differ from those of a plan not entitled to that exemption. Multiply that by the many differences between the operations and terms of a plan covered by ERISA and one entitled to the church plan exemption and you realize how significant the exemption can be on the operations of a plan and, in turn, how much it would affect plans currently claiming the exemption if, as a result of new judicial interpretations of the exemption driven by the pending cases, some of those plans lost access to the exemption.
Tibble v Edison, now up before the Supreme Court, and the history of excessive fee class action litigation presents a nice way of looking at this phenomenon. In the early years of those claims, other than with regard to the large risks they posed because of the amount of money involved, people in the industry weren’t all that impressed by those types of claims, as the courts showed an initial reluctance to credit the theories of the class action bar in that regard. With the passage of time, though, those claims started to be taken much more seriously and became more successful. Now, years into the process, we have the Supreme Court, in Tibble, using one of those cases as an opportunity to set forth the rules governing ERISA’s statute of limitations for fiduciary duty claims. Tibble shows the long tail of the institution of new theories of liability in ERISA litigation, and their potential for causing unanticipated change to the jurisprudence. Years after the excessive fee claims began being filed and years after Tibble was tried, that once novel theory of liability is provoking the system to look anew at a fundamental element of ERISA, its statutory provision governing statute of limitations for breach of fiduciary duty claims.
Therein lies the fly in the ointment with regard to giving little weight to the current crop of church plan cases; no matter what becomes of those particular cases, they may well upturn the apple cart and create confusion, where currently little exists, as to when plans can invoke the exemption. One reason that this risk is present is that it really isn’t clear, given the statutory language, which side is really right about the exemption and when it should apply, a point I discussed in detail in my new article in ASPPA’s Plan Consultant magazine. With unclear statutory language, it is hard to predict how the cases that are currently wending their way through the system may come out and whether, as in the excessive fee cases, one of them might substantially impact the jurisprudence years down the road.
Q: Where Can You Sue an ERISA Plan? A: Where the Plan Sponsor Says
So the Sixth Circuit, in Smith v. Aegon, just ruled in favor of the enforceability of forum selection clauses in ERISA governed plans. Combined with the Supreme Court’s approval in Heimeshoff of contractual limitations in ERISA plans on the time period for filing suit, the approach of Smith basically hands control of the basic procedural aspects of litigating ERISA cases – when and where – to plan sponsors. In Smith, the Sixth Circuit provides a legitimate rationale for doing so, which is that the law already provides extensive freedom to plan sponsors with regard to whether, and if so under what terms, to offer benefit plans. This principle, incidentally, flows naturally from the original grand bargain that gave rise to ERISA itself, which was the premise that employers would be granted much leeway and limited potential liability to encourage them to make benefit plans available to employees.
That said, however, the dissent in Smith makes an important point, which is that the venue provisions of ERISA have long been construed by federal courts in the manner that will best allow participants to protect their rights, and not in a manner that will make it more difficult for them to do so. The dissent’s point in this regard is well taken. ERISA expressly provides that a plan participant can sue in any federal district court where the plan is administered, the breach took place, the defendant resides or the defendant may be found. 29 U.S.C. § 1132(e)(2). Federal judges regularly find that this venue provision was intended by Congress to expand, rather than constrict, a participant’s choice of forum, so as to best protect plan participants. As one judge explained in a well-regarded opinion on the subject, Congress intended “to remove jurisdictional procedural obstacles which in the past appear to have hampered effective enforcement of fiduciary responsibilities under state law for recovery of benefits due to participants” and as a result, “ERISA venue provisions should be interpreted so as to give beneficiaries a wide choice of venue.” Cole v. Central States Southeast and Southwest Areas Health and Welfare Fund, 225 F.Supp.2d 96, 98 (D.Mass. 2002) (quoting H.R.Rep. No. 93–533, reprinted in 1974 U.S.C.C.A.N. at 4639, 4655; accord S.Rep. No. 93–127, reprinted in 1974 U.S.C.C.A.N. at 4838, 4871).
Decisions such as Smith run to the opposite of this thinking and essentially say that, while that may be the case, a plan sponsor can opt out of that system of protections in favor of selecting a forum in the first instance, and naming it in the plan.
Tibble v. Edison at the Supreme Court
So, Tibble, Tibble, toil and trouble, to paraphrase (badly) Shakespeare (MacBeth, to be precise). And with that, I am going to launch into what I expect will be a number of posts concerning the Supreme Court’s decision to accept the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Tibble for review, limited to the application of ERISA’s six year statute of limitations. I tweeted, when the Court first accepted the case for review, that while I try to avoid the constant hyperbole about Supreme Court decisions (in which every time the Court does anything, lawyers issue client alerts and every other form of media under the sun, announcing that the sky is falling in the hope of drawing in readers), I did think that Tibble had the capacity to be a game changer.
And why is that? For a few reasons, one of which I will discuss right now. In the first instance, even leaving aside the type of excessive fee and revenue sharing dispute at issue in Tibble itself, the federal courts continue to struggle with the interpretation and application of ERISA’s six year statute of limitations. While written cleanly on its face, the statutory language is almost the walking embodiment of an insurance coverage concept, the latent ambiguity, which has to do with policy language that does not look ambiguous on its face (and thus would not appear to invoke various doctrines by which ambiguous policy language would be construed against the insurance company that issued the policy) but becomes ambiguous when applied to a particular fact pattern because, in application, it becomes unclear how the language should actually be applied. As Tibble itself reflects, the six year statute of limitation is open to varying interpretations when a court or litigant sits down and tries to apply it to a particular fact pattern, even though the language does not, as written, look like it should generate such confusion. The six year statute of limitations talks in terms of ending six years after the last date of breach or six years after the last day on which a breach of fiduciary duty could be remedied, which seems straight forward enough. The problem, though, commences when one tries to apply it to particular fact patterns. Give me a hypothetical, and I can give you two equally plausible arguments (at least on their face) as to when the six year statute of limitation ends under that hypothetical. Indeed, that is a fair description of exactly what occurs with most motions to dismiss filed on statute of limitations grounds in ERISA breach of fiduciary duty cases. Both the moving defendant and the responding participant are almost always able to present plausible sounding arguments over whether the six year statute of limitations period has been triggered, reflecting the lack of clarity and fact specific nature of the analysis under both the statutory language itself and the case law. Greater clarity on the application of the six year limitation period would be a boon to ERISA practitioners across the board.
I have a number of things I want to say about Tibble, a case which has been of interest to me all the way back to its relatively humble beginnings as a bench trial (when it was wrongly overshadowed in the legal media by the Seventh Circuit’s analysis at around the same time of many of the same issues) and I will be returning to it in detail over the next couple of weeks, as time allows. I plan to start with a discussion of the United State’s brief in support of granting cert, which offers an excellent jumping off point for a discussion of the merits of the case.
Santomenno v. John Hancock: Does It Matter That the 401(k) Service Provider Is Not a Fiduciary?
I wanted to comment at least briefly, or more accurately thematically, on the Third Circuit’s decision last week in Santomenno v. John Hancock, in which the Court held that John Hancock’s role as an advisor and service provider for a company 401(k) plan, by which it helped select fund options and administer participant investments, did not render it a functional fiduciary under ERISA for purposes of an excessive fee claim. It’s a well-reasoned and interesting opinion on a number of fronts, but what struck me as important about it relates more to broader issues than to the narrow details on which the decision itself turns. Personally, I think the 30 page decision itself does a wonderful job of laying out the issues and explaining them, something which is not always true of appellate decisions concerning the technicalities and complexities of ERISA class action cases, making the source document here the best place to turn for a full understanding of the details of the decision. This is not always the case, as some decisions of this ilk are simply too dense or otherwise difficult to penetrate to go first to the opinion itself, rather than to secondary sources – such as blogs and client alerts – for a full understanding of the case.
If you want to skip reading the case itself and instead go to commentary on it that sums up the central facts, Thomas Clark, who has staked out a firm position in the blogging world as one of the more scholarly analysts of fiduciary duty litigation, recommends some summaries in his post on the case. His recommendation is good enough for me in that regard, so I would refer you to his post and the summaries about the opinion for which he provides links.
For me, I was struck, as I noted, by some thematic, big picture aspects of the decision, and I wanted to discuss three of them in a post. First, in speeches, articles, presentations and even in small group meetings with clients, I often make the point that service providers to 401(k) plans are very good at structuring their contracts and relationships to avoid incurring fiduciary status. Most recently, in providing an update on ERISA litigation to an ASPPA conference, I discussed this point in the context of explaining why it is such a smart strategy: because it is simply not possible to predict the next theories of ERISA liability that the class action bar will pursue (did anyone foresee the rise of church plan litigation? I didn’t think so), the best strategy open to plan service providers is to avoid assuming fiduciary status at all, thus defanging new theories of liability without even knowing what they will be. The opinion in Santomenno provides a very detailed explanation of the contractual structure by which John Hancock avoids fiduciary status despite its intimate involvement with the plan’s assets and investment options, and as such it does a beautiful job of making my point; the Court demonstrates exactly the subtle, intelligent, thoughtful and carefully planned structure that insulates the service provider from incurring fiduciary status.
Second, I have long been a critic of a habit some courts have of, in a nutshell, jumping the gun and deciding complex ERISA cases prematurely, without first allowing the facts to develop to a sufficient level. I understand the impulse – ERISA litigation, and class action litigation in general, can be very expensive as well as disruptive to plan sponsors, and courts can often be sympathetic to the desire to avoid unnecessary litigation in circumstances where the likely outcome of the case can be anticipated at an early stage. I recently listened to one well-regarded federal judge address a law school class after a motion session, when he commented – in a different context entirely – on the fact that we have created, in the federal court system, a Maserati, a beautiful machine but one that most people can’t afford. Early resolution, such as at the motion to dismiss stage, of lawsuits that are unlikely to end up any differently later on is an antidote to this problem.
That said, however, this mindset can often lead to cases being decided too early, with regard to the question of whether a court has enough information to really get the nuances right. All too often, judicial opinions in ERISA cases issued at the motion to dismiss stage – or on appeal from an order granting a motion to dismiss – end up reading more like a law review article than a judicial decision because, by being decided without much factual development having yet occurred, they end up being based more on hypothesis and assumptions about the world of service providers, investments, fees and the like than on the actual realities of those worlds. This is a problem with a simple solution, which is for courts to avoid making significant doctrinal rulings without first having a well-developed factual record. You can see this, but from the good side, in Santomenno, in which the Court had access to significant factual information, including the relevant contractual documents, and fashioned a ruling around – and dependent upon – those facts. It makes for a far more compelling and weighty decision than would otherwise be the case. It is for me, in any event, an approach that makes me give far more value to the Court’s reasoning and makes me far more likely to be persuaded by the Court’s reasoning.
Third, the case illustrates, and the Court even alludes to briefly, a point that I think is very important and which I often raise in a variety of contexts involving ERISA litigation. This is the question of whether systemically it matters whether John Hancock or a similarly situated service provider is or is not a fiduciary, and the answer is that, generally speaking, it does not matter. Sure, it may matter to the participants and their lawyers who are looking for a deep pocket, and it certainly may matter to the business model of the service provider, but it shouldn’t actually matter to the ERISA regulatory and enforcement regime itself. As I have written many times, including too often to count in this blog, ERISA is essentially a private attorney general regime, in which the idea is that private litigation and even just the threat of it enforces proper behavior within the relevant industry. That occurs here regardless of the fact that John Hancock and other such vendors are not considered, in this context, to be fiduciaries who can be held liable, as a breach of fiduciary duty, if the expenses and fees in a 401(k) plan are too high. And why is that? Because the system outlined in Santomenno is one in which the vendors may not be fiduciaries, but they are obligated to provide sufficient information and control to the actual fiduciaries – those appointed by the plan sponsor to run the plan – to allow the actual fiduciaries to make informed decisions about the investment options and the fees. Importantly, the system as viewed and approved of by the Santomenno court is one in which the actual plan fiduciaries bear financial liability if they don’t use the power granted to them by the vendor to police fees and expenses, thereby resulting in excessively high expenses. In that circumstance, the named fiduciary becomes liable for that problem. As a result, even without the service provider being deemed a fiduciary, the system still captures the risks of excessive fees and requires action – only by the plan sponsor and its appointees rather than by service providers such as John Hancock – to ensure that the problem is either avoided or remedied.
Tatum v. RJR Pension Investment Committee: What it Teaches About Fiduciary Obligations
Somehow, RJR Nabisco has always been fascinating, from beginning to now. There must be something about combining tobacco and Oreos that gets the imagination flowing; maybe its the combination of the country’s most regulated consumer product with the wonders of possibly the world’s favorite cookie. Heck, its birth even birthed a book and then, in turn, a movie starring James Garner, whose mannerisms, in the guise of Jim Rockford, are imbedded to at least a slight degree in the personality of every male my age. Ever watch a late forties/early fiftyish lawyer try a case in front of a jury? Watch closely, and you will see at least a little Rockford in the persona.
Now, in the guise of a Fourth Circuit decision over breaches of fiduciary duty involving company stock funds, RJR Nabisco has become a touchstone for ERISA litigators as well. There are a number of takeaways and points of interest in the decision, which you can find here, and the decision has generated no small number of thoughtful commentaries over the past few weeks, some of which you can find here, here, here and here. Without repeating the yeoman’s work that others have already done summing up the case, I am going to run a couple of posts with my thoughts on two key aspects of the case.
Today, I wanted to address the question of the finding of a breach of fiduciary obligations, and I will, lord wiling and the creek don’t rise, follow that up with a post on the question of proving loss as a result of the breach. These are two interrelated issues in fiduciary duty litigation, and Tatum v. RJR has some interesting things to say, and to teach, about both.
Initially, as everyone knows, you cannot have a breach of fiduciary duty recovery without a breach of fiduciary duty. Here, the Court found a breach of fiduciary duty on the basis of the defendants’ quick and informal decision concerning whether to continue to offer company stock that was based as much as anything on myths and legends about holding company stock in a plan as it was on any type of a reasoned approach to the question. Concerned about the possible liability exposure under ERISA for holding an undiversified single company stock fund in a plan, a working group decided to eliminate the fund without actual investigation into the legal, factual, potential liability or other aspects of holding the fund. Further, they did so in a short meeting, without ever gathering any of the detailed information that would be relevant to making such a determination.
There is a real and important lesson here with regard to the manner of making any decisions with regard to plan investment options, and an additional one that is of particular significance with regard to a decision to eliminate an investment option, which was the event in RJR Nabisco that triggered potential liability. The general lesson is that the days of fly by the seat of your pants management of plan investment options are over (if they ever existed; people may have been doing it that way, but it was probably never legally appropriate to do so). Instead, a failure to properly investigate investment options, including using outside expertise to do so, has reached the point where it can essentially be considered a per se breach of fiduciary duty. It may not have that posture in the law, in the sense of pleading and proving it simply establishing the existence of a breach, but that fact pattern, at this point in time (and not simply because of the holding in RJR Nabisco, but because of a number of cases and legal developments leading up to the time of that ruling), will consistently lead to a finding of a breach.
The more specific lesson to think carefully about here is something very interesting, and to some extent ironic. The working group felt obliged to eliminate the investment option because of questions related to the liability issues of holding a non-diversified single company stock fund, but that is not the same question as whether it was in the best interests of the plan participants to hold, or to instead eliminate, that fund. It is the latter question, and not the former question which is primarily one that concerns the risks to the plan sponsor and those charged with running the plan, that is supposed to be at the heart of the decision making process when it comes to these types of issues. Fiduciaries must run a plan – subject to many limitations on that general principal – in the best interest of the plan participants, without regard to their own interests. That, in all areas of the law, is the basic premise and obligation of being a fiduciary. Here, the defendants’ fiduciary breach occurred because they failed to do that: they did not investigate or analyze the issue from the perspective of what was best for the participants but instead from the perspective of the risks to the plan sponsor and its designees (i.e., the fiduciaries).
When thought about that way, the irony becomes apparent. By being overly concerned about the liability risks of keeping the investment option, the defendants created liability exposure by getting rid of the investment option.
Why the Supreme Court Got It Right in Fifth Third Bancorp v. Dudenhoeffer
So, where do we even begin with Fifth Third Bancorp v. Dudenhoeffer, which is, first, a fascinating decision and, second, one that has already inspired countless stories in both the legal and financial media? I thought I would begin by passing along some of the better commentary I have come across in the wake of the decision, along with a few thoughts of my own.
First of all, the best substantive piece explaining what in the world the decision actually says is this one, from Thomas Clark on the Fiduciary Matters Blog. He does a nice job of explaining what the opinion really held. One of the things that grabbed me right off the bat about his post is that he opened by pointing out that, by the Court’s opinion, “the ‘Moench Presumption’ which has been adopted nearly unanimously by every Circuit Court in the country has been unequivocally rejected.” I appreciated the fact that he pointed out that the presumption had been adopted “nearly universally” by the circuits that have considered it, rather than calling it universally accepted, as I have long been the nitpicker on this, pointing out that the First Circuit has passed on opportunities to adopt the presumption, even though most authors writing on the subject have consistently but wrongly stated that the presumption had been universally accepted by those courts presented with it. Now, though, it turns out to have been universally accepted by all but two courts to have considered it, the First Circuit (as I have written before) and the Supreme Court, but obviously the decision of one of those two not to adopt it matters more than that of the other, by some significant degree of magnitude.
Second, I liked this brief piece by Squire Patton Boggs’ Larisa Vaysman in the Sixth Circuit Appellate Blog, comparing some of the conduct that the opinion could be construed to approve of by a fiduciary to conduct that one might have otherwise slurred as a Ponzi scheme. Substantively, she emphasizes that, under the Court’s holding, to plead an ERISA stock drop claim, “a plaintiff must plausibly allege an alternative action that the defendant could have taken that would have been consistent with the securities laws and that a prudent fiduciary . . . would not have viewed as more likely to harm the fund than help it.” What is interesting about this to me is that I have long considered the Moench presumption, no matter the complex doctrinal discussions that have grown up around it, to reflect a judicial need to find some way to balance fiduciary obligations under ERISA with securities obligations imposed on insiders by the securities laws. The Moench presumption always struck me as too blunt an instrument for those purposes, but that didn’t change the fact that, to me, some way of balancing those sometimes competing interests was necessary. Vaysman’s post highlights the fact that the Supreme Court did not abandon this need to balance the competing interests, but instead imposed a different means of balancing those interests. I think the Supreme Court did a nice job in Fifth Third of imposing that balancing by means of a factual evaluation of the conduct in question, rather than by a presumption, unsupported in ERISA itself, that simply, for all intents and purposes, had effectively barred such claims.
I also liked this financial trade press article, from Pensions & Investments, on the decision, as much as anything for its recognition that the decision drove home the point that “courts should evaluate stock-drop cases ‘through careful, context-sensitive scrutiny of a complaint's allegations,’” rather than by means of a judicially created presumption that cannot be located in the ERISA statute itself. This is, of course, a drum I have always beaten about ERISA litigation and the Moench presumption in particular, which is that it is much more appropriate to delve into the facts to decide whether a case has merit, because the world – and a particular case - can look entirely different on its actual facts than it looks based on judicial assumptions made at the outset of a case, including when judicially created presumptions are applied without first examining the truth of the events at issue. I also liked the author’s emphasis on the fact that the opinion recognizes that the presumption simply had no basis under the statutory language itself.
Blogger - and friend - Susan Mangiero has called me on my promise, made in a prior post about predictions on the outcome of this case, to detail my views, once the decision was in, on whether the Court got it right. As my comments about the articles above probably made clear, I am fond of the decision and think the Court got it just right. They solved a troublesome riddle, which is how to balance the securities law obligations of corporate officers with ERISA’s fiduciary obligations, in a manner that neither distorted the statute – as was the case with the Moench presumption – nor encouraged the filing of stock drop suits against fiduciaries that lacked any basis other than the fact that a stock price had declined.
What Happens to Company Owners Who Get Overaggressive When Selling Out to an ESOP?
Just what is it about Chicago and ESOPs? Is it something in the water, redolent of gangsters and Al Capone? First, there was the Sam Zell/Tribune ESOP transaction, which, as I wrote before, was such a complex transaction that, building it around the ownership interests of the employees could not help but raise fiduciary flags, and eventually resulted in a substantial settlement of a breach of fiduciary duty lawsuit. Now, there is Fish v. GreatBanc, decided last month by the Seventh Circuit, which involved an ESOP transaction that, not only went south, but went south after the financial advisor to the independent trustee evaluating the proposed transaction on behalf of the participants called it “the most aggressive deal structure in the history of ESOPs.”
I have said it before and I will say it again (and I am sure I will say it many times after today too): ESOPs are financial stakes of employees, not mere financial tools for private company owners. Those who forget that lesson are, if not doomed to repeat the past lessons of earlier fiduciaries, at least doomed to sitting at the defendants’ table in a courtroom.
Leaving that lesson aside, the decision itself is instructive on two major points of ERISA litigation. The first is the proper interpretation and application of ERISA’s fiduciary duty statute of limitations to ESOP disputes and the second is as an excellent overview of the rules governing fiduciaries with regard to private company ESOPs. The opinion itself is so informative and, happily, well-written that I strongly recommend reading it, despite its relative length. For those who would prefer the Cliff Notes, Mark Thomas and Robert Shaw of Williams Mullen provide an excellent summary in this article from last week.
What if Trust Law Cannot Support the Moench Presumption?
The “stock drop” presumption of Moench, now before the Supreme Court in Fifth Third Bancorp, is best understood as a judicial attempt to balance the sometimes conflicting demands placed on corporate insiders by, on the one hand, the securities laws and, on the other, ERISA, when it comes to employee stock plans in publicly traded companies. It’s not an unreasonable tack to take, even if those perceived conflicts could be easily handled and avoided simply by the use of an outside independent fiduciary, as W.R. Grace did years ago in the situation that became the First Circuit case of Bunch v. W.R. Grace, which I discussed here, rather than using a corporate insider in that role.
The problem though, for those who believe that it is appropriate for the courts to find a way to balance those obligations, is how to get to that result. The terms of the ERISA statute itself don’t easily lend themselves to the creation, justification and imposition of the presumption, leaving the importation of, and reliance upon, doctrines developed under trust law to provide a basis for the creation of the presumption. But what if trust law, properly understood, cannot support the creation of a presumption of that much benefit to plan fiduciaries? Can the presumption stand if that is the case? The extent, nature and degree to which the Supreme Court grapples with these two issues – whether either the terms of the statute or the scope of trust law can support the presumption – will tell a very interesting tale, by illustrating whether the presumption’s status is actually driven by the legal foundation crafted by the statute and trust law or, instead, by an outcome driven need to balance the securities law regime with the dictates of ERISA. If the presumption is found valid, one will need to look closely at whether the Court was able to properly base that conclusion in the historical intricacies of trust law or in the statute’s language. If so, then the presumption can be understood to follow naturally from existing law; if not, then the presumption must be seen, as many have argued it is, as simply a convenient judicial fiction, one not properly founded on either trust law or statutory language, used to balance conflicting legal obligations imposed by distinct statutes.
Into this question rides Professor Peter Weidenbeck, in this absolutely fascinating article, “Trust Variation and ERISA’s ‘Presumption of Prudence’,” in which he details the history of the trust law basis on which the Moench presumption is said to rest, and finds that the trust doctrines relied upon by the courts that have created and applied the presumption do not support the presumption. In a nutshell, Weidenbeck argues "that prevailing state law standards governing trust variation do not impose the extremely restrictive (well-nigh insuperable) barriers that the federal courts following Moench mistakenly assume” and that deciding how to handle stock drop cases requires a more nuanced and comprehensive analysis of statutory history.
You can download his article here, and I highly recommend reading it. Even though it discusses tax issues and trust law, it is very readable, and only 24 pages in any event. At a minimum, the Supreme Court’s eventual opinion in Fifth Third Bancorp will make a lot more sense if you read the article first.
What Rochow Teaches Us About Amara Remedies, and What It Doesn't
You know, I have been wanting to sit down for weeks – at least – to write about Rochow v. Life Insurance Company of America, initially with regard to the extraordinary remedy initially imposed by the court and then later with regard to the Sixth Circuit’s decision to return to the issue by hearing the case en banc, but I just plain haven’t had the time to write in detail on something that raises so many issues. Beyond that, I am not convinced that the problems raised by Rochow, and the issues it requires observers to consider, are well-suited to the form of a blog post, as there is simply a lot of ground to cover to be able to talk intelligently about the case. This latter problem, though, was solved for me by Alston & Bird’s Elizabeth Wilson Vaughan, who somehow summed up the entire history of the case and the issues it places in play in one simultaneously concise yet in-depth treatment, which you can find here. I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to understand the case, and what the hoo-ha is about, in advance of the en banc return to the issues by the Sixth Circuit.
I have long been on record with the view that the Amara addition of equitable remedies fills in a glaring hole in ERISA, and particularly with regard to ERISA remedies, by, if not solving, at least significantly reducing the problem in ERISA litigation of “harms without a remedy.” We all know those cases, in which a plaintiff makes a compelling presentation of harm, but the remedial structure does not provide for a clear right of recovery; most typically, benefits aren’t due in light of the circumstances at play, and thus a denial of benefits by the administrator was correct and must be upheld, but other issues – most typically a problem in communications with the participant – led to financial losses. We all know, as well, that many judges reluctantly accept that this occurs in ERISA litigation, and rule accordingly, although often expressing unhappiness about doing so – if not in their opinions, then in comments from the bench during hearings. The Amara equitable remedies framework provided a structure for resolving the most meritorious of those claims, by allowing equitable remedies such as estoppel and surcharge to fill in that hole.
The original Rochow disgorgement ruling – widely perceived, including by me, as excessive – falls outside of this framework, by going far beyond simply the proper use of Amara remedies to fix that problem, and is flawed for this reason alone. I have little doubt that the Sixth Circuit will fix this in its next opinion in the case. But for now, it is important, I think, to remember that this is an outlier decision, one that should not be seen as demonstrating some type of inherent flaw in the Amara equitable remedies rubric which, properly used and confined by judicial development of case law to the purpose of solving the “harms without a remedy” problem, is instead a valid and appropriate judicial interpretation of ERISA’s grant of equitable relief. Rochow, in the end, is best thought of, in its rulings to date, as the McDonald’s coffee cup case of ERISA remedies: an example of the need for judicial control over remedies, but not an indictment of the idea of having them.
Predicting the Future of Church Plan Litigation
Ahh, the wonders of church plan litigation. I had the distinct pleasure at an ERISA litigation conference recently of listening to a leading plaintiffs’ lawyer and a leading defense lawyer, who were both representing parties on opposite sides in class actions concerning whether benefit plans were actually church plans for purposes of ERISA, square off over the issue. What came through to me loud and clear were two distinct visions of the world, almost ideological in a way. The defense lawyer insisted that decisions to that date ran his way, and so there was little more to say on the subject, while the plaintiffs’ lawyer explained why close analysis of the facts and legal issues demonstrates that the plaintiffs’ bar is on target.
In their competing certainties over their positions, the debate reminded me of nothing so much as the early years of excessive fee litigation, when the plaintiffs’ bar was largely unsuccessful and the defense bar was more than happy to trumpet the underlying weakness on both a theoretical and practical level of that theory of liability. Of course, time would eventually turn the tables, to a large extent, on that discussion, triggered by an interesting phenomenon, one which was obvious in advance to some of us and became clear in hindsight to the rest of us: that over time, as more and more judges were asked to look at the excessive fee theory, the defense position would begin to show cracks and plaintiffs would eventually begin succeeding to one degree or another with such claims.
Even when I was listening to the two lawyers debate the viability of church plan litigation, it was clear to me we were only at the outset of the legal discussion on this issue, and that the defense bar’s assumption of an impregnable position was unfounded, as well as inconsistent with the history of what had occurred with the excessive fee cases. It was clear that what was more likely to happen was that, as the cases involving the more questionable assertions of church plan status came before courts, the plaintiffs’ bar would begin obtaining traction, and the clearly marked out defense position on these types of cases would weaken.
While I was on trial for most of this month, which I am still digging out from, Mike Reilly wrote a nice piece on something that I see as the first step in this phenomenon starting to come to pass, which was a federal judge denying a motion to dismiss last month that was grounded on the defendant’s status as a church plan. What is most interesting about that decision is that, plank by plank, the judge addressed and rejected the key elements of the defense bar’s standard position on church plan litigation, namely that the claims run contrary to existing judicial decisions and to IRS letter rulings. As the court’s decision itself reflects, the judge specifically engaged those arguments and rejected them.
What does this one decision mean? One can make the argument that it is an outlier, that standing by itself it means nothing in the long run, and has meaning only to the resolution of the specific lawsuit and plan at issue. Past experience with excessive fee litigation, however, suggests to me that the decision is more likely to be the beginning of the end of broadly claiming church plan status for broad, otherwise secular business activities – particularly in the medical area – that have some linkage to religious organizations. History – as well as logic – suggests to me that, bit by bit, we will see plaintiffs’ lawyers and court decisions chip away at the use of church plan status, leading to, eventually, a number of victories in this regard for the plaintiffs’ bar. This will not mean the end of the church plan, but will instead eventually lead to only those plans that most closely fit the purpose, intent and idea of the church plan exemption being able to claim it, with all other plans forced to abandon the claim (either voluntarily or after being sued).
Why Amara's Expansion of Remedies Matters Now, But Not So Much in the Long Term
My small group of dedicated twitter followers know I was live tweeting last week from ACI’s ERISA Litigation conference in New York, at least for the first day of the conference. Tweeting allowed me to pass along ideas from the speakers and my own thoughts on their points in real time, which was, frankly, a lot of fun for me (if you haven’t tried live tweeting from an event, you should; it turns being an attendee watching others speak on a topic into a much more interactive and engaged experience). At the same time, though, its fair to say that many of the topics discussed by the panelists, and many of my own thoughts on those topics, don’t neatly fit within 140 characters, so I thought I would post some more detailed take aways from the conference, starting today.
One of the things that jumped out at me at the conference was the fact that the ERISA defense bar has clearly coalesced around the idea that Amara is a bad thing and that the expansion of equitable remedies set into motion by that opinion is objectionable. Even though I am, at least 80% of the time, a member of that defense bar, I think that’s a bit harsh and an overreaction. It does not strike me that the consensus defense bar view articulates a particularly substantial argument for why the Court was wrong to expand that remedy. At the end of the day, most of that remedial expansion – in the forms of reformation, estoppel and surcharge – is directed at only one phenomenon, which is the circumstance in which there is a disjunct between what a plan actually says and what is communicated to plan participants through summary plan descriptions, human resources employees, or other sources (though I have no illusions that participants and their lawyers won’t find ways to try to extend those remedies to other types of circumstances as well). To the extent that employees can show actual harm to them from that error (and by this I do not mean just being deprived of some legal right under ERISA or some hypothetical opportunity to act in response to learning the correct information, but rather some showing of actual concrete out of pocket loss to them), there is no reason they should be without a remedy, and the expansion of remedies in Amara prevents that otherwise all too common outcome.
As one of the prominent in-house attorneys speaking at the conference noted, the nature of ERISA is that the bar for proper performance by plan sponsors and administrators keeps rising, and that is as it should be: one panelist made the point that what is a best practice today in running a plan, will simply be the standard practice that must be lived up to tomorrow. This is all that Amara’s targeting of communication errors by imposing equitable remedies for them will really do in the end: make accurate participant communications a crucially important part of running a plan. As plan administrators raise their game in this regard (making what is today a best practice the standard in this regard in the future), these remedies and the Amara decision itself will become relatively unimportant, and people will come to wonder why there was so much defense bar hue and cry over Amara in the first place.
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.
My Journal of Pension Benefits Article on Operational Competence after Amara
For years, in speeches and articles, I have preached the gospel of what I have come to call “defensive plan building,” which is the process of systemically building out plan documents, procedures and operations in manners that will limit the likelihood of a plan sponsor or fiduciary being sued while increasing the likelihood that, if sued, they will win the case in the end. Over the past couple of years, doctrinal shifts related to remedies available to participants under ERISA have made defensive plan building even more important, for at least two reasons. First, these shifts have expanded the range of potential liabilities and exposure in offering, and running, a benefit plan. Second, these developments have, to a significant degree, given rise to an increased focus in ERISA litigation on the actual facts concerning the plan’s activities, as the lynchpin of the liability determination. The combination of expanding liability risks with an increased focus on plan actions makes it more important than ever to focus on the steps of defensive plan building, including by focusing on operational competence in running a benefit plan.
I discussed this concept in much greater detail in my recent article in the Journal of Pension Benefits, “Looking Closely at Operational Competence: ERISA Litigation Moves Away from Doctrine and Towards a Careful Review of Plan Performance.” The article discusses how the last several years of ERISA litigation, including in particular the Supreme Court’s recent activism in this realm, has created this phenomenon. You can find a much more fully realized presentation of these points in the article.
How to Look Smart About McCutchen and Heimeshoff Without Really Trying
I have often joked that, to seem intelligent at social events, a person really just has to have two things handy – the first, a Noam Chomsky reference, and the second, a Shakespeare quote, preferably from a lesser play. If you are good, you can find a way to fit one or the other into any subject of conversation. Personally, I rely on “there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy” (which I also find is often an especially good rejoinder in court to legal arguments proffered by opposing counsel), and Chomsky’s media coverage study, when I am trapped in a conversation with no way out, but to each his own.
I was thinking of this when I read the Workplace Prof’s excellent and extensive blog post on the two latest developments at the Supreme Court concerning ERISA law, the first being the very recent decision in US Airways v. McCutchen, which I suspect will soon be reduced to the defense assertion that courts must always apply the plan terms as written, and the Court’s grant of cert in Heimeshoff v. Hartford, on the application of statute of limitations to benefit claims under ERISA. You don’t have to really study the source material on either of these cases to hold forth on them at this point, because you can just read the Prof’s post, and be all set to pontificate on them without a problem. Less tongue in cheek, it really is worth reading, if you want to understand, with a limited investment of time, what these two cases are about and why they matter.
I would also throw in, with regard to the opinion in McCutchen, two additional comments that you can borrow, if you really want to look erudite without doing any homework on your own first. One, it really is a well-written piece of work, taken simply as an example of the written form in the legal context, without regard to how one may feel about the merits of the decision. I would suggest it to connoisseurs of the form for a read, under any circumstances. Second, the case, although an ERISA decision, has an easy transition to the doctrines of insurance law, where subrogation and the impact of the common fund doctrine are in play on a routine basis; it adds additional support for any argument that the common fund doctrine should always apply in that circumstance. In this regard, feel free to drop a knowing reference to footnote 8, if you really want to appear in the know.
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.
Tibble, the Ninth Circuit and the Scope of the 404(c) Defense
Do they still teach administrative law in law school? I don’t know if they need to bother anymore, because the Ninth Circuit’s exposition of Chevron deference in Tibble, when discussing the 404(c) defense, pretty much sums up everything a practicing litigator needs to know about the subject. It is a first class explanation of the law of administrative deference, as well as a pitch perfect explanation of how one analyzes the issue.
Of import to ERISA, however, is a much narrower and more specific point, which is the Court’s cabining of the scope of the 404(c) defense so as to only encompass participant decisions that take place after the selection of the investment menu, on the basis that this reading matches the Department of Labor’s interpretation of 404(c). Based on this reasoning, the Ninth Circuit concluded that a fiduciary’s selection of investment options is not protected by 404(c). This is, at the end of the day, perhaps the most important aspect of the Court’s opinion, although in the immediate aftermath of the ruling it may well not be the aspect that garners the most comment and attention. However, it is really the one key part of the ruling that expands the scope of fiduciary liability and that adds to the arsenal for lawyers who represent plan participants, in that it clearly demarcates the selection of plan investments as an issue that falls outside of a 404(c) defense. Not only that, but the opinion does so in an articulate, well-reasoned manner, making it likely to have significant persuasive force when the issue is considered by other courts.
They Are Called Prohibited for a Reason
We – meaning lawyers who do civil side work involving ERISA plans – mostly think about the rules against prohibited transactions from two perspectives. The first concerns whether clients can structure certain transactions or engage in specific plan actions without running afoul of the prohibited transaction rules. The second arises in litigation, where we either challenge certain plan actions as prohibited transactions or defend plan fiduciaries against claims that they engaged in prohibited transactions. What we don’t normally think of, though, is the idea that if a fiduciary goes just way too far over the line between prohibited and appropriate actions, a whole heck of a lot of hurt is coming down the pike; this isn’t typically on our radar screens because most plans and fiduciaries not only don’t want to get into the kind of trouble that would come from taking such a step, but also because most plans and fiduciaries, in my opinion (even if they are ones I am suing, rather than ones I am defending), have an overall bias towards generally trying to do the right thing. Here’s a very good story illustrating what happens when that dynamic isn’t in play, though, and a fiduciary invokes significant DOL action over prohibited transactions.
Notes on The John Marshall Law Review's Special Edition on "The Past, Present, and Future of Supreme Court Jurisprudence on ERISA"
Here’s a neat special edition of the John Marshall Law Review, covering Supreme Court Jurisprudence in advance of an employee benefits symposium at the law school. Several of the articles in particular jump out at me as a practitioner as being right on point with key issues playing out in the courtroom; I think it is notable in this regard, and possibly causally related, that several of the authors are practicing lawyers who focus on ERISA litigation.
One article addresses fiduciary obligations with regards to holding employer stock in a plan, or what the rest of us commonly refer to, by shorthand, as the Moench presumption. As I discussed in this post, the courts are in the process of working out the application of these obligations and the presumption under the real time circumstances of actual cases. Another focuses on the development and application of equitable remedies after Amara, and one other speaks to the role of SPDs after Amara. The two are linked, in that the communications contained in SPDs are central to the prosecution of the types of equitable relief claims opened up by Amara. And finally, one other article addresses the restricted scope of remedies available to plan participants as a result of the Supreme Court’s historically narrow reading of ERISA remedies in conjunction with its historically broad reading of ERISA preemption. Interestingly, and as I have written elsewhere, the expansion of equitable remedies by means of surcharge and other types of relief recognized by the Court in Amara is likely to serve as a curative to that problem, by creating an avenue to use the equitable relief prong of ERISA to provide relief to participants in circumstances in which, previously, the combination of ERISA’s limited list of remedies with its broad preemptive effect would have precluded relief being granted to the participant.
A Focus on Facts in the Seventh Circuit: George v. Junior Achievement of Central Indiana
An upcoming article of mine in the Journal of Pension Benefits argues that ERISA litigation and potential exposures are moving away from strict constructionism and technical legal arguments to fact based inquiries into potential harms to participants, and traces how we came to that place. This is a more significant change than it may appear to any of you who do not spend your time litigating ERISA disputes. This shift is going to make ERISA litigation more like other litigation, with a focus on factual development and discovery, and less on doctrinal argument. The Seventh Circuit’s recent ruling in George v. Junior Achievement of Central Indiana, Inc., discussed in this excellent synopsis here, is a perfect example of this phenomenon, with the Court rejecting a technical, statutory basis for rejecting a retaliation claim under ERISA in favor of a broader reading of the relevant statutory language, one that can allow for a fact-based inquiry into whether or not the participant actually was retaliated against. You can expect more and more of this kind of shift in the future, across the range of issues impacting ERISA plans, particularly with regard to retirement benefits, whether provided under defined contribution or instead defined benefit plans.
On the Problem of Remedying Errors in Providing Plan Information
Here is a great fact pattern that illustrates a number of recurring problems in ERISA litigation. In this case (Tocker v. Kraft Foods North America, Inc. Retirement Plan), decided by the Second Circuit last week, a mid-level benefits manager worked on accommodating the needs of a terminally ill plan participant, by working out an arrangement by which the participant could first receive long term disability benefits and then receive workforce reduction payments, rather than having to choose one or the other. Naturally, of course, since it turned into litigation, the arrangement did not work out without a hiccup, as it affected the participant’s pension credits. The participant sought to remedy that problem by use of a breach of fiduciary duty claim. The breach of fiduciary duty claim failed, however, because the benefits manager was found to have only been engaged in ministerial duties, and not fiduciary duties, and thus a breach of fiduciary duty action was not viable.
The case nicely illustrates and establishes the dividing line between fiduciary and non-fiduciary acts by executives of a company involved in running a company’s benefit plan, and the opinion’s first and best use will be in cases where that point must be established, particularly cases where one side or the other needs to prove that someone was, or was not, a fiduciary for purposes of a particular dispute. The decision is particularly on point with regard to the question of when does the provision of information about benefits render someone a fiduciary (the answer according to this decision is, effectively, never, although I am engaged in a purposeful bit of overstatement there).
However, it also illustrates a point I discuss in detail in an upcoming article in the Journal of Pension Benefits, which is the difficulty, under ERISA, of redressing problems in plan administration that are not merely denials of benefits clearly owed under a plan (and thus can be remedied under the denial of benefits prong of ERISA) and cannot be shown to involve fiduciary conduct. The dispute at issue in Tocker was exactly that type, and the plaintiff, despite having possibly been harmed by an operational misstep in implementing the agreed upon arrangement to coordinate the participant’s disability benefits and workforce reduction award, was unable to construct a viable cause of action under ERISA to address that problem and possible loss. The statute’s remedial rigidity had long been a problem in ERISA litigation over the years, impacting the ability of participants to address these types of problems. As I discuss in my upcoming article, this problem has likely been solved by the surcharge remedy recognized by the Supreme Court in its recent decision in Cigna v. Amara: the best approach open to the plaintiff in Tocker today would have been to structure his claim as one for equitable relief based on the surcharge remedy, rather than as a breach of fiduciary duty claim. When his case began, though, well before the decision in Amara, this option would not have been open to him.
A Bunch of Cliches About Scary Things (Or a Few Words on Why Fee Disclosure Isn't Scary)
Here’s a very nice piece on fee disclosure, as mandated by the Department of Labor, and the idea that it is to everyone’s benefit. I have long maintained that fee disclosure of the type at issue falls squarely in the ballpark of the old saying that sunshine is the best disinfectant, and that running from fee disclosure – whether as a plan sponsor or a service provider – is the intellectual equivalent of running from the bogeyman; there is, in fact, nothing to fear from it, for well-run plans and above-board advisors, and for those who aren’t yet those but aspire to be.
Why is that? Well, let’s run through the list of players in the 401(k) rubric. Plan participants obviously benefit from knowing what their funds costs, and from the opportunity to use that information to demand proper attention to fees from their plan’s sponsors, administrators and fiduciaries. Where is the downside to them? I can’t see one. And then there are plan fiduciaries. Plan fiduciaries should be avoiding fees that are higher than needed, both to protect themselves from fiduciary liability and to best serve participants. Now this doesn’t mean they are required to, and nothing in fee disclosure or the law governing fees requires them to, chase the lowest possible cost investment options. What it does mean, though, and which cases like Tibble make clear, is that they have to investigate and follow a prudent process directed at using the right investment option at the right price. The more information they have, the better they are able to do this; likewise, the more they are pressed by participants to do this, the more likely they are to install a good process to review these aspects of their plans and, correspondingly, the less likely they are to fall below their fiduciary duties in this regard. This all make them less likely to be sued for, or found liable for, excessive fee claims, and thus protects them from financial risk in running the plan. These outcomes flow naturally from the public disclosure of the fees inherent in a plan. And finally there are the investment advisors and other service providers. More than one such provider has told me that they already make this information available or have changed their business models to build around the open disclosure of this information, and that they believe their ability to compete both on transparency of and attention to controlling expenses is a competitive advantage for them. I have long believed that transparency works to the business advantage of the best players in this area, and aren’t those the ones who should be winning business? Just another side benefit of fee disclosure, and one more reason why, when it comes to fee disclosure, there is, to quote a former president who knew a thing or two about creating a retirement plan, nothing to fear but fear itself.
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.
Do the 1% Have the Same Rights as the 99%?
Sorry, I couldn't resist that relatively timely, but already essentially clichéd headline. That said, its still an interesting way to consider the question of top-hat plans, and their status under ERISA. In particular, there is an open question in most jurisdictions with regard to whether a claim for benefits owed under such a plan proceeds in much the same way, and with the same protections for the participants, as does any other claim for benefits under any other type of ERISA governed plan (i.e., one that, unlike a top-hat plan, does not provide significant deferred compensation for senior executives). There is a significant argument that, as a general rule, the same obligations that ERISA and the Department of Labor impose on administrators in any other circumstance also apply in the circumstance of top-hat plans, with the only exception being areas where the statute or the Department’s regulations expressly exempt top-hat plans.
In this regard, I wanted to pass along this very good synopsis of a recent decision from the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts in which the court took that exact approach. You can find the case itself here. When the decision was issued in December, I decided not to comment on it because I was litigating a similar top-hat plan dispute at that time, and felt the decision was a little too on-point to a case I was handling for me to comment on, for a number of reasons, running from not wanting to tip my hand to the other side to being a little too close to the issue to be completely objective on the ruling. That case has since resolved, so I thought I would now use the opportunity of the publication of the synopsis to pass it along.
There is also an important trap for the unwary lawyer reflected in the decision and the synopsis, which is the impact of ERISA rights and remedies, as well as procedures and procedural protections, on what are in essence employment agreements, if they are deemed ERISA governed top-hat plans. If a particular agreement might be a top-hat plan, it is important to recognize that at the outset and litigate any dispute over it accordingly. As the synopsis and the decision show, the application of ERISA based rules will dictate the outcome, and failing to know that a particular agreement is a top-hat plan and will be governed by such rules at the outset of handling a dispute is a recipe for disaster, or at least for losing; one has to be aware right at the outset that the dispute cannot be litigated as a traditional contract or employment dispute, but instead as an ERISA dispute. Otherwise, you are bringing a knife to a gunfight, to borrow a favored cliché.
The court's decision itself, by the way, is a terrific road map through the current state of the law on benefit litigation under ERISA, particularly in the First Circuit, for both top-hat and regular old employee benefit claims.
The Tin Man's Heart
I spoke last week at the New England Employee Benefits Council on the Department of Labor’s efforts to redefine the word fiduciary by regulation, so as to capture within that rubric more of the vendors, providers and advisors involved in the retirement industry. Overall, my sense is the regulatory effort is over-expansive, and risks divorcing the regulatory definition of fiduciary from the statutory provision that creates fiduciary status under ERISA. My comments when I spoke ran in this direction. I also have an article in for publication in the Journal of Pension Benefits to the same effect.
That said, though, there are clear problems that the regulatory effort is directed at, and it is fair to say that, at a minimum, the Department’s heart is in the right place, as this interview with Phyllis Borzi makes clear. It is important to remember both of those things, even in criticizing particular redrafts of the relevant regulations. I mention this now partly because the issue is not going away, and the Department of Labor will be coming back later this year with a new, revised proposed rewrite of the regulatory definition of fiduciary, as explained here.
The ERISA Decision of the Year?
If you were going to read just one ERISA decision this year – or were starting from scratch, with a blank slate, and wanted to know the law governing breach of fiduciary duty claims under ERISA – I would read this one, Judge Holwell of the Southern District of New York’s opinion in Prudential Retirement Insurance and Annuity Co. v. State Street Bank and Trust Company. To set the stage in a nutshell, one can do worse than to borrow the opening paragraph of the Court’s opinion:
Plaintiff Prudential Retirement Insurance and Annuity Co. ("PRIAC"), brought this action pursuant to sections 409(a) and 502(a)(2) and (3) of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 ("ERISA") against defendant State Street Bank and Trust Company ("State Street") on October 1, 2007. PRIAC commenced this suit as an ERISA fiduciary on behalf of nearly 200 retirement plans (the "Plans") that invested, through PRIAC, in two collective bank trusts managed by State Street—the Government Credit Bond Fund ("GCBF") and the Intermediate Bond Fund ("IBF") (collectively, the "Bond Funds"). This Memorandum Opinion and Order follows a seven day bench trial on the issue of whether State Street breached its fiduciary duty to the Plans by (1) failing to manage the Bond Funds prudently, (2) failing to manage the Bond Funds solely in the interest of the Plans, and (3) failing adequately to diversify the Bond Funds' assets.
In the process of awarding over 28 million dollars in damages to the plaintiff, the Court’s opinion roams in an orderly manner (can you roam in an orderly manner? I am not sure) across the most important issues in breach of fiduciary duty litigation, presenting detailed explanations of the relevant legal standards, including an excellent explanation and analysis of a fiduciary’s duty to act prudently, of the fiduciary’s duty to act with loyalty and of the same fiduciary’s duty to diversify. One particular issue that the opinion handles with great subtlety and depth concerns damages, with the Court presenting an excellent and thoughtful analysis of the burden of proof on this issue and of the relevant standards for calculating damages in this context. As the Court’s analysis reflects, this aspect of breach of fiduciary duty litigation is not fully fleshed out in the case law and is subject to real dispute, but the opinion addresses the issue masterfully.
One reason, by the way, that the damages issues are not fully developed in the case law at this point is the relative infrequency with which they arise in court, in comparison to the liability issues raised by a breach of fiduciary duty claim. There are a number of reasons for this. One is the trend in many circuits, post-Iqbal, towards deciding such claims at the motion to dismiss stage, resulting in many cases being decided at an early stage on liability in a context in which the legal issues governing damages never become relevant and never get aired. Another is the tendency of liability to be decided at the summary judgment stage, leading – more often than not – to settlement before the damages issue is ever presented to a court, if the summary judgment ruling finds a breach of fiduciary duty to have occurred. The combination of these events means that liability is far more written about by the courts than is damages in the context of ERISA breach of fiduciary duty litigation. As the opinion in Prudential makes clear, though, the subtleties of the damages determination become very important when the breach generates extremely large losses.
The Lessons of Unisys
Here is a very nicely written opinion out of the Third Circuit in Renfro v Unisys rejecting a breach of fiduciary duty claim alleging excessive fees in the mutual fund options in a company’s 401(k) plan. A few particular points are noteworthy. The first is the detailed explanation in the opinion of the reason that the directed trustee, Fidelity, was immune to suit for those decisions. The opinion lays out the written structure used by Fidelity to avoid being exposed to claims of this nature and, quite frankly, it is really well done. Pats on the back all the way around to the Fidelity legal department, or at least that part that over the years has formulated this structure and its documentation. While I mean that sincerely, I mean something more serious as well: somebody over there invested significant resources to get this right, and you see the value of that in this opinion. Investments in ERISA compliance and liability prevention can pay off down the road in spades, and this is a perfect example of it.
A second nice aspect of the opinion is the Court’s nice synthesis of Hecker and Braden, which otherwise can be seen as standing in conflict with each other. However, this leads to the third point, which is that the opinion reasonably and quite intelligently explains that the allegations concerning the mix of investments are not enough to show a breach, even though some of the fund choices were of the retail class in circumstances in which one can assume the sponsor had sufficient negotiating power to avoid that class of investments. As I discussed in this article here, one of the wrong lessons many people took from the District Court opinion in Tibble, which followed a trial of an excessive fee case, was the idea that having retail share classes as investment vehicles is a per se problem and needs to be avoided. That, however, was not really the case in that litigation; what was the problem there was not the use of the retail share classes, but the manner in which they ended up in the investment mix. The Third Circuit’s opinion is essentially driven by the absence of allegations that would match the evidence in Tibble showing that there were errors by the fiduciaries that caused the plan to unnecessarily and improperly carry retail share class investments. Rather, the Third Circuit’s opinion simply rejects the idea that the inclusion of retail share classes alone shows, without more, flaws in fiduciary decision making.
Lurie on Amara By Way of BenefitsLink By Way of the Workplace Prof
Well, this piece by Alvin Lurie on Amara is about as good as you are going to find, running as it does from the technical aspects of the case to the philosophy of its jurisprudence. I can commend it to you for a few reasons, not the least of which is that it does a wonderful job of actually explaining the case itself, in terms of its genesis, the underlying proceedings, the plan at issue, and the decision of the Supreme Court. It also, though, goes straight to the most important aspect of Amara from the point of view of a practicing lawyer litigating benefit claims, which is the majority opinion’s exposition on how to obtain redress when the problem concerns inaccurate summary plan descriptions. As I discussed in this post here, the majority opinion instructs that a plan participant cannot recover increased benefits beyond what would be available under the plan terms themselves by basing a claim for benefits on the summary; rather, the proper approach is to seek reformation of the plan to provide the amount of benefits indicated by the summary, if different from that provided under the plan terms themselves. To my way of thinking, this is the key practical significance of Amara: it explains how to properly plead a claim seeking to recover the greater benefit amounts set forth in a summary, as compared to that set forth in the plan itself.
My thanks to Paul Secunda and the always vigilant Workplace Prof for highlighting the article.
Leave It to a Non-Lawyer to Cut Through the Fog (Or What Amara Actually Means)
Ran into John Lowell, who writes the Benefits and Compensation with John Lowell blog, the other evening, and we discussed his post on Cigna v. Amara, in which he referenced the fact that no one really knows for certain what the decision will mean in the long run, but he had never seen so many lawyers take pen to paper – or fingers to keyboard – so quickly as in response to that decision. Personally, I attribute it to pent up demand, in that many lawyers, myself included, have been watching for that decision for a long time, and had expected it by now; as a result, many were primed to jump right into the fray as soon as it was issued.
John is right though, that what the case means from any sort of a macro level (as opposed to its precise impact on the litigants in that exact case) is solely in the eye of the beholder at this point. The lawyers at Steptoe and Johnson in D.C. say the same thing as John, only with more legalese, commenting that “the Supreme Court’s recent decision in CIGNA Corporation v. Amara, 563 U.S. ____ (5/16/11), may revolutionize the way that employee benefit plans are drafted and the ability of plan participants to overturn provisions that they object to; or it may turn out to be the articulation of theories that have no practical impact.”
And in that is the thing, because the devil here, as in most things, is in the details. There is language and analysis in Amara that is fascinating if, as John noted, you are an ERISA lawyer who likes to wax poetic about the latest doctrinal changes and trends (guilty as charged on this end, to some extent). In fact, I think a young law professor looking to build a career could probably mine aspects of this decision for three or four major papers (feel free to email me and I will give you the topics). The technical lawyering questions about the role of the equitable relief prong addressed in the opinion raise a number of questions, and the difference in jurisprudential philosophy represented by the split between the majority opinion and the concurrence is good for an article or two.
But at the end of the day, we won’t know what the case really means in the long run until courtroom lawyers start applying it to actual facts in a case, and lower courts, and then higher courts, explain how the ideas set forth in Amara interact with those facts. It is when we have a critical mass of cases in which that occurs, and not till then, that we will finally have an answer to the million-dollar question that John posed: namely, why exactly does the case matter.
Fiduciary Definitions Change Hand in Hand with the Real World
One underlying theme of much commentary about 401(k) plans is the idea that their replacement of pensions as the primary retirement vehicle for most private sector workers was not intended, and is the walking, talking example of the law of unintended consequences. Seen as it was in its origin myth – as a supplemental retirement investment vehicle – its flaws become less significant; for instance, questions of the appropriate levels of fees, or whether and under what circumstances to include employer stock, are less important when the risks of reduced return from those issues impact not the participant’s primary retirement investment, but rather a supplement to it. In some ways, that is the revolution of BrightScope. I have spoken with lawyers and industry people who quibble (and sometimes outright quarrel) with its math, but the reality is that, regardless, it is the first public forum (that I know of, anyway) to really treat 401(k)s as what they truly are: the primary retirement vehicle for a vast swath of the public. Viewed in that light, every piece of information that impacts or reduces performance, which BrightScope tries to capture and communicate to the participants, is of the utmost importance, something that would not be the case if 401(k)s played a less central role in employee retirement planning.
I was thinking of this today because of two stories on issues involving the use of ESOPs and 401(k) plans for purposes other than retirement income accumulation; in both cases, for the more traditional purpose – in my mind anyway – of motivating employees and managing tax exposures. As tools for these purposes, they have more value and less risk than they do as primary retirement vehicles. Both though are subject to distortion depending on the nature of the management of them: the ESOP by misuse, as I have written before, as a tempting tool for corporate transactions and the 401(k) by mismanagement of its investment selection and cost. Each risk is countered, or supposed to be, by the fiduciary obligations of those operating the plans, and at heart this is what the Department of Labor initiatives to expand the scope of fiduciaries is targeted at: making sure that all those who play a management or similar key role in the operation of these types of plans become fiduciaries and are subject to the discipline imposed by that status, in terms of potential liability exposure, behavioral demands and expectations, and litigation risks.
Class Actions, the Diamond Hypothetical and the Seventh Circuit
I have written before about the various implications of the Supreme Court broadening fiduciary duty claims in LaRue to allow individual participants to sue for losses only to their own accounts, rather than just for harms suffered by all participants, or in other words, by the plan as a whole; among other aspects, I have discussed its interplay with the class action rules, and the importance for the development of the law of ERISA of the Court’s distinction in that case between defined benefit plans and defined contribution plans.
On the first point, I have noted that the famous - to a small group of interested observers otherwise known as ERISA lawyers and scholars - role played in LaRue by the so-called (by me, anyway) diamond hypothetical may have a wide range of implications for the development of the law, not all of them either intended or even foreseeable. Under the diamond hypothetical, each participant’s account in a defined contribution plan can be understood to contain its own specific bunch of diamonds, which all together add up to make up the totality of the diamonds held by the plan; this is different than a defined benefit plan, in which the diamonds are not subdivided in that manner, but instead are merely held in their entirety as the plan’s assets. I have blogged before about the question of whether this meant that an individual plan participant who suffered no harm to his particular account - i.e., his diamonds didn’t vanish - could proceed as a class representative where other plan participants did suffer harm in their accounts - i.e, their diamonds did vanish - or could seek relief on a plan wide basis. Judge Gertner of the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts has a nice discussion of the diamond hypothetical in the footnotes of her opinion that is discussed in this post.
In a decision interesting on a number of fronts, the Seventh Circuit has now addressed this same issue in detail, in the context of deciding whether class certification orders in excessive fee cases involving defined contribution plans were appropriate. In Spano v. Boeing, the Court focused on the implication of the diamond hypothetical structure of defined contribution plans (without mentioning the diamond hypothetical), finding that class certification can be proper, despite the fact that each plan participant has his or her own individual account and possible loss, after LaRue, but that the particular injury to the different participants’ accounts had to be examined to determine whether class certification was appropriate with regard to the particular theory being pursued by the class and the representative plaintiffs. In essence, class certification may not be appropriate if there is too much variance in the impact on different participants’ accounts of the challenged conduct. The opinion is a fascinating read on this question, and you can find it here.
The opinion is notable for a number of other reasons as well, some of which I may return to in further posts, but one of which I will mention here. I have posted in the past that the Supreme Court’s opinion in LaRue invited courts to revisit the rules in place with regard to defined benefit plans when instead evaluating claims concerning defined contribution plans, and emphasized that the rules applicable to the former may not properly fit the latter. I have pointed out as well that figuring out where or how the rules should diverge in the two contexts should open up avenues for participants’ lawyers to try to advance their cases when pressing claims involving defined contribution plans. The Seventh Circuit drives home both this point and this new reality in Spano, recognizing this dynamic put into play by the Supreme Court in LaRue.
Governmental Plans, Annuities, and the Intersection of ERISA with the Securities Laws
I have discussed in many posts the idea that the plaintiffs’ class action bar has alighted on ERISA and breach of fiduciary duty claims as a preferable tactical alternative, in many cases, to proceeding under the securities laws. This approach was a particularly nice fit for stock drop cases, in which company stock held in employee benefit plans rendered ERISA, and its relatively - at least compared to the securities laws - more malleable breach of fiduciary duty doctrines, a viable approach to seeking recovery for precipitous declines in company stock prices. To date that tactic - which made sense as a legal and tactical theory in the abstract - has not really worked out all that well with regard to decline in the value of company stock holdings, because of the oft-discussed Moench doctrine, which provides a strong presumption in favor of plan fiduciaries when it comes to holding company stock.
This article here, however, discusses what has, at least in perfect hindsight, turned out to be an excellent example of taking a good idea - at least if you are a class action lawyer or a plan participant - a little too far, by choosing to proceed under ERISA in a large putative class action rather than under the securities laws, only to have the court subsequently conclude that ERISA cannot apply under the facts of the particular case, and that the participants should have gone forward under the securities laws in the first place. The case it discusses, Daniels-Hall v. National Education Association out of the Ninth Circuit, can be found here, and for the ERISA practitioner, it may be more significant for its detailed analysis of the government plan exemption in ERISA than for its conclusion that the plaintiffs had overreached by relying on ERISA rather than the securities law to proceed with their case. The issue of the choice of legal doctrine to pursue is one of tactics, and reasonable lawyers can disagree at the outset of a case as to which of many plausible lines of attack should be pursued; either way, over time, the current preference for ERISA over the securities laws as a matter of tactics will likely run its course. Debates over whether a particular plan is a government plan, however, will continue to pop up, and the Ninth Circuit’s decision provides a sound template for analyzing that issue.
From Studebaker to Stock Drops, in One Lawyer's Lifetime
How cool is this? I have talked in various posts and in seminars, webinars and the like for years about the transition from defined benefit plans to defined contribution plans, and how that integrates with the development of the law of fiduciary liability under ERISA. I am, in fact, outlining comments for a seminar later this week structured around that theme. Right in the middle of doing that, I look up and find this fascinating article about the death of pensions and the rise of defined contribution plans, only through the eyes of an ERISA attorney who began practicing in this field right after ERISA was enacted, and whose practice has covered the heyday of the pension, the vanishing of the pension, and the rise of the defined contribution plan. Neat story, and worth a few minutes to read.
An Unfortunately Timely Topic: When Severance Programs are ERISA Plans
Nothing shows up in my practice any more frequently, particularly in this economy and over the last couple of years, than severance packages, and the question of whether a particular severance package program is governed by ERISA. Roy Hoskins, on the ERISABoard.com site, reviews this issue, and its application by the District of Maine under First Circuit law, in this excellent post, along with providing a copy of the opinion by the court. For those of you who may not be able to access the Board’s site for any reason, here is a copy of the decision itself, which is Sawyer v. TD Bank US Holding Company.
On Named and Functional Fiduciaries
I have been a fan of Scott Simon’s Morningstar articles on the various fiduciary relationships among those who run plans and those who advise them. This one here is a good, practical, business oriented view of the different forms of fiduciaries - named and functional (or deemed) - in 401(k) and other plans. It is written more from the business perspective, of who are the different players and what fiduciary niches do they occupy, in the structuring and operation of a plan. This is somewhat different than how we lawyers, particularly litigators, tend to look at these issues, because it is forward facing and addresses the deliberate structuring of the plan and of these roles. We litigators in particular tend to look at things from a different vantage, more in hindsight, and say did this person or that entity, looking at what they actually did, acquire the status of a fiduciary for purposes of liability exposure, whether they were intended to be put in that position or not at the outset of the plan’s establishment. And from that perspective, one of the most useful comments in his most current article is his explanation of one type of functional fiduciary, namely the party that assumed control over plan assets to some extent unintentionally, but that nonetheless then became a fiduciary with fiduciary responsibility for any acts taken in that regard. As he points out, that party assumes fiduciary liability in that situation, even if it did not knowingly cross the line into that role. As Simon Says:
A more serious scenario is where a person unilaterally exercises discretionary control or authority over a plan without express authorization. Such a person can become a "functional" 3(21) limited scope/non-named fiduciary--without a written contract--through its mere conduct of providing unauthorized advice or exercising unauthorized control or discretion. Given that no contract is present in this situation, the entity obviously doesn't intend to become a 3(21) limited scope/non-named fiduciary but becomes so anyway through its inadvertent conduct.
From a litigation perspective, this is a far more common circumstance than one might assume, and is a central point in much breach of fiduciary litigation, where a key question is often whether a particular defendant became a fiduciary by its actions concerning the plan and its assets, where it was not intended by the plan’s authors and founders to be a fiduciary.
What's a Good ERISA Lawyer Worth, Anyway?
That’s what this case here begins to answer, at least in the Boston market and in the context of the fees that should be awarded to a prevailing plaintiff. This case was intended to be the next in the series of recent Massachusetts/First Circuit centric decisions I started writing two weeks ago, and haven’t returned to since. It is interesting on two fronts, the first being, as intimated above, it’s survey of billing rates for ERISA counsel in the Boston market. The second is it provides a good explanation, as well as example, of applying a lodestar.
It seemed particularly timely to return to the series of recent decisions by bringing up this one, in light of the Supreme Court’s recent hearing of arguments on the question of the nature of attorney’s fee awards to prevailing plaintiffs in ERISA cases. That case, and the argument before the Court, revolved heavily around exactly what result adds up to a sufficient enough win by a plaintiff/plan participant to trigger an award of attorney’s fees, since an ERISA case involving denied benefits can end up with a result that falls anywhere across a broad continuum of possible outcomes that range from a win for the plan, to a remand back to the plan administrator to fix procedural errors and make a new decision, to an outright win for the plan participant. It is my view, even as predominately a defense lawyer, that those courts who use substantial success (under other names sometimes) by the plan participant in his or her suit as the proper trigger for awarding attorney’s fees under ERISA have it right. There are a lot of barriers to plan participants bringing suit over denied benefits that relate to the costs of doing so, including the fact that many cases simply don’t involve enough in benefit amounts to warrant the plan participant incurring the costs needed to prosecute a claim out of his or her own pocket; making attorney’s fees available so long as the participant proves some substantive problem in the handling of the claim, even if it only results in remand to the plan administrator, is both a necessary counterweight to this problem and consistent with the premise that a plan participant is entitled, even if not to benefits, than to the proper handling of his or her claim and a correct decision making process.
Indeed, if you think about it, the animating principle that makes arbitrary and capricious review morally appropriate is the idea that the decision must be based on a proper process; absent a proper process, the justification for allowing the plan administrator the leeway to make the decision, with only limited review by a court, is weak at best. One can only assume that the administrator’s decision making is appropriate, which is the essential assumption behind discretionary review, if in fact the process used to make that decision was correct; anything less, and there is no reason to assume a correct outcome by the administrator. From a practical perspective, as one who has represented various plan administrators over the years, there is nothing wrong with this approach and idea either, as it is my experience that most good companies strive for a proper process and a correct result (something that itself is dependent on a quality decision making process in the first instance).
For arbitrary and capricious review to exist in a fair legal system, there has to be a realistic opportunity for plan participants to test whether the process pursued was correct, and the opportunity to recover the legal costs incurred in proving that the process was flawed is a necessary part of that, as in its absence, participants will become, for financial reasons, even less likely than they are now to challenge the procedural underpinnings of decisions that go against them. This is simply logical, if you think about it. Why would any rational economic actor spend tens of thousands to prove a mere procedural error leading to remand to the administrator, in cases that often involve only five figures in benefits, absent a realistic opportunity to recoup those fees if correct in his or her belief that the process was flawed?
From this point of view, the exceptional (when compared to every other legal area I can think of at the moment) degree of latitude granted to the administrator by arbitrary and capricious review, something firmly shored up most recently by Chief Justice Roberts in Conkright v Frommert, must exist hand in hand with rules that create a realistic system under which participants can test the administrator’s process in reaching decisions, and the ability to recover legal fees by proving a procedural error and forcing a remand is a sensible part of that system.
When Does a Flaw in an Administrative Appeal Render an Administrator's Denial of Benefits Arbitrary and Capricious?
There have been a series of interesting ERISA decisions over the past several weeks out of the United States District Court for Massachusetts, whose Boston courthouse I can see through my office window as I type this post. The decisions have stacked up on my desk a little bit, like a leaning tower of paper. I am going to run a series of posts, some short and others perhaps longer, passing them on with my comments as to their value. The first is this summary judgment ruling in DiGiallonardo v. Saint-Gobain Retirement Income Group, which has to do with a challenge to a denial of disability retirement benefits. It is most interesting, and useful to other practitioners, for one specific point, namely its handling of an administrator’s procedurally poor processing of a claim and its appeal. The court found that the administrator had not considered the actual key term in the contract in ruling on the claim for benefits, and that this required remand to the administrator for a proper handling of the claim, because under those circumstances, the claimant had not received the “full and fair review of the administrator’s decision” to which a claimant is entitled under ERISA. The court found that this procedural irregularity rendered the administrator’s decision arbitrary and capricious.
On Attorneys Fees and Hecker
Honestly, I have spent a week scratching my head, off and on, over the Supreme Court granting cert to consider the standards governing when attorneys fees can be awarded in an ERISA case, particularly when they denied cert shortly thereafter in Hecker, which presented the opportunity to address the much more substantive issue of the scope of fiduciary responsibility for the amount - and corresponding degree of disclosure - of 401(k) fees. In my mind, there is already a conflict among the circuits over that issue, with the Seventh Circuit finding outright that there was no viable theory against fiduciaries of large plans with market standard fees, and the Eighth finding this same theory worthy of factual inquiry. However, as I thought more on it, the denial of cert for Hecker makes some jurisprudential sense. Hecker itself was decided on a motion to dismiss, leaving essentially no factual record for evaluating these types of claims (critics will say, of course, that this didn’t stop the Seventh Circuit from deciding the theory had no merit) and forcing any Supreme Court ruling to turn solely on the allegations in the pleadings. This is a complicated issue, one I have said before would have been more properly evaluated by the Seventh Circuit after factual development, and I suppose it is likewise fair to say that a Supreme Court review of the issues posed by Hecker by means of reviewing Hecker itself would have suffered from the same flaw; Supreme Court review of the fee issues raised by the Hecker line of cases is probably better suited to a case that has played out sufficiently to allow all of the factual and legal fault lines to develop prior to Supreme Court review.
But the attorneys fee case itself still doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me, as a practicing litigator who spends plenty of time with cases pending in the federal courts that are governed by that fee statute. The reality is that such attorney fee awards are either subsumed within settlements, or the courts award them under current standards only, typically, where there is significant merit to a party’s position and the party obtains significant relief; the district court judges, in my experience, do a good job of utilizing the current standards and understanding of the fee shifting provision of the statute to bring about that result, such as in this case here. And at the end of the day, no matter certain peculiarities that exist in the wording of the statute, this is really the only standard for awarding or not awarding fees that makes practical sense in the real world. After all, do we really want attorneys fees awarded for less than obtaining at least a significant portion of the relief sought by a plan participant?
I understand that the Fourth Circuit, in the case under review, applied a somewhat more stringent test than what I am discussing here, but, from a courtroom level view, courts get this issue right often enough that it doesn’t seem to warrant Supreme Court intervention. But the Court seems to have a thing for ERISA cases these days, for whatever reason.
A Nice Explanation of the DOL Advisory Opinion on Target-Date Funds
I like this (relatively) new blog here, the Benefits and Employment Observer, by the lawyers at the small - only in numbers - Washington D.C. shop of Bailey & Ehrenberg. This is the cleanest, most easily understood presentation of the findings of the DOL’s recent advisory opinion “addressing the issue of whether the assets of ‘target-date’ or ‘lifecycle’ mutual funds constitute ‘plan assets’ of employee benefit plans which invest in the funds” that I have come across over the couple of weeks since the opinion’s issuance.
Divorce Me for My Money, Or Love, Continental Style
This is one of the great ERISA stories of all time - its like something out of a Boston Legal episode. I am speaking, of course, of the case, detailed here, of the Continental pilots who, concerned that the retirement plan may go belly up long before they retire, divorced their wives, executed QDROs transferring the retirement benefit to their now ex-spouses, after which the ex-wives took out lump sum payments, as the plan allowed. The only twist, though, is that, according to Continental, the divorces were executed solely for that purpose, and the pilots and their spouses either thereafter remarried or just continued cohabiting. The court found that the QDRO requirements were satisfied, and that the plan itself did not include any exception preventing such an alleged end around by participants to obtain benefits in this manner, and dismissed Continental’s suit seeking to recoup the payments.
This is an Alice in Wonderland, fun house mirror version of the rule that plan terms govern, and the statutory requirements control. Normally, those rules are invoked against plan participants, who seek more than a plan’s express terms allow, or seek to prosecute a claim that cannot be sustained under the statute’s narrow and express remedy or cause of action provisions. Here, the participants were able - assuming Continental’s version of events is true - to use those same rules to access the retirement funds early, without the plan or its administrator having any means to prevent it from happening.
But there is another point here, one lurking in the background, behind the entertaining fact pattern (entertaining, at least, to ERISA lawyers): the fact that we have a retirement system that is so tenuous that employees feel it is necessary to go to lengths such as this to protect themselves. That is the more significant issue that needs addressing, much more so than whether plan terms or QDRO requirements should be able to be manipulated in such a manner.
Harmon on Delegation of Fiduciary Duties in the First Circuit
Just briefly, as I have been traveling and haven’t reviewed the case myself, Roy Harmon on his excellent Health Plan Law blog, analyzes a decision out of the First Circuit on the manner in which a fiduciary can properly delegate its authority; the decision found that excessive formality wasn’t mandated. You can find Roy’s analysis, trenchant as always, here.
Conkright, Discretion and the Supreme Court
Here’s a nice little story on Conkright, and the new Supreme Court session. As the article explains in a nutshell:
The issue in Conkright vs. Frommert involves how much deference a court must give to an ERISA plan administrator's interpretation of the terms of the plan. A group of Xerox Corp. retirees who left and then returned before retiring brought the suit. At issue is the method of accounting for lump sum distributions received by the employees when they first left the company when determining the benefits to which they were entitled at retirement.
In a review of the case, a three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last year that a district court has no obligation to defer to a plan administrator's reasonable interpretation of the plan's terms if the administrator arrived at the conclusion outside the context of an administrative claim for benefits. It also held that a district court has “allowable discretion” to adopt any “reasonable” interpretation of the retirement plan terms under certain circumstances. The high court has not set a date for oral arguments.
I studiously ignored Conkright during the cert phase - we will discuss it in detail in future posts, however. Gut instinct right now, based only on what the Court did with its most recent ERISA cases? Expect a decision that narrows the administrator’s discretion and gives more freedom of interpretation to the court. How's that for instant analysis?
QDROs Down the Drainville?
I don’t think anyone has made as sustained a study of the law of QDROs as Albert Feuer. Albert has a new piece he has authored on the Drainville decision, which I discussed here, in which Albert concurs that it is both well reasoned and accurate in treating substantial compliance with the statutory QDRO requirements as sufficient. Albert, however, has long maintained a particular scholarly view on the QDRO requirements, which is that they only apply to pensions under the statutory language, and don’t reach other ERISA governed plans or benefits. Albert points out that the Drainville court erred in its analysis for this reason.
Being a practical, courtroom oriented kind of guy, I have never done my own independent analysis of Albert’s thesis, since in practice QDROs are treated as applicable across the board and thus my litigation over the issue has always focused on the application of the statutory requirements, and not on whether they reach all covered benefits or only pension benefits. I have to say, though, that his argument on the point and the manner in which he presents it has always been pretty persuasive; it would certainly be interesting to see a lawyer challenge a purported QDRO on this basis and to see what a court would do with that issue.
Doing the QDRO Shuffle
Here’s a great opinion, out of the United States District Court for the District of Rhode Island, on QDROs, their statutory basis, their purpose, and how they should be structured. Notably, the court weighs in in a very sensible manner on the never ending question of whether, under ERISA, the divorce decree at issue must comply exactly with the requirements imposed by ERISA to qualify as a QDRO or whether instead, as in horse shoes, close enough counts. In this circuit, close enough is usually good enough, and courts tend to enforce the divorce decree so long as the court is convinced it can accurately ascertain the intent and purpose of the agreement from the decree, regardless of whether the exact detailed requirements that ERISA imposes to qualify as a QDRO have been met. This opinion comes closer than those to requiring close compliance with the specific requirements of the statute, but allows variance from them subject to a certain principled guidance - namely, whether the variance does not affect the plan administrator’s ability to determine to whom and in what amount to pay plan proceeds. If so, then the requirements should be considered to have been met in substance and the order in question deemed a QDRO for these purposes.
Beyond this aspect of the opinion, one of its most notable features is simply its nice exposition of exactly what a QDRO needs to contain. Exactly what needs to be contained in a divorce document to qualify as a QDRO seems to be a constant source of confusion for people who are not ERISA lawyers but who have to work out family/divorce agreements; this opinion just lays it out in clear fashion.
The opinion is Metropolitan Life Ins. Co. v. Drainville. It doesn't appear to have been posted yet on the court's website, but once it is, you should be able to find it here. For now, here's a Lexis site for it: 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 63613.
Hecker and the Development of the Law on the 404(c) Defense
One of the Seventh Circuit’s most interesting tricks in its recent decision in Hecker was the extraordinary breadth it gave to the 404(c) defense. This was an aspect of the decision that raised a lot of hackles, and I noted in my own post on the case that I doubted this was the last word on the subject and that it would be interesting to see how the case law developed as other courts tackled this question. Well, here’s a decision from a week or so ago out of the United States District Court for the District of New Hampshire taking a much narrower approach in interpreting the amount of protection granted to fiduciaries by section 404(c), finding that the defense does not apply to “a fiduciary's designation of the investment options that are available to plan participants.” The court reached this conclusion because:
First, section 404(c) is unclear as to whether it can be used to bar a claim based on a fiduciary's designation of investment options. Second, section 404(c) requires the DOL to adopt regulations explaining when a participant or beneficiary has sufficient control over his assets to be subject to a section 404(c)defense. 29 U.S.C. § 1104(c)(1)(A). Third, the DOL's implementing regulations are themselves unclear as to whether section 404(c) applies to a fiduciary's decision to designate investment options. Fourth, the DOL reasonably determined in the preamble to its regulations that losses which result from a fiduciary's designation decision are neither a "direct" nor a "necessary" result of a participant's exercise of control over plan assets. Finally, both the Supreme Court and the First Circuit have recognized in similar circumstances that an agency's reasonable interpretation of its own regulations in a regulatory preamble is entitled to deference.
Frankly, I am inclined to think that a close review of the actual statutory text and regulations suggest that this judge is closer on the mark on this issue than was the Seventh Circuit in Hecker, leading to what I think is the real takeaway from the continued development of the case law on this issue: namely, that plan sponsors should not overly rely on Hecker in evaluating their potential exposure and their obligations. Rather, as I have said in other forums, Hecker should be understood by plan sponsors and their vendors as setting forth the base minimum in terms of how a plan should be structured with regard to investment option fees, and should not be seen as a get out of jail free card by a sponsor who does no more than build a plan consistent with the reasoning in that case.
Asking the Seventh Circuit to Revisit Hecker
I was going to post on something else today - namely the scope of contractual obligation clauses in insurance policies - but my Google Alert pulled in something else that I wanted to pass along first instead, namely, this post by Paul Secunda at Marquette on an amicus brief filed by several law professors asking the Seventh Circuit to reconsider Hecker v. Deere en banc. The brief asks the Seventh Circuit to consider the exact issues that I noted in my post on Hecker as being the debatable parts of the decision, namely the panel’s decision to link a very narrow interpretation of fiduciary obligations with a very broad interpretation of the 404(c) safe harbor. I am very curious to watch how the panel’s analysis of those issues gets played out as the case law develops on excessive fee issues, 401(k) plans, and the application to them of the safe harbor and of breach of fiduciary duty claims, whether that takes place in the courts of other circuits who are confronted by the Hecker decision, or in an en banc revisiting of the issues by the Seventh Circuit.
Fun stuff, either way.
Notes on Hecker v Deere
The Seventh Circuit’s opinion in Hecker v Deere is interesting in a number of ways, and on a number of levels. I won’t detail the facts of the case in depth here, but the case turns on the question of the plan sponsor’s and service providers’ potential fiduciary liability for allegedly high fees in the mutual funds offered in a 401(k) plan and the limited degree of disclosure provided to participants about the fees. You can find the case itself here, and for those of you who don’t have an interest - or possibly the time - in reading the entire 33 page opinion, a readers digest overview of the case itself right here. It is, though, a well-written, fluid, almost elegant opinion, an easy read if you care to take the time.
Perhaps most notable, from an overview perspective, is the fact that the Seventh Circuit simultaneously gave the scope of protection granted to fiduciaries by Section 404(c) pretty much as broad an interpretation as possible, and the scope of fiduciary obligations with regard to investment selection and fee disclosure as narrow a one as possible. Its an interesting double whammy. I am not saying its right or wrong (although Ryan Alfred at BrightScope has made a detailed argument that the court is off base in reading the protections of section 404(c) so broadly), but it is certainly a very interesting framework. If you think of it as a Ven diagram, with one circle the world of problems that can arise with mutual funds and 401(k) plans, and the other the extent of fiduciary obligations in the view of the Seventh Circuit, the overlap is smaller than one would have anticipated.
Then there is the question of the court’s view of the fiduciaries’ obligations of disclosure with regard to fees in the plan, finding that the statute and the regulations did not require more disclosure than was made, and thus there was no breach in failing to disclose more information about the fee structure. Paul Secunda in his piece on the intersection of preemption and the statute’s limited remedies (in which he emphasizes how those two aspects of ERISA can result in harms that cannot be remedied) discusses what he views as two competing ideological camps with regard to the interpretation of ERISA, literalists and remedialists. I don’t fully agree with this particular bicameral division of the world, but it offers a handy frame of reference for understanding the Seventh Circuit’s ruling: the panel took a truly literalist approach to the question of disclosure, finding that what the statute and regulations don’t expressly require, is not required. This seems, I have to say, hard to square with the idea that a fiduciary’s obligations run to a high level of care, which would seem to raise the question of whether a fiduciary has more obligations than simply those that are required by express mandates, but the panel does not squarely address that question.
This leads into a central point that animates the case, in my opinion, and which can be summed up in two famous words: caveat emptor, at least if you are the plan participant. The court finds that the mutual funds in the plan are numerous and also sold to the public as a whole, and therefore the fees are, in some broad sense, fair and appropriate, as they are what the public marketplace as a whole is willing to bear. But is the public pricing as a whole a fair determination of whether fees charged within a 401(k) plan are excessive or not? Isn’t this just using the lowest common denominator to make this call? After all, a public buyer does not have the leverage or the expertise - at least in theory - that a plan sponsor brings to negotiating investment options and their fees. Part of the problem in analyzing this question is that the district court, and now the appeals court, resolved the case on a motion to dismiss, where argument and supposition play too much of a role and factual development of these types of questions have not occurred. Deciding whether the fees are excessive on an actual factual record may suggest an entirely different answer than just the assumption that the market as a whole has acquiesced in the pricing, so therefore it was not excessive when a plan sponsor signed off on it. But for a plan participant, the ruling clearly means one thing: it is your responsibility to engage in the same full due diligence that you would have to pursue if you just purchased the mutual fund from a 1-800 number, and you are not entitled to rely on the plan’s fiduciaries to have done that for you.
Content Wants to be Free!!!
Well, maybe. Either way, the nice folks at LawyersUSA are making their article on Kennedy v. DuPont, in which I am quoted and that I discussed here, available free online. You can find it here. Thanks, LawyersUSA!
Shining a BrightScope on Heckler v. John Deere
Still parceling out items of interest that have stacked up on my desk in the last week or so. Among the things I still haven’t gotten to, I have to admit, is a careful reading of the Seventh Circuit’s recent decision in Heckler v John Deere, but I will, shortly. In the meantime, though, the bright guys over at BrightScope have, and their’s is a very interesting take. You can find it right here. Its clear, when you read the post, that they don’t just have the analytics down when it comes to 401(k) plans, but also their structure and the manner in which they operate.
A Pile of Things on Kennedy v. DuPont
A lot of interesting things have piled up in my in-box during the past week and a half or so, when I have not had time to blog. I still think they are interesting, even after a few days of having them underfoot, so I am going to try to parcel out as many of them as possible over the course of this week, until I have either run out of them or out of time, whichever comes first.
I thought, for reasons of both vanity and timeliness, I would start with a couple of items on the Supreme Court’s decision in Kennedy v. DuPont. I am quoted in an article in the current edition of Lawyers USA discussing the case, along with a motley assortment of worthies, including the law professor formerly known as the Workplace Prof. It’s a good article, and for those of you who are subscribers, you can find it here; for those of you who aren’t, I am going to pass on my usual approach of (by putting on my copyright litigator hat) deciding how much of it I can quote under the guise of fair use, and instead send you to my post on the case here, which says pretty much what I think on the subject.
Also, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that attorney Albert Feuer was kind enough to send along to me links to a series of papers and commentaries he has written on the Kennedy decision and the issues it raises (and, in many cases, does not answer, in both my and Albert’s views). You can find them here, here and here.
Wrongs That Can't Be Remedied: ERISA Preemption and Limited Statutory Remedies
Paul Secunda, the law professor formerly known as the workplace prof, has a new law review article out on the “wrong without a remedy” aspect of ERISA litigation, which is the fact that the broad scope of preemption can combine with the limited range of remedies available under ERISA in a way that makes some alleged wrongs involving employee benefit plans simply not redressable. Notice that unlike many commentators, including Paul in his article, I call it an aspect of ERISA litigation, rather than a problem, as, contrary to Paul’s article, I am not convinced this isn’t the logical outcome, rather than the problematic distortion, of the original statutory structure. Either way, there is certainly room to argue over whether, and if so what, should be done about this aspect, and Paul provides his own version of changes that could be enacted legislatively or by judicial development to eliminate the “wrong without a remedy” scenario. I don’t necessarily agree with all of his points or his reasoning, but its an interesting read and presents some interesting approaches. Moreover, I am on record - I guess as part of a Greek chorus at this point - with my criticism of legal scholarship that is simply part of a hermetically sealed circle of philosophical commentary, without adding value to practicing attorneys, courts, or the legal system as a whole. Paul’s article avoids this problem, I am happy to report, in two ways, making it something worth recommending as reading to practitioners. The first is that the article provides a highly readable, educational (and cite-able) survey of the historical and current state of the law of preemption. The second is that the article thoughtfully shifts the nature of the discussion of this problem from the general fixation on the preemption prong, which is usually the focus of the discussion in commentary and in litigation, to the remedies part of the problem, posing the idea that preemption is broad enough to preclude adding state law causes of action to benefit plan cases, and that instead the place to look to end the “wrong without a remedy” conundrum, which Paul has called in other places the “grand irony of ERISA,” is to the statutory remedies under ERISA and to whether they can be expanded by judicial development or legislative fiat. In the courtroom, in cases involving the clash between preemption of state court remedies and the limited nature of the relief available under ERISA, the focus tends to be on the scope of preemption; Paul, in his article, posits that it would make more sense to simply start the analysis, and any response to this issue, from the premise of accepting the broad scope of preemption, and then go from there.
The article is titled “Sorry, No Remedy: Intersectionality and the Grand Irony of ERISA,” and can be downloaded here.
Fun With Bill and Liv
Sorry, couldn’t resist - Bill being William Kennedy and Liv Kennedy being the named beneficiary in yesterday’s Supreme Court opinion, Kennedy v. Plan Administrator for DuPont Savings and Investment Plan. After reading the opinion itself last night, I thought I would add a couple of comments to my initial impressions of the opinion, which I discussed in yesterday’s post. Initially, from a practical perspective for plan administrators, drafters, sponsors, and the like, the opinion is exactly what it should have been and, in fact, had to have been. I was chatting with a veteran benefits consultant who services retirement plans a while back about this case while it was still pending before the Supreme Court, and he commented that anything other than a clear pronouncement that administrators are to follow the express terms of the plan, rather than have to go outside the plan and weigh the implications of external events such as a divorce proceeding, would create a terribly chaotic situation. The Supreme Court could not have been more clear in its opinion that it was rejecting that possibility, repetitively reinforcing the idea that administrators act properly by relying on the plan documents; indeed, the ruling really required reciting this idea only once, but instead the Court built a long opinion around the repeated reinforcement of that idea.
Second, I noted yesterday that I wouldn’t have minded some clearer guidance on QDROs as part of the opinion, and on close review of the opinion I think we got some, although not explicitly. The Court, rightfully so, emphasized that the QDRO is the one time that an administrator faced with the divorcing participant and designated beneficiary scenario must incorporate court rulings outside the plan documents into the administrator’s application of the plan terms to determine to whom benefits must be paid. What has been more of an issue in practicality, in the courtrooms of the federal district courts, is to what extent a particular court order must perfectly comply with the statute’s QDRO requirements to be a binding QDRO for purposes of ERISA; many court decisions treat divorce decrees that are close enough to meeting the requirements as QDROs, even if they do not meet each and every statutory requirement perfectly, so long as there is enough there to convince a court that the participant and the ex-spouse intended for the ex-spouse to no longer be the beneficiary.
I would argue that the Supreme Court’s discussion at page 16 of the opinion, read in conjunction with footnote 12, indicates that the QDRO requirements must be perfectly matched by a probate court order for such an order to qualify as a QDRO, and that close - even if good enough for horseshoes - is not good enough for qualifying as a QDRO that would trump a beneficiary designation under a plan’s express terms. Why do I say this? In describing QDROs as the one exception to the Court’s preferred ideal of the administrator not having to go outside the plan documents to decide cases such as this one, the Court explained that QDROs require a “relatively discrete” inquiry that is based on a specific “statutory checklist” that “spare[s] an administrator from litigation-fomenting ambiguities.” The Court then proceeded to list the exact statutory requirements that must be satisfied for a divorce order to qualify as a QDRO. If, as lower courts sometimes appear to believe, close is good enough to qualify as a QDRO, then the issue is not a discrete, precise inquiry - as the Court depicts the QDRO inquiry - and is, contrary to the Court’s interpretation of the QDRO requirements, one that leaves, rather than spares an administrator from, “litigation-fomenting ambiguities” over the question. Indeed, while a plan administrator can make its own call on whether an order is a QDRO if the exact, specific statutory requirements must be satisfied for a particular order presented to the administrator in a particular claim to qualify, this isn’t easily done if something less than complete compliance with the statutory formalities can be sufficient to qualify as a QDRO. In that latter circumstance, whether the order is close enough to qualify is in the eye of the beholder, and you can be certain that the party that didn’t get the proceeds based on the administrator’s judgment call on this issue will sue over the question.
Kennedy v. Plan Administrator for DuPont Savings and Investment Plan
Here’s the early word on the Supreme Court’s ruling in Kennedy v. Plan Administrator for DuPont Savings and Investment Plan, which revolved around the issue of divorce decrees, the QDRO requirements of ERISA, and whether - in the absence of a valid QDRO - a plan administrator can rightly just pay proceeds to an ex-spouse of a plan participant if the participant never removed the ex as a beneficiary. I have only read this analysis of the case from SCOTUS blog (I will read the opinion itself tonight), but the answer appears to be the same as what most of us have always assumed to be the case: that in the absence of a probate court order that satisfies the statutory requirements in a particular circuit for constituting a QDRO, the money gets paid as per the express terms of the plan itself and any existing beneficiary designation, without regard to any extrinsic divorce agreement that might have mandated otherwise.
Simple enough, although in at least some circuits there is some ambiguity as to exactly what constitutes a QDRO, for instance in how closely the statutory requirements must be complied with. Perhaps the opinion, once I look at it, will shed some light on this question as well.
Disclosure of Information: Where Securities Law and ERISA Diverge
Cool, what a nice treat to me for the first real workday of the New Year. I have always wanted a reason to link to the Harvard Law School Corporate Governance blog because, well, it just sounds so impressive (that plus it’s a really good read on all things corporate), and one of their contributors handed me the opportunity over the weekend. In a post addressing SEC requirements for online posting of public company proxy materials, the author - a Gibson Dunn partner and visiting professor at Georgetown - points out how these requirements differ from the notice requirements under ERISA:
Compliance with notice and access [rules under the SEC requirements] is not likely to satisfy the requirements for electronic delivery of materials under the U.S. Department of Labor standards for participants in ERISA-covered defined contribution plans, such as 401(k) plans and employee stock ownership plans. Section 404(c) of ERISA permits electronic delivery only if a participating employee has the ability to effectively access documents furnished in electronic form at any location where the participant is reasonably expected to perform his or her duties as an employee and for whom access to the employer’s information system is an integral part of the employee’s duties (e.g., a networked desktop computer at work), or if the employee provides written consent accepting delivery of information electronically. As a result, although an issuer may rely on notice and access for permitted employees and consenting employees, other employee participants should receive paper delivery of proxy materials.
You know what’s interesting about this? The focus on procedural aspects of providing information to plan participants (and others, with regard to the SEC rules). We could use an equal level of attention and agreement when it comes to the amount, type and transparency of the information provided to plan participants in particular, something more important than just the formal procedures by which it is provided.
Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Pity the Poor Fiduciary, Trapped Between the Securities Laws and ERISA
One continuing theme in the posts on this blog is the replacement by plaintiffs’ class action firms of securities actions with ERISA breach of fiduciary duty actions in stock drop and similar type cases; the large class actions are brought on behalf of plan participants who hold company stock, often in an ESOP, against the plan fiduciaries. Such claims, for all intents and purposes, serve as independent securities type lawsuits against the company involved, through the guise of a breach of fiduciary duty lawsuit against the company’s designated fiduciaries, without having to meet all the rigmarole of a traditional class action securities fraud suit. I have posted often about this developing trend pretty much since launching this blog, and it has become a commonplace among other commentators as well.
Well, Georgetown law student Clovis Trevino Bravo has taken this line of thinking one step farther, authoring a detailed look at the advantages of prosecuting these types of cases under ERISA instead of under the securities laws, with a particular focus on the procedural and discovery advantages that accrue to the litigator who files such cases under ERISA rather than under the securities laws. Beyond that, she does an admirable job of synthesizing the often conflicting case law as to the intersection of the two legal regimes, providing an understanding of an evolving consensus - which is still a bit of a moving target, though, as she notes - as to the obligations of an ERISA fiduciary trapped between two separate lines of legal duty, that provided by the law of ERISA and that provided under the securities acts.
You can read her article in full right here, and you should - it will be worth your while.
Does David Have to Pay Goliath if the Slingshot Misses Its Mark?
Fee shifting provisions, such as the one in the ERISA statute, that authorize a court to award attorney’s fees to a prevailing party, are facially neutral, and allow for an award in favor of the prevailing party, whomever that may be, and against the losing party, again whomever that may be. But should attorney’s fees be awarded to a large plan or administrator, such as a multimillion or billion dollar pension plan, from a plan participant who has lost a case seeking benefits that he or she believed was owed under the plan’s terms? In essence, does a facially neutral fee shifting statute really require David to pay Goliath?
The elements that are to be considered in ruling on an award of attorney’s fees under ERISA are, like the statute’s fee shifting provision itself, facially neutral; they do not presuppose that any particular type of party is more or less entitled to an award of attorney’s fees than any other party, nor that any particular type of party is entitled to protection against being hit with such an award. But the devil, as always, is in the details or, perhaps more accurately when, as in this case, broad open ended standards in the law are applied to a particular case, in the application of the standard to the concrete facts before the court. And as this case here, and Roy Harmon’s discussion of it shows, the application of those elements to this type of scenario tends to end up with a finding that the individual plan participant who has lost a case against a large plan does not have to pay attorney’s fees to the prevailing defendant.
Apples and Oranges: Litigation Costs and QDROs in the Same Post
A couple of different things from my desk today that are worth passing on.
First, for those of you interested - as I am and have often discussed in these electronic pages - in the need to balance effective litigation tactics with the costs of litigation, particularly given discovery and e-discovery issues, I pass along this article here, which I truly enjoyed. In many ways, it mirrors what I said in my own article on the subject, which you can find here.
Second, the Supreme Court delved back into the ERISA world yesterday with an argument on what, from a practical perspective, is a particularly vexing problem that bedevils plan administrators: namely, who is entitled to plan proceeds when a plan participant has divorced and thereafter a dispute arises as to who should rightly get plan proceeds after the parties thought they had negotiated resolution of the issue as part of the divorce proceedings? The prototypical circumstance, which seems straight out of television but actually happens all the time, is the death of a plan participant who changed the beneficiary, post- divorce, to a new boy or girlfriend, in ways that contradict the agreed division of property made as part of the divorce. For those of you interested in this question, here is a terrific article on the details of the particular case before the Court, and here is the Workplace Prof’s analysis of the argument yesterday before the Court. My own general sense of the case is that it really revolves around the question of whether ERISA’s QDRO provisions, which are directed at this issue, are to be strictly construed and treated as the only manner in which payments in accordance with the plan’s express terms and the operative beneficiary designation can be avoided, or whether, instead, the issue can be handled in a more loosey-goosey fashion that, even if the QDRO provisions aren’t technically satisfied, effectuates the apparent intent of the divorcing parties. Me, I am betting the Court's opinion ends up at the former.
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.
On Backdating, ERISA, and the Possibly Unintended Consequences of the Diamond Hypothetical
If you have an interest in both ERISA and in well written, logical judicial opinions, I can’t recommend highly enough this opinion, by Judge Gertner of the United States District Court for Massachusetts, in Bendaoud v. Hodgson, deciding a number of issues at the motion to dismiss stage. I have a trial starting on Monday, so, unfortunately, I can’t delve as deeply today into the range of issues the opinion discusses and that warrant comment as I would like, but a few issues are worth commenting on right off the bat, even in the limited time I have today.
First, I have discussed before the trend, which others are recognizing as well, of ERISA replacing securities law as a preferred structure for attacking stock drop and similar stock related manipulation type cases. Judge Gertner comes as close as anyone has to demonstrating in her opinion why this state of affairs has come to pass, in her analysis of standing and the question of whether the plaintiff, since he sold his stock holdings in the company plan before the stock manipulation in question came to light and drove down the stock price, could still show he suffered injury. The court found that the plaintiff could show injury by demonstrating that the alleged fiduciary breaches resulted in less profit than the plaintiff would have earned “had the funds been available for” other purposes than the investment made by the plaintiff. This is a pretty open damages theory, and not one as closely tied to the actual timing of disclosures and its impact on stock prices that the court recognizes would control the issue if it were more of a traditional stock manipulation securities action.
Second, the case raises questions about whether, after Justice Breyer’s famous diamond hypothetical in LaRue, a single plan participant can actually sue for losses to the plan anymore in defined contribution cases, if the diamond that was lost did not actually come from that participant’s account (or safe deposit box, in the terms of the hypothetical). The court suggests that such a plan participant may not seek recovery for the other plan members on his or her own, but that instead a class action structure may be required.
And finally, reading the court’s opinion and the analysis of the damages issue, I couldn’t help but think of the LA Times ESOP case that I discussed here and my thought that, regardless of the merits of that particular case, it certainly illustrated the risks of using ESOP held stock in corporate transactions, because the interests of those pursuing the transaction, while not by definition wrong in any way, may not line up perfectly with the best interests of the employees holding that stock in the ESOP, raising risks of breach of fiduciary duty. The damages analysis in Bendaoud goes right to this point; under that analysis, the issue is not whether the stock holding employees made out okay in the deal, but whether the ESOP assets would have been worth more had the stock been used in a different manner or different transaction. That analysis suggests a broad range of attacks on a complicated ESOP implicating transaction such as that in the LA Times case.
Retaliate for Seeking Benefits?
Probably the only really note worthy decision out of the First Circuit with regard to ERISA while I was out of the office is this one here, in Kouvchinov v. Parametric Technology Corp., which addressed the standards for proving a claim of retaliatory job action in response to a claim for ERISA governed benefits. The First Circuit found that a plaintiff has to come forward with evidence of a specific intent to retaliate to maintain the claim, and that the mere, possibly coincidental, overlap of an adverse job action and a recent claim for benefits is not enough to sustain a claim. The First Circuit stated:
The plaintiff's overarching claim is that the defendants cashiered him in retaliation for his exercise of the right to receive short-term disability (STD) benefits under an employee benefit plan, thereby violating the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), 29 U.S.C. §§1101-1461, and tortiously interfering with an advantageous business relationship. ... Here, however, the plaintiff suggests that proof of specific intent is not required because the discrimination complained of is retaliatory rather than preemptive. . . . We reject that suggestion. The plaintiff fails to appreciate that, without a specific intent requirement, every terminated employee who has exercised his or her right to benefits would, ipso facto, have a potential retaliation claim against the employer. ... That would destroy ERISA's carefully calibrated balance of rights, remedies, and responsibilities in the workplace. Presumably for this reason, every federal court of appeals to have addressed the question has demanded a showing of specific intent in ERISA retaliation cases. ... Accordingly, we hold that a plaintiff must make a plausible showing of specific intent in order to survive summary judgment on an ERISA retaliation claim.
I don’t have much truck with the decision, though others do. Call me naive, but I can’t say in my practice or among my clients - whether companies, sponsors, administrators or participants - I have seen much conduct that would even possibly raise these issues, regardless of how strict a standard of proof is imposed on a plaintiff/participant.
Using Up My Fifteen Seconds of Fame
Permalink | There were a lot of things on my desk I could post about today, but I am going to take the easy - and self-promoting - way out, and pass along this article from Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly on the W.R. Grace decision out of the First Circuit on the question of standing in ERISA cases, which I blogged about last week. I am quoted extensively in the article.
The First Circuit on ERISA Standing
Permalink | Very interesting case out of the First Circuit the other day on the question of whether former employees satisfy ERISA standing requirements with regard to defined contribution plans. Short answer is they do, but the Court’s analysis and discussion is an interesting open field run across a range of issues that are both explicit and implicit to any consideration of this question. One particular point, basically noted in a footnote, was of particular interest to me. I have discussed frequently in past posts my thesis that much of the evolution in ERISA law is and will continue to be driven by the economic effect on employees of the replacement of the pension system by 401(k) plans; this is partly because employees have become the persons at risk from investment mistakes, which they generally were not - barring complete failure of the employer and its pension plan - when employees were instead covered by pensions. In an interesting footnote, the Court addresses the distinction between the two types of benefits, and hints at the impact of that difference on employees:
Under a defined benefit plan, participants are typically promised a fixed level of retirement income, computed on the basis of a formula contained in the plan documents. See 29 U.S.C. §1002(35). The formula generally accounts for an employee's years of service and compensation level at retirement. Graden, 496 F.3d at 297 n.10. In contrast with a defined contribution plan, where the amount of benefits is directly related to the investment income earned in an individual account, the investment performance of the portfolio held by a defined benefit plan has no effect on the level of benefits to which a participant is entitled, provided that the plan remains solvent. See LaRue,128 S. Ct. at 1025 ("Misconduct by the administrators of a defined benefit plan will not affect an individual's entitlement to a defined benefit unless it creates or enhances the risk of default by the entire plan.").
The case is Kerr et al. v. W.R. Grace, et al.
Extraterritorial Application of ERISA
Permalink | Ever wonder about ERISA’s effect on benefits provided to employees assigned to overseas’ posts? Didn’t think so. But Paul Secunda has.
What LaRue Wrought
Permalink | Suzanne Wynn has the story of the day when it comes to ERISA litigation, as she posts on the Seventh Circuit’s application of LaRue to exactly the type of case that, had the Supreme Court ruled otherwise, would have gone away without any potential liability on the part of the fiduciaries or, for that matter, recovery by the plan participant. The case, as Suzanne explains, concerns a single plan participant who charges plan fiduciaries with breaches of fiduciary duty related to the amount of company stock held in that particular participant’s account; the plaintiff’s theory holds that the fiduciaries breached their duties because they “allowed participants to invest in [company] stock despite knowing that the stock was overpriced and therefore was a ‘bad deal’.” The Seventh Circuit recognized that, after LaRue, a plan participant can move forward with such a claim, at least in terms of having standing to pursue relief that is not plan wide.
The Seventh Circuit’s decision touches on a number of themes that are not fully addressed in the opinion, but which really rest at the crossroads that the law of ERISA finds itself at today. The first has to do with the extent to which LaRue will or will not increase litigation. I have previously discussed that, in my view, the real impact of LaRue is that the types of cases, such as stock drop cases of the kind considered by the Seventh Circuit in this case, that in the past would only be brought if the scale was sufficient to attract the interest of the organized plaintiffs’ class action bar, will now be brought in many instances even if the scale is insufficient to give rise to class or plan wide litigation. Rather, as this case illustrates perfectly, these types of theories will be pressed now if even only one participant has enough loss to warrant the action, as LaRue expressly authorizes and as occurred in this case. This is where you will see the impact of LaRue with regard to expanding litigation, not necessarily in terms of a massive increase in numbers of suits, but rather in an incremental increase in the types and natures of suits brought against fiduciaries. And don’t kid yourself - as the baby boomer generation moves towards retirement, there are going to be a huge number of plan participants in 401(k) and ESOP plans and the like who have large enough accounts and holdings (for instance of company stock) for it to be worth their while to bring these types of suits if their accounts take a significant hit.
The second that I wanted to mention relates to something that is certainly not going to be news to any long time reader of this blog, and its certainly not an idea unique to me, namely, the fact that, in the aftermath of judicial and political responses to the growth - and some would say overuse - of class action securities litigation, the plaintiffs’ bar has begun using ERISA to prosecute what are in essence securities fraud claims of the kind that, in the past, would have been simply litigated under the securities laws. The plaintiffs’ bar has found that, given the evolution of the securities laws and of ERISA, ERISA may well be the better theory to prosecute in stock drop type cases. The swarm of litigation already being filed over the collapse of the Bear Stearns stock is a perfect example of the type of event that we have long been conditioned to expect to be litigated under the securities laws, but which is instead generating putative class actions under ERISA related to the company’s ESOP and other retirement vehicles. Among the many issues that this evolution in securities related litigation raises is how to integrate the securities laws and ERISA under these types of scenarios, to prevent ERISA from being distorted from its original purpose and transformed instead into simply some type of alternative securities law regime; Judge Easterbrook, writing for the Seventh Circuit, raises exactly these points, but doesn’t resolve them, noting instead that they will have to be developed in the future.
The case is Rogers v. Baxter International, and thanks to Suzanne for bringing it to my attention.
Want to Learn More About the Post-LaRue World?
Permalink | I am trying to kick the LaRue habit, but couldn’t resist going back to the well one more time (how’s that for mixing my metaphors?). I know from readers of this blog and from talking to other lawyers that people are very interested in LaRue and the Supreme Court’s current interest in ERISA cases - in fact, one lawyer told me that right after LaRue was decided he was at a meeting on an entirely different topic but LaRue is all anyone wanted to talk about that day- so I wanted to pass along this very interesting looking teleconference next month on individual 401(k) suits post-LaRue. The faculty includes Tom Gies, who represented the plan and its sponsor in LaRue, and Karen L. Handorf, an attorney currently in private practice who previously worked for the Office of the Solicitor of Labor, background that may make her ideally suited to comment on one of the biggest mysteries of all raised by LaRue and the Supreme Court’s selection for its docket of two more ERISA cases, namely what’s with the Supreme Court’s sudden fascination with ERISA litigation.
Permalink | Some follow up thoughts on the Supreme Court’s opinion in LaRue, after having some time to digest it. First, the court’s three opinions make for an interesting assortment of analyses of the issue, but what is most important on the front lines, down at the trial level where these issues play out in court, is the unanimous agreement that an individual 401(k) participant can sue for losses to just his or her account. This resolves a key dispute that, I know from my own practice, has become a key issue in the question of when and how participants can seek legal redress with regard to their 401(k) accounts.
Second, the three opinions set forth almost radically different answers to the question of how and why such an individual participant can sue for losses just to his or her account in a 401(k) plan. The majority opinion posits that this is the appropriate reading of ERISA in the context of defined contribution plans, which may be different from what the rule should be with regard to defined benefit plans. The second opinion, by Justice Roberts, poses the extremely thorny argument that, while a plan participant can sue for such losses, he or she should do so under the denial of benefits portion of ERISA, rather than under the breach of fiduciary duty portion of ERISA. The third opinion, by Justice Thomas, finds that the plain language of the statute warrants individual participants being allowed to bring such claims, and holds no truck with the idea, relied on by the majority, that there is some underlying principle distinct to defined contribution plans that either justifies - or is necessary to justify - this conclusion.
The competing opinions present some interesting issues. First off, Justice Roberts’ suggestion that the law governing denied benefits, rather than the law of breach of fiduciary duty, should apply to the circumstances of the LaRue case appears unworkable in the context of that particular type of claim, for a variety of practical and legal reasons; there is a certain extent to which it seems to me that even suggesting that is to work mischief, particularly for the judges and litigants who, going forward, are going to have to work out the myriad issues that claims like that brought by the participant in LaRue raise, none of which were preemptively resolved by the Supreme Court. Second, there is something telling in the contrast between Justice Thomas’ approach and that of the majority, something that may well be a clash of philosophy, not just with regard to statutory construction for purposes of the instant case, but also perhaps as well with regard to the road that lays ahead for the law of ERISA. Justice Thomas is correct in his opinion that the issue can be resolved, in the participant’s favor, simply off of the plain language of the statute, without relying on any special considerations raised by the fact that the case involves a defined contribution account rather than a defined benefit plan, which is the issue animating the majority’s opinion. Does the majority’s heavy emphasis on the fact that LaRue concerned a defined contribution plan hint at a belief among the majority that, in fact, ERISA needs to be treated as an organic, evolving body of law that needs to shift from its past precedents to account for the rise of defined contribution plans? And if so, is the emphasis on this point in the majority’s opinion a subtle suggestion to lower courts to approach new issues brought before them concerning defined contribution plans - or even old issues never before resolved under defined contribution plans - with an eye to how ERISA should develop to fit those types of plans? At a minimum, it is hard not to see lawyers for participants arguing exactly that to district courts and circuit courts of appeal in the aftermath of the ruling in LaRue.
The Supreme Court Decides LaRue, In Probably Predictable Fashion
Permalink | As a practicing litigator, I often can’t delve too deeply into a particular issue right when it arises, and instead have to return to it that night to analyze it for further discussion the next day. With a trial set to start in one of my cases and a court appearance this afternoon, this is one of those instances, but I did want to pass along the Supreme Court’s opinion in LaRue, just issued today. I will give it a more in-depth read tonight and may post more on it tomorrow, but in the interim, here is the opinion itself, along with two initial, superficial thoughts. First, as I - and others - expected, the opinion goes in favor of the plan participant, and expands the right of individual plan participants to sue for breach of fiduciary duties. Second, on first glance, the opinion seems animated by the need to account for the particular risks of defined contribution plans such as 401(k)s, and to recognize the need for the law of ERISA to develop in a manner that accounts for the transition to those types of benefit plans. In a weird bit of precognition, that’s something I just talked about in my post earlier this morning, on the Supreme Court accepting cert on still another ERISA case.
Supreme Court and Qualified Domestic Relations Orders
Permalink | Interestingly, right after I posted about Albert Feuer’s detailed analysis of the proper role of Qualified Domestic Relations Orders (“QDRO”) in the ERISA scheme, the Supreme Court granted cert in a case on that exact issue (although I don’t intend to imply a causal relationship between the two events). The Court granted cert yesterday in the case of Kennedy v. DuPont Plan Administrator, but only on Question number 3 raised in the petition, which was whether ERISA’s QDRO provisions are the only manner in which an ex-spouse can waive rights to a former spouse’s pension benefits. SCOTUS blog has the story here, and the petition (as well as the opposition) here.
This order continues a trend I suggested we would see, namely the Supreme Court, having concluded its efforts to redirect the path of patent law after substantial criticism in the business, legal and academic communities that the governing body of law in that area was veering wildly off course, turning to another statutory body of law, ERISA, that has likewise come under significant criticism, in this instance because of the stress points that have erupted as the law of ERISA has attempted to cope with the transition from a defined benefits world of pensions - where employees bore little risk - to a defined contribution world, in which employees bear most of the risk and thus place more demands on ERISA and the case law interpreting it. Still, even under those circumstances, the focus on QDROs seems a slightly unusual point of emphasis for the Court, given the range of ERISA related issues that the Court could select from. The case and the issue presented do, however, concern pension benefits and the impact of ERISA on employee’s rights under them, fitting with the theme I identified above, plus QDROs themselves are being interpreted in some interesting ways at the district court level, as I suggested in this post, ways that may not be an exact fit with the statutory requirements.
Alienation of ERISA Governed Benefits
Permalink | I’ve had an interesting collection of educational materials and seminars piling up on my desk for awhile now, a number of which may be of interest to various readers of this blog. In the hope of both clearing up that backlog and passing along useful information, I am going to start a short series of - or maybe a series of short - blog posts on them, until they are exhausted. I expect I won’t run through them all seriatim, as I suspect breaking news or new court decisions will interpose themselves, but we will see.
The first one I wanted to pass along is something you can blame the Workplace Prof for, whom I have fingered in the past as the filter I use to screen law review articles and decide which ones might be worth reading. Some of you know from past posts that I don’t put a lot of stock in most law review publications, but some fit my criteria for being useful, which revolves heavily around whether they break any new ground in an area or manner that makes them useful to courts and practitioners. This one here, a 142 page analysis of when ERISA governed benefits can be transferred to anyone other than the participant or the participant’s selected beneficiary, fits this criteria to a tee. The Workplace Prof passed along the abstract of the article a little while back, which is:
This Article argues that a beneficiary designation made by a participant pursuant to the terms of an ERISA plan determines who is entitled to survivor benefits from that plan. Such designation may not be superseded by
(A) an agreement made in a marital dissolution or separation whereby a participant promises to make or retain a different designation (such agreements are not qualified domestic relations orders, "QDROs," because QDROs are limited to orders directed not at participants but at ERISA plans);
(B) an agreement made in a marital dissolution or separation whereby a participant's former or separated spouse "relinquishes" any interest in the participant's ERISA plan benefits; or
(c) a state law or federal common-law principle whereby killers of a participant are deprived of the entitlement to the participant's survivor benefits from an ERISA plan.
ERISA pension plans must incorporate the only two ERISA required beneficiary designations, QDROs and spousal survivor benefit designations. Neither statutory designation applies to an ERISA plan that is not a pension plan, such as a life insurance or disability plan. Thus, neither statutory designation may supersede a beneficiary designation made pursuant to the explicit terms of an ERISA life insurance or disability plan.
ERISA voids both (A) a direct benefit claim against an ERISA plan that is not based on a designation that was made pursuant to the terms of the plan, and (B) an indirect benefit claim against the recipient of plan benefits that is not based on a designation that was made pursuant to the terms of the plan.
What jumped out at me from the article itself is the author’s discussion of the application and impact of Qualified Domestic Relations Orders (known in common parlance as QDROs), which can supercede a participant’s designation of the party to whom plan benefits should be paid. The author gives QDROs a far narrower scope of application and power under ERISA than it appears to me courts have been giving to them, and in fact his position on their impact runs counter to what appears to me to be the trend at the trial level in the federal system in applying QDROs. He makes a fascinating and well-supported argument, although at this point, I reserve judgment on the ultimate issue he raises, of exactly how QDROs should be understood under ERISA. At a minimum, however, for anyone arguing the point in a case, there is a wealth of information in the article, as well as support for arguments that a party might make in court over that issue.
Establishing Status as a Top Hat Plan in the First Circuit
Permalink | At long last and after much effort, I think we may have succeeded in converting S.COTUS, the anonymous blogger on all things First Circuit at Appellate Law & Practice, into an ERISA hobbyist. How else to explain his (her?) expansive and insightful post yesterday on the First Circuit’s analysis of top hat plans in the decision the court issued yesterday in Alexander v. Brigham and Women’s Physicians Organization? As some of you may recall from our post on the district court ruling in that case, the dispute centered around a surgeon who was leaving the institution and a large amount of funds, attributable to services rendered by him while with the hospital that were not sufficiently exceeded by revenue brought in by him, that were deducted from his accounts in certain deferred compensation plans operated by the medical group. The central issue before the First Circuit was whether the deferred compensation plans constituted top hat plans for purposes of ERISA, and the First Circuit concluded that they did, because they involved only a small percentage of the defendant’s employees, each of whom was highly compensated from both an absolute and relative point of view. To the extent there is a takeaway from the First Circuit’s ruling, it really isn’t in the legal analysis, in that the court really simply applied the express language of the relevant provision of ERISA to the facts of the matter; what is of more interest and value is the manner in which the court did so, relying on a quantitative analysis of the number of physicians participating in the plan versus the employee base as a whole, as well as of the compensation of those individuals in comparison to the employee population as a whole. The case can certainly be cited for the proposition that this is the appropriate approach to determining whether the requirements for top hat status are satisfied in any particular case, and provides support for a litigant to delve into actual statistical data to prove or disprove such status.
The First Circuit on an Administrator's Discretion in Determining the Amount of Retirement Benefits
Permalink | Oddly, this appears to be “calculating benefits” week among the courts of the First Circuit. In addition to the LeBlanc case I discussed in the last post, the First Circuit just ruled on a case involving a challenge to the calculation of pension benefits. Just as in the LeBlanc case, where a district court found that the method of calculation would stand because the administrator had discretion in conducting that effort under the terms of the plan and the calculation method was reasonable, so too does the First Circuit conclude, in Gillis v SPX Corporation, that the administrator’s determination of certain factors in calculating retirement benefits would not be overturned because the administrator had discretion and the determinations made were reasonable given the plan’s terms and purposes.
Appellate Law & Practice, who chronicle all rulings out of the First Circuit regardless of topic, has this somewhat more tongue in cheek take on the case here. While the Gillis case, as the Appellate Law & Practice post reflects, concerns certain issues beyond just the reasonableness of the calculation approach, there isn’t much to the court’s analysis of those issues; the real take away is in the requirement of reasonableness in the calculation activity, and then proceeding from there, the court finds, without too much in-depth analysis of the issues, that the other issues raised by the participant simply don’t support a challenge to that reasonable approach to calculation that was applied by the administrator.
More on that Grand Irony Theory
Permalink | Does the fact pattern below allow for a remedy under ERISA, particularly as the Sereboff/equitable relief line of cases has been interpreted in the First Circuit to date?
The plaintiff employee says that she purchased a life insurance policy on her husband through her employer's group coverage. When her husband was dying, she resigned her employment to care for him. She asked her employer for the proper forms to convert the group life insurance coverage to individual coverage, as she was entitled to do. Her employer refused or failed to provide the forms despite several in-person and telephone requests. In the meantime, the time for conversion (31 days) expired, her husband died, and now the life insurance company has denied her any benefits.
The United States District Court for the District of Maine just found in the case of Mitchell v. Emeritus Management that the fact pattern does not support a cause of action under any of ERISA’s remedial rights - for breach of fiduciary duty, for denied benefits and for equitable relief - available to a plan participant, a situation the court found “very troubling.” The court found that: (1) the participant could not recover the insurance benefits by means of an action for equitable relief because it was truly a claim for payment of the benefits at issue, rather than for equitable relief; and (2) the participant could not recover the proceeds on a claim seeking benefits because, under the facts at issue, there was no right to life insurance proceeds under the actual plan terms since there was no timely conversion, and therefore the administrator did not act arbitrarily and capriciously in denying the claim.
I guess two things jump out at me. One, the court rightly acknowledged that this result flows from the fact that ERISA simply leaves some harms incapable of remediation, something that is understood to have simply been part of the balancing act engaged in by Congress in enacting the statute, in which a decision was made to grant only limited rights of recovery in exchange for enacting a statute that would encourage the creation of employee benefits. Second, however, and at the same time, I think this is more what the Workplace Prof had in mind last month when he complained about what he considers the “grand irony” of ERISA, that a statute intended to protect employees can end up depriving them of a remedy, than was the case of the Wal-Mart equitable lien, that I discussed here, in which the Prof proffered the “grand irony” thesis, one which I took issue with in the context of that particular case.
Roundup at the LaRue Corral
Permalink | More on LaRue in the wake of Monday’s oral argument, and the inevitable commentary from all sides - including this one - on Tuesday:
• My last two posts on the LaRue case, here on the briefing and here on the oral argument, assumed a certain prior level of understanding on the part of the reader as to the issues and statutory provisions involved in the case. Workplace Prof has a more soup to nuts review of those, in the wake of the argument, here, which is also cross-posted here.
• Susan Mangiero was taken by the discussion in the oral argument of what powers may or may not have been identified in the summary plan description appended to LaRue’s complaint. I took this discussion by the Justices to be part of an inquiry into what are the constraining parameters of a claim such as the one brought by LaRue. As I have discussed before, I think the Court will allow this type of claim to be actionable, primarily because the law of ERISA is going to have to evolve to fit the brave new retirement world in which defined contribution plans, rather than defined benefit plans, rule, and establishing a right of remedy for the type of error alleged by LaRue is a necessary part of that evolution. However, I don’t expect, both for reasons related to the historically limited remedial reach of ERISA and the philosophy of various justices, that theory of liability and right of recovery to be unconstrained or left as simple as error by fiduciary plus loss to one account =s liability. Rather, although the Court may leave the parameters of the theory of liability to future cases for development, I expect the Court to at least indicate in dicta certain restraints and constraints on such claims. In this way, I think the eventual opinion will essentially walk the line between the concern of the respondent and its supporting amici that allowing claims of this nature will excessively increase the cost of providing plans to employees and the concern voiced by LaRue’s counsel that employees must be allowed a remedy for this kind of error.
• And here’s the New York Times’ highly readable account of the oral argument, by the excellent Linda Greenhouse.
• Finally for today, on a lighter and less substantive note, here’s the WSJ Law Blog’s post on the case, with a nice little profile of Tom Gies, who represented the respondent.
Thoughts on the Oral Argument in LaRue v. DeWolf, Boberg
Permalink | Just read the transcript of Monday’s oral argument in LaRue, which you too can read right here. Interesting argument, and interesting lines of questions from the court, although I am skeptical as to how much guidance as to the court’s thinking one can draw from the Justice’s questions themselves. In many ways, the lines of inquiry seemed to parallel my earlier post here on the arguments made by both sides. I had mentioned in my earlier post that the respondent focused heavily in its briefing on two points, the first being that prior jurisprudence of the Court concerning ERISA cases suggest that the narrow framework of ERISA remedies should not extend to encompass this type of claim, and the second that LaRue’s case itself was pled with holes that did not suggest it as a good vehicle for authorizing these types of claims. With regard to the first line of argument, questioning right off the bat of the respondent’s counsel targeted the fact that the prior jurisprudence relied upon by the respondent did not concern defined contribution or other retirement benefits and was based on a starkly different fact pattern; I mentioned in my earlier post on the parties’ briefing that I thought the earlier jurisprudence was too different in nature to provide much support for either side in the circumstances presented in the LaRue case, and after reading the argument, I think that remains the case. With regard to the second issue, LaRue’s counsel was peppered with questions concerning possible holes in the way he sought to recover for the alleged mistakes at issue, questioning that I thought was consistent with my earlier view that while the Court may well allow the type of claim at issue here to be actionable, the Court may well find that LaRue himself hasn’t placed himself in a position that he qualifies to go forward with such a claim. Perhaps the most interesting nugget to me in the transcript is that, with regard to the question of whether such a claim should be allowed at all - i.e., found to be authorized by the statute - the questioning seemed to consistently focus on one simple issue, namely that the only intelligible and consistently intellectually defensible position is that the plain language of the applicable statutory section would allow a loss to only one or a few plan participants’ accounts to be actionable, and would not require, as the respondent asserts, a loss to most or all of the plan’s participants before a claim for breach of fiduciary duty could exist.
Interestingly as well, the issue of whether a claim could proceed in the LaRue case as an equitable claim for relief under the Sereboff line of cases was discussed in only the most cursory terms by all involved, including the Justices. For various reasons, not the least of which is that the Court’s prior treatment of this issue has painted the Court into a bit of a corner from which it cannot back out without either repudiating prior holdings or engaging in intellectual gymnastics, I don’t see the Court advancing the ball on this issue in its opinion in this case.
Grand Irony, or Just a Need for Better Litigation Tactics: Protecting the Severely Injured Plan Participant Against Reimbursement Claims under ERISA
Roy Harmon and the Workplace Prof have the story of a severely injured worker whose settlement with the tortfeasor was effectively taken, in its entirety, by the plan administrator - Wal-Mart - on a reimbursement claim in accordance with the administrator’s rights under Sereboff. Roy Harmon has a nice factual discussion of the problem demonstrated by the case, and the Prof raises the ante, pointing out the injustice this is working for the particular individuals involved in the case. No disagreement there. But what concerns me is a point that the Prof makes, in which he effectively characterizes this as a problem driven by ERISA; sayeth the Prof:
In short, a truly horrible situation under ERISA, and not that far-fetched when one comes to understand the manner in which the scope of equitable relief under ERISA and ERISA preemption work together to create what I call the "Grand Irony of ERISA": that employers now use ERISA as a shield against employees; the same employees whose benefits ERISA was supposed to protect.
A Kafka-esque scheme [if] there was one and yet another publicity black eye for Wal-Mart.
But, although I am speaking almost third hand with little knowledge of the actual facts of this exact case, it seems to me this is not an ERISA problem, but a litigation tactics problem. It seems to me that the first obligation of a plaintiff’s lawyer in this type of a situation is either to obtain a waiver or compromise from the plan of its right of reimbursement that will keep the bulk of the recovery in the hands of the severely injured plan participant, or if that is not possible (perhaps because the plan administrator refuses to do so), to include in valuing settlement the amount that will have to be paid back to the plan on a reimbursement claim. If that makes the settlement value so high that the case can’t settle, then so be it, and it becomes a case which simply has to be tried and the amount of medical bills that must be reimbursed to the plan becomes just one part of the damages that go up on the blackboard in front of the jury in calculating the damages that the plaintiff claims should be awarded to him; in this way, if the jury returns a verdict, the amount that must be paid back to the plan is only one portion of the money recovered by the plan participant, with the participant free to retain the remaining amounts, which ought to encompass awards for future care, future loss of earnings, and the like.
One can fairly ask whether this places the participant at risk of losing at trial and taking nothing, and the answer to that question is, of course, that this risk exists and is significant; avoiding that exact risk is, after all, why a plaintiff settles a case for less than full value. But the fact is that a settlement, such as the one involved in the case Roy and the Prof discuss, that does not significantly exceed the reimbursement owed to the plan- after or without compromise by the administrator -can leave the participant in the exact same spot as a loss at trial would, holding no money at all after the plan is reimbursed.
Litigation is a dynamic and ever changing organism, and, much like Newton's third law of physics, for every action during the course of a lawsuit there is a corresponding, if not necessarily equal and opposite, reaction. The situation presented by the admittedly horrible circumstances detailed by Roy and the Prof is one that needs to be resolved as part of playing out the end game of a lawsuit, not after the fact as a dispute over ERISA rights and remedies.
Given the tragic nature of the events in question, I don’t delve into this point lightly, or just because it looks like good blogging fodder. But in the discussions I have seen so far of this issue, and on the impact of ERISA on it, I haven’t seen this particular aspect discussed in detail, and I think it’s a point that simply cannot be overlooked by any plan participant or lawyer stuck in the same situation in the future.
LaRue v DeWolff, Broberg and the Concept of Administration Risk in ERISA Plans
Permalink | Oral argument at the Supreme Court is scheduled for Monday in LaRue v DeWolff, Broberg & Associates, which presents the technical question of whether a loss to only one participant’s 401(k) plan is actionable as a breach of fiduciary duty causing a loss to the plan, but which on a broader level concerns the question of who should bear the administration risk (defined as the problems of mistakes or malfeasance in the operation of a benefit plan) inherent in the operation of a 401(k) plan. Is it the participant or instead the plan fiduciaries who should bear that risk? To LaRue, who focuses his arguments around this idea, mistakes attributable to the administrators that harm the account balances of a particular plan participant represent a risk that should be borne by the erring administrator, and should therefore be actionable under ERISA even if the only losses in the entire plan from the mistake were suffered by one particular plan participant. The respondents reply, quite correctly, that ERISA provides limited remedies and some losses are simply - and quite intentionally under the terms of the statute - not actionable; to the respondents, LaRue’s loss, which stemmed from the administrator not following his specific investment instructions related to his specific account, is exactly such a non-remediable event under ERISA.
While the respondents are right that ERISA, presumably intentionally and certainly consistently with the general understanding of the statute and its history, provides only limited rights of recourse and leaves some losses to be borne by the affected plan participant, the statutory language itself at issue in the case - concerning whether an individual’s loss of the type described by LaRue qualifies as an actionable loss to the plan when only the individual was harmed - does not specifically leave in or leave out the circumstances of LaRue’s particular loss from the category of losses that are actionable under ERISA. And that is really where the Supreme Court’s involvement here comes into play, on the question of whether the type of administration risk described by LaRue belongs within or without the statute’s remedies; how the Court interprets the specific statutory language at issue will decide that question.
Personally, I’m of the view that the Court will find that the statutory language allows for the type of claim that LaRue is presenting. The language in question is capable, without any stretching of the language, of including the kind of claim at issue, and past jurisprudence doesn’t bar - or even present a significant impediment - to such an interpretation of the particular statutory language at issue. Moreover, and interestingly given the respondents’ - quite appropriate - tactical reliance on the general theme underlying past Court opinions on ERISA cases that suggest a claim such as LaRue’s is not actionable, the body of law that bears on this issue really was not created in response to one of the primary economic developments in American life over the last handful of years, namely the transition over to a regime of individual responsibility for retirement by means of defined contribution plans such as 401(k) plans and the accompanying transfer to individuals of the risks of retirement investing, and the corresponding disappearance of a defined benefit regime in which all such risks were borne not by individuals, but instead by their employers. Questions like the one presented by the petitioner in LaRue haven’t really been addressed at the high court level in the context of this new economic reality, and I am not convinced of the utility of past ERISA decisions concerning other contexts in resolving the statute’s application in the defined contribution context. I suspect that LaRue will present an early example of the Court accepting that the statutory language in ERISA that remains open to differing interpretations should be understood as transferring at least some of the administration risk inherent in the world of 401(k) plans from the individual saver and onto the party in the best position to avoid the risk, namely the administrator.
At the same time, I am not convinced that this is going to do much good for LaRue himself. The respondents take the tactical approach in their briefing of focusing on the particular flaws in LaRue’s presentation of himself as the poster boy for plan participants confronted by erring administrators, in an attempt to show that the particular claim he presented to the courts below does not justify interpreting the statutory language in a manner that would allow his claim to proceed. It’s a pretty good argument, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a final opinion that opens up the type of claim he is arguing for, but puts him outside of its scope.
A Primer on Fiduciary Status Under ERISA
I liked the recent opinion in Bonilla v. Bella Vista Hospital, Inc., out of the United States District Court for the District of Puerto Rico (not available online from the court, but here's a Lexis cite for it: 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 79939) for really only one reason, namely this terrific overview of the law of fiduciary status and duty:
ERISA reserves fiduciary liability for "named fiduciaries," defined either as those individuals listed as fiduciaries in the plan documents or those who are otherwise identified as fiduciaries pursuant to a plan-specified procedure. 29 U.S.C. § 1102(a)(2); see also Beddall v. State St. Bank & Trust Co., 137 F.3d 12, 18 (1st Cir. 1998). However, the statute also extends fiduciary liability to functional fiduciaries, who are persons that act as fiduciaries (though not explicitly denominated as such) by performing at least one of several enumerated functions with respect to a plan. Beddall, 137 F.3d at 18. Under 29 U.S.C.S. § 1002(21)(A), a person is a fiduciary with respect to a plan to the extent (i) he exercises any discretionary authority or discretionary control respecting management of such plan or exercises any authority or control respecting management or disposition of its assets, (ii) he renders investment advice for a fee or other compensation, direct or indirect, with respect to any moneys or other property of such plan, or has any authority or responsibility to do so, or (iii) he has any discretionary authority or discretionary responsibility in the administration of such plan.
The key determinant of whether a person qualifies as a functional fiduciary is whether that person exercises discretionary authority in respect to, or meaningful control over, an ERISA plan, its administration, or its assets (such as by rendering investment advice). See Beddall, 137 F.3d at 18; O'Toole v. Arlington Trust Co., 681 F.2d 94, 96 (1st Cir. 1982); see also 29 C.F.R. § 2509.75-8, at 571 (1986). The exercise of physical control or the performance of mechanical administrative tasks generally is insufficient to confer fiduciary status, a person is a plan fiduciary only "to the extent" that he possesses or exercises the requisite discretion and control. 29 U.S.C. § 1002(21)(A); see also Beddall, 137 F.3d at 18.
An ERISA fiduciary, properly identified, must employ within the defined domain "the care, skill, prudence, and diligence under the circumstances then prevailing that a prudent man acting in a like capacity and familiar with such matters would use." Id. (quoting 29 U.S.C. § 1104(a)(1)(B)). The fiduciary should act "solely in the interest of the participants and beneficiaries," and his overarching purpose should be to "provide benefits to the participants and their beneficiaries" and to "defray reasonable expenses of administering the plan." Id. (quoting 29 U.S.C. § 1104(a)(1)). A fiduciary who fails to fulfill these responsibilities is "personally liable to make good to [the] plan any losses to the plan resulting from... such breach." Id. (quoting 29 U.S.C. § 1109(a)).
Reads like a beautiful nutshell summation of the law of fiduciary duty under ERISA, doesn’t it?
Nutshells, by the way, for you non-lawyer readers, are relatively brief condensations of particular areas of the law that multiple generations of law students have read instead of law textbooks themselves, which not only often run the length of “War and Peace” but are also often as comprehensible as that classic - in its original Russian.
Is Subprime the New Stock Drops?
Permalink | The consensus in the legal community, and I don’t think it is just because they are looking hopefully for a new flow of work, has for awhile now been that fund investment losses resulting from exposure to the subprime mortgage mess will eventually generate substantial ERISA related litigation. There are plenty of avenues for these cases, not the least of which is plans and their fiduciaries bringing suit against investment advisors or investment funds for losses suffered by the plans on the theory that the advisors and funds improperly exposed the plan to such losses. This article here, out of the Boston Globe, provides a good example of exactly this line of litigation, detailing extensive losses to pension plans from investing in what were supposed to be conservatively managed bond funds at State Street. Here’s the overview provided by the article:
Institutional money manager State Street Corp. now faces three lawsuits over its management of bond funds that were touted for their conservative investment strategies, yet posted losses over the summer because of risky holdings tied to the subprime mortgage industry . . .The latest lawsuit was filed last week in federal court in Boston by Nashua Corp., a Nashua, N.H.-based maker of paper and imaging products, against State Street's investment arm, State Street Global Advisors. . . Nashua lost $5.6 million by investing company pension funds in State Street's Bond Market Fund, due to the fund's ’overexposure in mortgage-related securities,’ according to the lawsuit. Nashua's complaint seeks class-action certification, which could allow other companies that invested in certain State Street funds to join the case.
Perhaps of even more interest on this front is the complaint that was filed a few weeks ago in the Southern District of New York by Unisystems, Inc. Employees Profit Sharing Plan, an ERISA governed plan, alleging substantial breaches of fiduciary duties under ERISA by State Street related to the bond funds it managed that the Unisystems plan and other plans invested in. The complaint seeks to be certified as a class action, and was brought by the Keller Rohrback firm, which looks to be on its way to becoming the Milberg Weiss (sans the indictments) of ERISA class action litigation. The complaint itself in that case, which you can find right here, is a terrifically detailed, step by step overview of the subprime mortgage problem, how it impacts ERISA governed plans, and the fiduciary exposures which that credit crisis has created - at least in theory so far - for investment managers and other ERISA plan fiduciaries. If nothing else, it gives you the whole story of this line of potential liability for ERISA fiduciaries.
And the scope of this area of liability and potential litigation involving ERISA plans is as big as you would expect. State Street notes that:
the problematic [State Street] funds [at issue in these lawsuits] amounted to a small fraction of the $244 billion in fixed-income funds it manages. About $36 billion of that total is actively managed -- as opposed to passive funds that track indexes. The proportion exposed to subprime mortgages amounted to $7.8 billion as of June 30, and just $2.6 billion as of Sept. 30.
Well, you know what? That’s still billions of dollars of investments at issue, and that’s only involving one potential defendant in these cases. As the old saying in politics goes, a billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you are talking about real money.
Another View on Whether a Cashed Out 401(k) Participant Has Standing to Sue for Losses Under ERISA
Permalink | Judge Tauro, of the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts, has weighed in lately on some of the more cutting edge and currently unsettled issues in ERISA litigation, such as the impact of ERISA preemption on the powers of a state agency. This week, he ventured into the now hot topic of whether a plan participant who has cashed out of a 401(k) plan has standing to sue for breach of fiduciary duty, in this instance for imprudently investing in allegedly inflated company stock. In the decision, involving a putative class action against Boston Scientific, the judge surveyed case law from other jurisdictions on the issue and broke from the opinion of another judge of the circuit, who had found that such a participant, once cashed out, lacked standing to bring a claim for benefits. Judge Tauro reviewed case law from other circuits to the contrary, and elected to follow those rulings.
The cases relied upon by the judge are an instructive lot, and almost a road map for briefing this issue when arguing in favor of standing for such a cashed out participant:
More persuasive is the reasoning of the Seventh Circuit, which recently reached an opposite outcome and found that a plan participant did have standing, despite having cashed out of the plan. [The Seventh Circuit found that] "[b]enefits are benefits; in a defined-contribution plan they are the value of the retirement account when the employee retires, and a breach of fiduciary duty that diminishes that value gives rise to a claim for benefits measured by the difference between what the retirement account was worth when the employee retired and cashed it out and what it would have been worth then had it not been for the breach of fiduciary duty." The Third and Sixth Circuits have adopted this line of reasoning as well. Also instructive is the analysis by Judge Hall in the District of Connecticut: “[T]he court is puzzled by the . . . assertion that a claim for benefits lost due to imprudent fiduciary investment becomes a claim for damages once the plaintiff accepts a lump sum payment constituting the balance of her account with the relevant plan. . . . Regardless of whether [the participant] accepted or refused the balance of her account, her underlying claim would still be for the money lost by the Plan as a result of the defendants' imprudent investments. The court sees no logical reason why such a claim seeks an ascertainable benefit when the plaintiff refuses a lump sum, but the very same claim seeks an unascertainable damage award once the plaintiff accepts a lump sum.”
Misrepresentations Under ERISA Plans: Is There A Cause of Action?
Permalink | Here’s an interesting case out of the First Circuit this week concerning an attempt to use an equitable estoppel theory to force a plan to pay supplemental life insurance benefits even though the former employee covered by the plan had not submitted the necessary health forms to qualify for that coverage. The case, Todisco v. Verizon Communications, involved a situation in which the now deceased employee was supposedly told that he could sign up for the additional life insurance benefits without submitting the necessary health information. The plan administrator refused to pay those benefits after his death because his failure to submit that information precluded such coverage under the terms of the plan.
After much wrangling at the district court (“wrangling” in this context being a euphemism for substantial motion practice), what remained was the plaintiff’s theory that she could recover the benefits on an estoppel theory based on the allegedly misleading statements made to the deceased at the time he elected the benefits. The First Circuit held that the theory failed as a matter of law, however. The Court analyzed the issue under both possible statutory causes of action available to the plaintiff, namely Section 502(a)(1)(B), which “empowers a ‘participant or beneficiary’ to bring suit ‘to recover benefits due to him under the terms of his plan, to enforce his rights under the terms of the plan, or to clarify his rights to future benefits under the terms of the plan,’ and Section 502(a)(3), which “allows a ‘participant, beneficiary, or fiduciary’ to sue ‘(A) to enjoin any act or practice which violates any provision of this subchapter or the terms of the plan, or (B) to obtain other appropriate equitable relief (I) to redress such violations or (ii) to enforce any provisions of this subchapter or the terms of the plan."
The First Circuit held, however, that the plaintiff’s equitable estoppel claim had no home under either statutory section. It found that even though in common parlance equitable estoppel is understood to be an equitable remedy, it did not constitute equitable relief for purposes of ERISA under applicable Supreme Court precedent; for ERISA purposes, equitable relief has a very narrow and specific meaning, and the plaintiff’s attempt to recover compensatory damages only under an estoppel theory did not fit that meaning. The plaintiff’s claim was therefore not actionable as a matter of law under Section 502(a)(3). At the same time, however, the First Circuit found that the relief was not viable as a claim for damages - namely the denied benefits - under Section 502(a)(1)(B), because that section only allows recovery of benefits due under the terms of the plan, and the plaintiff's estoppel theory did not allege that the benefits were due under the actual terms of the plan, but that they were instead due under the terms of the plan as misrepresented to the deceased at the time he sought to obtain the coverage. The Court found that this claim did not fit the express requirements of the statutory provision in question, which limits recovery to benefits when the actual terms of the plan require them to be paid.
The Interrelationship of Suits for Benefits and for Breach of Fiduciary Duty Under ERISA
Permalink | If it seems like I have been digressing a lot these past couple of weeks off of the primary topics of this blog and into other areas that interest me - such as the billable hour system - or that I practice in, like intellectual property litigation, it is because the courts of the First Circuit have been fairly quiet with regard to ERISA issues since the First Circuit issued its opinion in this case a few weeks back in which I represented the prevailing parties. Things change quickly in the forest, though, and the courts in this circuit have begun speaking again on ERISA issues. The United States District Court for the District of Puerto Rico has now provided this nice, handy summary of why an individual plan participant whose benefits have been terminated must bring solely a claim for benefits, and cannot press forward with an alternative theory for breach of fiduciary duty. In the words of the court:
ERISA recognizes two avenues through which a plan participant may maintain a breach of fiduciary duty claim: (1) a Section 502(a)(2) claim to obtain plan-wide relief, see 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(2); and (2) an individual suit under Section 502(a)(3) to obtain equitable relief, see 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(3). Cintron [the plaintiff] does not seek plan-wide relief. Consequently, ERISA authorizes her breach of fiduciary duty claim only if she seeks "appropriate equitable relief." 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(3); Varity Corp. v. Howe, 516 U.S. 489, 512, 116 S. Ct. 1065, 134 L. Ed. 2d 130 (1996); Watson v. Deaconess Waltham Hosp., 298 F.3d 102, 109-10 (1st Cir. 2002); Larocca v. Borden, Inc., 276 F.3d 22, 27-28 (1st Cir. 2002). The Supreme Court of the United States has described Section 502(a)(3) as a "safety net" that provides appropriate equitable relief for injuries that Section 502 does not elsewhere adequately remedy. Varity, 516 U.S. at 512. Section 502(a)(3), therefore, does not authorize an individualized claim where the plaintiff's injury finds adequate relief in another part of ERISA's statutory scheme. Id. at 512, 515; see also Watson, 298 F.3d at 112-13; Larocca, 276 F.3d at 27-28; Turner v. Fallon Cmty. Health Plan, 127 F.3d 196, 200 (1st Cir. 1997). Following Varity, "federal courts have uniformly concluded that, if a plaintiff can pursue benefits under the plan pursuant to Section [502(a)(1)(B)], there is an adequate remedy under the plan which bars any further remedy under Section [502(a)(3)]." Larocca, 276 F.3d at 28.
Section 502(a)(1)(B) provides Cintron the opportunity to obtain redress for the injury she alleges to have suffered--a wrongful termination of her benefits. If the defendants wrongfully stopped paying her benefits, Section 502(a)(1)(B) provides an avenue through which she may recover benefits due. She may not seek relief for the same injury under Section 502(a)(3). . . .Thus, she may not maintain a claim for breach of fiduciary duty under Section 502(a)(3).
As some of you know from other posts, I like to collect handy summaries like this to insert into future briefs in appropriate spots, and I pass this one along to anyone who may want to do likewise. The case is Cintron-Serrano v. Bristol-Myers Squibb P.R., Inc.
Me and LaRue, and Business Insurance Too
Permalink | There is an article in Business Insurance magazine this week, the June 25th issue, on the Supreme Court accepting review of the LaRue decision, in which I am quoted. The article is here - subscription required - and if you read it, you will note that it ends on my comment that I expect the Supreme Court to overturn the Fourth Circuit. A short article intended really just as a little news blurb on the subject for the benefit of the magazine’s business management oriented readership, the reporter did not have the space to go into why I think the Court will overturn the lower court decision, but I, obviously, have the space to do so here. So to the extent anyone is interested in the question, here’s my thinking.
First, I don’t really expect the Court to do much, if anything, with the question of the scope of equitable remedies issue. If anything, given the language of the statute, despite the fact that many people want the Court to expand individual remedies and available damages under ERISA - including, I have found in my litigation practice, many District Court judges who are displeased with the limitations of the statute but nonetheless consider themselves duty bound to enforce its restrictions on recovery - the Court has probably read the range of equitable relief that can be pursued in as broad and pro-plaintiff a manner as the language allows, with its test of whether the relief sought would be equitable or not way back in the days of the divided bench. There simply isn’t much more you can do with the statute’s restriction of recovery in certain circumstances to equitable relief unless you are simply going to ignore the actual language of the statute and rewrite it by judicial fiat, which this Court certainly isn’t going to do and arguably, the thinking of Ronald Dworkin and his heirs aside, no court should do.
In a way, this issue is a perfect parallel to a long running and common problem in the insurance coverage field, in which there was an oft litigated dispute over whether insurance policies, because they only cover claims for damages, cover lawsuits seeking equitable relief, the issue being that the policies only cover damages and equitable relief is something different than damages. In both insurance coverage and ERISA cases - such as LaRue - the simple fact of the matter is that equitable relief does mean something particular, something that is different than a claim for damages, and the question is what is the impact of that difference.
Second, with regard to the more fundamental question of whether the individual plan participant could recover just for losses to his account in the plan, yes, I do think the Court will overrule the Fourth Circuit and find that such an individual plan participant can bring such an action. I can never recall whether the saying is that the Court follows the election returns, or is that the Court doesn’t follow the election returns, so I looked it up, and in fact the saying is that they follow the returns, although every author who writes this then adds qualifiers to the comment, such as in this piece here. Either way, the kind of relief sought by the plaintiff in the LaRue case, to be able to enforce his investment instructions in his own retirement savings account, clearly fits with the current Zeitgeist and, more interestingly, is of a piece - and a natural fit with - the changes to retirement savings plans put into place by the Pension Protection Act. Beyond that, the statutory language that is at issue in this part of the case is completely open to either the interpretation selected by the Fourth Circuit, or that sought by the plaintiff, and thus the Court can realign this part of ERISA without doing any violence to the statutory language. Combine these things, and I get a reversal.
Criminal Restitution, Alienation of Retirement Benefits and the Supreme Court
Permalink | We return, as promised, to America today, to two particular, but certainly not unique, American obsessions, the Supreme Court and criminals. As discussed here and here, the Supreme Court has refused to hear an appeal presenting the question of whether pension and retirement benefits governed by ERISA can be attached in the criminal context. As I discussed in this post, in at least some instances courts are finding that retirement funds can be attached as part of the penalty for criminal conduct, including to pay criminal restitution.
It is interesting - although there is probably nothing more to read into it other than that the Court agreed with the Solicitor General’s office that there was no circuit split warranting review of the precise issue presented by the particular case at issue - that the Supreme Court passed on this one, as they have taken on a fair number of ERISA cases, most recently accepting the LaRue case, which I discussed here and here, and which presents questions as to whether or not a single plan participant can sue for breach of fiduciary duty. And just a short time ago the Court reached out to address questions related to mergers and terminations of pension plans, as discussed here.
But I guess the question of whether or not criminals lose any protection provided by ERISA to their retirement benefits as a result of conviction doesn’t rate as high as those other issues on the Court’s agenda. And perhaps it shouldn’t. That’s an issue for another day, and one I will not voyage into today. But it is important to remember, however, that, as I discussed in a National Law Journal article a few months ago concerning one circuit that does allow attachment of a felon’s retirement benefits, alienating retirement benefits doesn’t necessarily punish only the wrongdoer, but may well seriously impoverish possibly innocent spouses, who may have expected to rely on those funds in retirement, and adult children, who may end up with no choice but to subsidize the so-called golden years of that innocent spouse. Of course, it is also fair to say that victims who have suffered financial losses as a result of the criminal conduct may have an equal, or even superior, claim to the funds. Either way, what is clear is that there is plenty of collateral damage to go around in the situation presented by this type of case, enough that it would certainly be worthwhile to at least have an authoritative decision out of the Supreme Court as to whether those courts that do allow attachment of those funds to pay criminal restitution or other similar sums are correct about it or, for that matter, that those jurisdictions who don’t allow it are correct.
Excessive Fee Litigation, 401(k) Plans and LaRue
Permalink | The current issue of the National Law Journal has an article providing an excellent overview of litigation over allegedly excessive fees charged on investments in 401(k) plans. The article notes the variations in the theories, and discusses what are likely to be large, class wide actions in the near future. There are those who think these types of claims are going away but, as this article suggests, that doesn’t actually look to be the case.
Now connect the dots between that story and the LaRue case, which I discussed here and about which more can be learned here, in which the Supreme Court is being asked to determine whether a single participant in a 401(k) plan can bring a breach of fiduciary duty claim for breaches that harmed only his account. Right now, with regard to the excessive fee issue, we are seeing, as the National Law Journal article reflects, the development of essentially plan wide suits. But if developments in the LaRue case establish that any individual plan participant can sue for breaches of fiduciary duty affecting that participant’s account, that will change. We will instead have a universe of individual participants, all with the capacity to sue over their own account balance and over any complaints they have that excessive fees drove down the balance of their own accounts over the course of years, and I suspect we will see plenty of lawyers appear who are ready and willing to represent individual account holders in such lawsuits. This will create a different litigation world for fiduciaries, plan sponsors, plan administrators and the like, then the current one in which the real risk is large plan wide actions by specialist plaintiff firms. In its place will be more of a death by a thousand cuts type of litigation regime that will confront plan fiduciaries and their allies.
I am not saying this is necessarily a bad thing, or a good thing. It is what it is. But in at least one way it may well be a good thing. We are all bombarded with the mantra that, in this defined contribution plan world we now inhabit, individuals are now responsible for their own retirement, as opposed to when companies provided it by means of guaranteed pensions. Well, I suppose if we are going to make individual plan participants the risk bearers and care takers of their own retirement funding, the least we can do is provide them with the legal tools to protect their investments.
LaRue v. DeWolff, Losses to the Plan and the Supreme Court
Permalink | SCOTUSBLOG is the NY Times, or maybe - given its focus on one particular field - the Wall Street Journal, of the legal blog world. With the backing of a major international law firm, it brings tremendous resources to its in-depth coverage of all things goings on at the Supreme Court. Cripes, the blog even has its own reporter, to supplement the work of the actual bloggers.
And of course that’s also why I read it, because you know you are not going to miss anything of importance to your own practice area that happens at the Supreme Court. And here, of interest, is their post on the United States Solicitor General’s brief recommending that the Supreme Court hear an appeal from the Fourth Circuit’s decision in LaRue v. DeWolff, Boberg & Associates, which presents the question of whether an individual participant in a 401(k) plan can sue to recover losses from errors by fiduciaries that affected only his or her account in the plan, rather than the accounts of all or most participants in the plan. In dispute is the question of whether it qualifies, first, as a loss to the plan, such that the participant can sue for breach of fiduciary duty, and/or second as equitable relief as the Supreme Court has interpreted that phrase for purposes of ERISA, such that the participant can recover on a separate equitable relief theory.
One thing’s for sure. If the Supreme Court puts its imprimatur on this theory, and makes clear that individual plan participants can sue for their own individual losses in their defined contribution accounts, there will be a whole range of new potential plaintiffs out there, and I am sure plenty of lawyers ready and willing to represent them. At the same time, to be fair, in a world of Enrons and the like, maybe there should be.
The Workplace Prof reads SCOTUSBLOG too, and here’s the prof’s take on these events.
Summary Plan Descriptions and Discovery in ERISA Cases: the Latest from the First Circuit
Permalink | The First Circuit issued an opinion in the case of Morales-Alejandro v. Medical Card System on Wednesday. The case, which involved a challenge to a denial of long term disability benefits, is noteworthy for two aspects. The first is that the case reaffirms this circuit’s reluctance to allow discovery beyond production of the administrative record in denial of benefits cases prosecuted under ERISA. The court pointed out that, in this circuit anyway, “ERISA cases are generally decided on the administrative record without discovery, and some very good reason is needed to overcome the presumption that the record on review is limited to the record before the administrator."
The second issue of note is that the court addressed the role of summary plan descriptions in ERISA plans and related litigation, and described the role they should play in a litigated dispute over benefits. In particular, the court declared:
ERISA imposes an important requirement on plan administrators and insurers to communicate accurately with plan participants and beneficiaries. See Bard, 471 F.3d at 244-45. Part of the communication requirement is that the SPD provide certain information "written in a manner calculated to be understood by the average plan participant, and shall be sufficiently accurate and comprehensive to reasonably apprise such participants and beneficiaries of their rights and obligations under the plan." 29 U.S.C. § 1022(a). Section 1022(b) specifies the information to be included in the summary. When the terms, language, or provisions of the SPD conflict with the plan, the language that the claimant reasonably relied on in making and proving his claim will govern the claim process. Bard, 471 F.3d at 245. The burden is on the claimant to show reasonable reliance and resulting prejudice. Id.
The Supreme Court's Next Words on Fiduciary Duties and Pension Plans
Permalink | Here is a terrific and in-depth review of the underlying facts and issues in the pending Supreme Court case of Beck v. Pace International Union, which is scheduled to be argued later this month, and which involves the extent, if any, to which fiduciary obligations apply to a decision to terminate a pension plan by purchasing an annuity rather than by merging the plan into other existing plans. Thanks to Workplace Prof for the heads up about this on-line publication out of the Cornell Law School, a source that I don’t regularly follow (but of course, that is what I rely on the Prof to do, to follow academic sites like that in my stead).
On a side note, one of the things that I simply really enjoy about ERISA is that whenever the Supreme Court weighs in on an ERISA issue, we can look forward to years of - usually conflicting - district court and circuit court decisions trying to apply the Supreme Court’s ruling, giving us great material for litigating cases and for blog discussions.
Merger and Anti-Cutback Provisions of ERISA, and a Handy Rule of Thumb
Permalink | This case, out of the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts, provides a nice little rule of thumb for amending, merging or otherwise altering retirement benefit plans - namely, that it makes it hard to get sued and lose if you make the changes in a way that avoids altering the actual benefit amounts of any given participant. In this case, an employee complained about changes to the company’s retirement plan made as part of a corporate acquisition and about a later change intended to protect other participants’ participation in the plan. The court found that the changes did not violate ERISA’s merger or anti-cutback provisions, as the evidence showed the changes had no adverse impact on the plaintiff’s benefits. In an interesting discussion of the merger and anti-cutback provisions, the court explained that:
Pursuant to ERISA § 208 and I.R.C. § 414(1), when benefit plans are merged, each plan participant must receive benefits immediately after the merger that are equal to the benefits he would have received had his plan terminated immediately prior to the merger. . . .At its core, this merger rule is a simple one, intended to prevent companies from eliminating an employee's previously accrued benefits when merging one benefit plan with another. . . . Much like the merger rule, the purpose of the anti-cutback provisions of § 204(g)(1) of ERISA is to prevent an employer from "pulling the rug out from under employees" by amending its benefit plan to eliminate or reduce a previously accrued early retirement subsidy. Specifically, the anti-cutback rule provides, with certain exceptions not relevant here, that "[t]he accrued benefit of a participant under a plan may not be decreased by an amendment of the plan." 29 U.S.C. § 1054(g)(1). . . .The Act requires that the merger or amendment of retirement plans does not result in a plan that has the effect of reducing an employee's previously accrued benefits.
The court ruled across the board in favor of the defendant, not just on the merger and anti-cutback counts but on all counts pled by the participant, with the decision driven in large part by the fact that the evidence demonstrated that the changes to the plan did not detrimentally alter the benefits available under the plan to the complaining participant.
The case is Gillis v. SPX Corp. Individual Retirement Plan.
Illusory Benefits and the Small Employer
Permalink | I have written before, including here and here, about the elements that must exist for a particular employment benefit to fall under ERISA and be deemed part of an ERISA governed employee welfare benefit plan. The requirements that must be met can become problematic with small employers, where compensation and benefit packages are often assembled on an ad hoc basis, often vary greatly from one employee to the other, and frequently are not well documented, as I discussed here.
Workplace Prof had another perfect example of this the other day, which the Prof discussed in this post, involving a pension benefit allegedly promised by a small employer that was, in fact, never established by the employer. The Prof points out something that all employees of smaller employers should do, which is make sure to take a gander at the employee benefit documents to make sure they really exist in the expected form; you don’t want to be trying after a particular employee benefit is denied to prove that the elements of an ERISA governed plan existed, and then find out the employer never actually funded the benefit or created any supporting paperwork at all.
Novak and the National Law Journal
Permalink | I guess this is me and the media week here at the blog. There is an excellent story in the National Law Journal this week on the Novak decision out of the Ninth Circuit, which I talked about here, in which the court allowed attachment of ERISA governed retirement benefits as part of criminal restitution. I am interviewed in the article, which, unfortunately, is only available online to subscribers, so I cannot provide a link here to the actual article, and my fear of the copyright laws dissuades me from uploading the whole article here for you to read.
I think, though, that the fair use exception to the copyright act allows me to quote myself from the article, in which I mention that the ruling in Novak is kind of draconian, and in particular that “it almost goes to the level of 19th century debtor’s prison issues: do we bankrupt the spouse of a white collar criminal?” Beyond that, I am quoted in the article on the decision’s ramifications for future cases, and I note that there are issues raised in the court’s decision that will need to be resolved in future cases. I also point out, as do others quoted in the article, that it is important, going forward, to try to separate out pension benefits from the restitution amounts when negotiating resolution of criminal charges.
Equitable Relief Under ERISA in the First Circuit Post-Sereboff
Permalink | The district courts in the First Circuit have been so busy issuing ERISA related decisions recently that it has become difficult to find time to post on other things that I also want to talk about. That said, however, the District Court for the District of Maine just issued a remarkable opinion that I both wanted to comment on and to be sure to spotlight. The case is Curran v. Camden National Bank, and it involved the question of whether the defendant bank owed hundreds of thousands of dollars to a multi-employer health care trust upon its withdrawal from the group. There are a few things that are really note worthy about the ruling. First of all, the decision is a nicely crafted survey of the law in this circuit as it currently stands on a number of topics, in particular: the extent to which, after Sereboff, equitable relief is available under ERISA in this circuit; the proper analysis of preemption; and the determination of fiduciary status for purposes of a claim for breach of fiduciary duty.
One could pick the court’s analysis of any of these three issues to focus on, and have plenty to write about, but today I will comment in particular on the court’s discussion of the viability of claims for equitable relief in this circuit after Sereboff, particularly since the court points out that the First Circuit itself has not yet found reason to interpret and apply Sereboff, other than to cite the case for the proposition that “what forms of relief are considered equitable is a matter in dispute.” On this issue, the district court began by providing a handy blueprint for analyzing claims for equitable relief in this circuit, and whether they can proceed without running afoul of Supreme Court precedent. Addressing “29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(3), which provides [that a] civil action may be brought by a participant, beneficiary, or fiduciary (A) to enjoin any act or practice which violates any provision of this subchapter or the terms of the plan, or (B) to obtain other appropriate equitable relief (I) to redress such violations or (ii) to enforce any provisions of this subchapter or the terms of the plan,” the court stated:
By its terms, however, section 1132(a)(3) authorizes only "those categories of relief that were typically available in equity." Sereboff v. Mid Atl. Med. Servs., U.S. , 126 S. Ct. 1869 (2006) (quoting Mertens v. Hewitt Associates, 508 U.S. 248, 256 (1993) (emphasis in original)). If the plaintiffs seek legal as opposed to equitable relief, "their suit is not authorized by § [1132(a)(3)]." Great-West Life & Annuity Ins. Co. v. Knudson, 534 U.S. 204, 218 (2002).
The First Circuit has set forth a two-step inquiry to evaluate a cause of action under § 1132(a)(3): "1) is the proposed relief equitable, and 2) if so, is it appropriate?" LaRocca v. Borden, Inc., 276 F.3d 22, 27-28 (1st Cir. 2002). With respect to the first prong, under ERISA, "'equitable relief' includes 'those categories of relief that were typically available in equity (such as injunction, mandamus, and restitution, but not compensatory damages).'" Id. at 28 (quoting Mertens, 508 U.S. at 256). Turning to the second step, the purpose of § 1132(a)(3) is to serve as a "safety net, offering appropriate equitable relief for injuries caused by violations that §  does not elsewhere adequately remedy." Id. (quoting Varity Corp. v. Howe, 516 U.S. 489, 512 (1996)).
This is a very handy formulation that one can borrow to begin the section of any brief submitted in this circuit arguing over whether or not a particular claim can proceed under this section of ERISA. The court then went on, however, to provide far more analysis and guidance on this issue, explaining how a proper analysis of Sereboff and subsequent history from other circuits established that the plaintiffs were seeking a legal remedy dressed in the clothing of equitable relief, and that the claim therefore could not proceed under this statutory section.
Second of all, the bank’s lawyers did a terrific job here, drawing the court across a diverse range of ERISA issues and convincing the court that none of the plaintiffs’ claims were viable in light of the statute and case law interpreting it. I tip my hat to the bank’s lawyers for a terrific win.
Restitution, Anti-Alienation and ERISA
Permalink | Although I am diligent about covering in this blog ERISA decisions coming out of the courts in the First Circuit, I also keep an eye on ERISA decisions elsewhere in the country and discuss them when there is something particularly interesting about them that catches my eye. The Ninth Circuit has just done exactly that, luring me into the realm of the intersection of criminal law and ERISA by its en banc decision in USA v. Novak, and giving me an opportunity to use this blog to make my pitch to any readers in Hollywood for my proposal for a new and thrilling television show, CSI:ERISA. Can’t you just see it? Ripped from the headlines, a husband and wife resell stolen telephone equipment, fail to report the millions of dollars they earn from that to the government on their tax returns, and are caught (these are the real underlying facts of Novak, and that gave rise to the ERISA issue before the court); in tonight’s exciting episode, what happens to their retirement benefits after the conviction? Well, I don’t know, maybe that’s going a bit far, but the Novak decision is pretty interesting, on a few levels.
In Novak, the Ninth Circuit addressed the impact of ERISA’s anti-alienation provision on a federal criminal restitution order that attempted to attach the garnishee’s retirement benefits. Recognizing that ERISA itself contains an anti-alienation provision that would appear to bar such attachment, the Ninth Circuit held that the federal Mandatory Victims Restitution Act of 1996 (“MVRA”) overrode the prohibition and allowed attachment of the retirement benefits for purposes of satisfying criminal restitution orders. There is much that could be said about this opinion, but I’ll limit myself today to a few points.
First, as the court recognized, the two statutes themselves - ERISA and the MVRA - do not expressly resolve the issue of whether, despite the anti-alienation provision in ERISA, retirement benefits can be attached to pay restitution. The court presents a very persuasive and well reasoned exercise in statutory construction to reconcile the two statutes and conclude that the MVRA controls the issue and allows such attachment. To a certain extent, the court provides really a mini-tutorial on the rules underlying statutory interpretation, and the opinion is useful reading for anyone who ever has to argue a case involving construction of a previously unaddressed statutory provision. At the same time, though, the analysis reflects a real problem with trying to reach a final decision over rights and obligations by means of statutory construction, in that there is no real definitive basis in the legislative history or statutory language relied upon by the court that mandates reaching the particular conclusion accepted by the court, and instead one can argue that the opposite result could just as credibly be reached in the case.
Second, and building off of the point that the statutory language itself is not determinative of the proper result here, the court’s analysis and approach rings true, even if the result might be arguable. Conceptually and intellectually, the court’s opinion reminded me of nothing so much as Ronald Dworkin’s mythical Judge Hercules, who, when presented with a particular statute whose meaning is open to debate, sees himself as the next of a series of authors - a series that began with the legislature - and who tries to interpret the statute by adding the necessary additional layers of meaning to it that are needed to effectuate its purposes. The Ninth Circuit’s analysis reads exactly like that, with the court taking a complicated statutory text - two of them, actually, ERISA and the MVRA - and adding more meaning to the statutory text to allow it to deal with this particular fact pattern, one not addressed by the congressional drafters of the statutes.
And third, on a more prosaic basis, it is interesting how the court resolved the question of exactly what could be attached - all the assets of the retirement plan itself that are attributable to the garnishee, or only the payments due to the garnishee as they come due. The court resolved this in a quite sensible manner, concluding that what can be garnished are only those assets the garnishee himself has a current right to receive.
ERISA, Interpleader and Qualified Domestic Relations Orders
Recently, waiting for a pretrial conference in federal court on one of my cases, I listened as a judge explained to the lawyers in a different case, based on only knowing the causes of action, what the actual facts of the case before him must be, even though he had never heard from the parties before. He did, in fact, actually nail the general outline of the case off the top of his head, and the lawyers for the parties simply had to fill in a few of the more specific facts for him. The judge explained that he had seen that type of case a thousand times before, and the fact patterns were always basically the same.
I was reminded of this when I read this recent decision by Judge Tauro in the Massachusetts federal district court, which concerns competing claims to life insurance proceeds provided under an ERISA governed plan. It seems as though the facts of this case are likewise always the facts in these types of claims: a divorce proceeding, followed by a standard state probate court order forbidding the husband from removing his soon to be ex-wife as the beneficiary, followed in short order of course, by the husband changing the beneficiary to his girlfriend (usually followed not long afterward by the husband’s demise, although no one has proven - to my satisfaction anyway - a causal linkage between that and either the girlfriend or the change in beneficiary).
Now of course what happens in that case is you end up with two competing claimants to the life insurance proceeds, one of whom - the ex-wife - asserts that she could not have legally been removed as the beneficiary, and the other of whom - the girlfriend - claims that she is the beneficiary pursuant to the plan’s terms and therefore must be paid the proceeds, at least if the plan’s terms are going to be enforced. And then what happens next of course, is that the plan administrator, quite rightly, files an interpleader action asking the court to figure out which one of the two should get the proceeds. A plan administrator would err if it did anything else, as ERISA preemption and the plan’s terms would suggest that the girlfriend should get the proceeds, but this would be in direct contradiction of a probate court order; there is no reason for the plan and its administrator to be stuck between the rock of the plan and the hard place of the probate court order. And avoiding being stuck in this type of position is exactly why federal law allows interpleader in this situation.
Judge Tauro, in his opinion at the end of January in Unicare Life & Health v Chantal Phanor et al, presents in a very logical manner exactly how this issue should be considered and resolved, finding that the proceeds should be paid out to the former wife under this scenario, so long as the probate court order qualifies as a qualified domestic relations order (“QDRO”) for purposes of ERISA. As the court explained, Congress expressly exempted QDROs from preemption, so as to allow probate courts to properly divvy up marital assets. The key issue with QDROs, and whether the beneficiary designation mandated by them should govern instead of the beneficiary designation that would govern if the terms of the plan controlled the issue, is that there are specific characteristics of the order that must exist for it to qualify as a QDRO. An issue of controversy, and which was at the center of the dispute in Unicare, is how strictly those requirements should be applied, and whether a probate court order that only loosely fits the requirements can qualify as a QDRO for these purposes. Judge Tauro came down squarely on the side of not taking those requirements literally, instead requiring only that the probate court order fit generally within the requirements and fall within the purpose intended to be served by QDROs.
For some reason, the Unicare decision is not currently available on the Massachusetts District Court's website, but I will keep an eye out and post a link to it when it becomes available. For now, it can be found on Lexis, at 2007 U.S.Dist. LEXIS 6136.
Summary Plan Descriptions and Grants of Discretion
Permalink | Here is an interesting post concerning a recent decision from the Second Circuit on the impact - there is apparently none in that circuit, given this post and the Second Circuit decision, Tocker v. Phillip Morris Companies, discussed in the post - of an administrator reserving discretion in determining claims for benefits only in the plan documents and not in the summary plan description itself.
Now I don’t necessarily agree with the writer of the post, who feels that if a participant cannot locate in the summary plan description the magical Firestone language that reserves discretion to the administrator, then de novo and not arbitrary and capricious review should apply. The writer’s view is that the summary exists to educate the participant, and the participant ought to be able to rely on it and find the reservation of discretion there, or else not have it applied against him or her. Personally, I favor a more realpolitik view of the world when it comes to establishing litigation rules, based on how we can expect people in the real world to act. Most participants, frankly, unless they have been educated about Firestone, discretionary language and standard of reviews by some other source, will have no idea what the Firestone language means or its effect, even if they find it in the summary plan description; for those who have been or choose to educate themselves sufficiently to understand that issue under the employee benefit plans provided by their employers, they will likewise understand that there are other sources of documents that they need to examine that govern the plan. The Second Circuit ruling in Tocker seems to fit that understanding of the real world quite well.
And some of this goes back to a fundamental issue, of whether participants really understand - or even read - the summary plan description, or whether it is instead simply something that gets pulled out by a participant’s lawyer after a claim for benefits has been denied. The summaries exist because we need to mandate disclosure, and certainly the more the better - but I don’t think it is realistic to structure a legal rule and indeed an entire regime around the myth that participants actually do read them, rely on them and understand them. When we do that, we move into simply creating traps that make the administration of plans more difficult and create loopholes to be exploited in litigation; while this may be good for lawyers’ wallets, I think we are all better served by legal rules that fit comfortably with how non-lawyers actually conduct themselves in their day to day lives.
On a more practical and technical level, the Tocker opinion provides an excellent overview of the law governing summary plan descriptions, and the role of those documents in the ERISA regime, for those of you interested in more information on those subjects.
Recoupments and Set Offs Under ERISA Plans
Here's a very interesting decision, Northcutt v. General Motors Hourly-Rate Employees Pension Plan, out of the 7th Circuit, upholding the right of administrators to rely on recoupment language in a plan to set off a lump sum social security payment received by a beneficiary against on-going payment obligations to that beneficiary that would otherwise exist under the plan. The problem is one that arises with extraordinary frequency, namely a beneficiary is awarded benefits under a plan, and then later collects a lump sum retroactive award of benefits from social security covering a period of time during which the individual had been receiving benefits from the plan. What happens when the plan contains language declaring that if the lump sum payment is not paid over to the plan, the plan will reduce the benefits being paid until such time as the withheld amount of the benefits adds up to the amount of the lump sum payment in question?
Well, generally the answer is that what the plan says is exactly what is going to happen. Now as you can imagine, beneficiaries are often none too happy when this occurs. They go from thinking a windfall has landed in their laps, in the form of a large retroactive benefit award from social security, to being dunned for the whole amount. Even worse from the point of view of any sort of amicable resolution of the problem as between the plan and the beneficiary, the scenario is often complicated, as it was in Northcutt, by the fact that beneficiaries have often spent the lump sum award before being notified that they actually owe it back to the plan. (I like, by the way, how the Northcutt court described the problem, as being that the sum was "dissipated by the time [the plan administrator ] made its demand" for reimbursement; I might have chosen the term "spent it like a drunken sailor on shore leave without bothering to find out first if they owed any of the money to someone else" if I were the court.)
The plaintiffs in Northcutt were two beneficiaries confronted by this problem and who tried to get around it by creative lawyering, insisting that the recoupment provisions in the plan were an attempt to create some sort of quasi-judicial right of recovery to which the plan was not entitled because it was contrary to, or at least not expressly part of, the rights to relief and causes of action granted by the express language of ERISA to plan fiduciaries. The court caught an obvious problem in this argument, namely that the recoupment was a right established under the plan and was simply part of the express terms of administration of the plan set forth in the controlling plan documents. The recoupment was simply an administrative act, and was not judicial relief or a court action.
The court rejected the plaintiffs' theory, finding that the sponsor clearly had the right to impose such terms as part of the plan, and that the plan was within its rights to simply apply those terms of the plan.
There is, beyond the holding and the interesting presentation of the reasoning behind it, some interesting language in the decision. One part that I like in particular speaks of the general acceptance in the case law of this type of recoupment mechanism, and of the fact that, although the Northcutt plaintiffs tried a novel theory of argument not already rejected by other courts, they were still subject to this same general acceptance of recoupment provisions. To quote the court:
Although Mr. Northcutt and Mr. Smith advance a novel theory in support of their argument, challenges to the enforceability of similar reimbursement provisions are not new. Before other courts, these challenges generally have focused on whether such reimbursement structures might violate particular provisions of ERISA. In these other suits, the plaintiffs have contended that contractually based recoupment amounts to a breach of fiduciary duty by the plan or to a violation of ERISA's anti-assignment provisions. The district courts appear to have rejected each theory and approved, either explicitly or implicitly, of contractually based recoupment.
Top Hat Plans
Curious about what a top hat plan is? I didn't think so. But if you ever need a handy one paragraph definition and description, Judge Saylor, writing in the case I discussed yesterday, provides one:
A" top hat" employee benefit plan is one that is unfunded and "maintained by an employer primarily for the purpose of providing deferred compensation for a select group of management or highly compensated employees." Cogan v. Phoenix Life Ins. Co., 310 F.3d 238,242 (1st Cir. 2002) (citing 29 U.S.C. ¬ß1101(a)(l)). . . . [W]hile a " top hat" plan is exempt from certain ERISA requirements, it is not exempt from ERISA's reporting, disclosure, administration, or enforcement provisions, and any state law concerning such plans are preempted.
As an inveterate brief writer (as pretty much anyone who practices in ERISA and insurance coverage has to be, given how often such cases are decided on summary judgment motions), I make it a point to collect these kind of general descriptive paragraphs for future use. Later, they can be inserted into a brief as a nice, handy introduction to the particular subject, before branching off from that descriptive paragraph into the specifics of the exact case at hand.
Employee Welfare Benefit Plans and the Small Employer
Preemption is a tough defense to get around, particularly in the First Circuit, where it is taken quite seriously and numerous decisions expressly declare particular state law causes of action to be preempted by ERISA. One clever response to this problem, at least when the facts will allow the argument, is to try to sidestep any fight over preemption itself by arguing that the benefit at issue was not even provided by an employee welfare benefit plan and that as a result, ERISA does not apply and state law claims over the denial of the benefits are actionable. There is more room to maneuver on such an argument than in a battle over preemption, because the test recognized in the First Circuit for determining whether a benefit was in fact provided by an employee welfare benefit plan is mutlipronged, fact based, and, on at least some elements of the test, rather amorphous. At the same time, however, it doesn't take much for an employee benefit to qualify as an ERISA governed employee welfare benefit plan, at least in this circuit.
The test is laid out and then explored in great detail in a recent decision, James O'Leary v. Provident Life and Accident Insurance Co., by Judge Saylor of the United States District Court here in Massachusetts. The court explained that "an employee welfare benefit plan has five elements: (1) a plan, fund, or program (2) established or maintained (3) by an employer or by an employee organization, or by both, (4) for the purpose of providing. . . disability. . . benefits (5) to participants or their beneficiaries," and that these are factual inquiries. In many instances involving larger employers, the application of these factors and the conclusion that should be reached are transparent from the outset; even without looking closely at the factors, there is little room to doubt that, for example, a large company's disability benefits plan for its employees satisfies these elements and is an ERISA governed plan.
What made the application of these factors interesting in the case before the court was the particular dynamic generated by the fact that it was a small employer and many of the facts at issue with regard to the employment benefit in question were unique to that one employee who was denied the benefits in question and was filing suit. This fact pattern took the case out of the realm of if it "looks like a duck and walks like a duck, its an employee welfare benefit plan," and placed it instead in the realm of coverages that might just be personal to the employee rather than part of an ERISA governed plan. It wasn't, the court eventually concluded, but the analysis in reaching that point is informative.
Retirement Benefits and Fiduciary Duties under ERISA
There is a nice and complimentary write up of this blog at Workplace Prof Blog, one of my favorite sources for a wide range of information related to employee benefits, including ERISA, such as this post on a petition for writ of certiorari arising out of a recent Ninth Circuit ruling concerning the fiduciary obligations of the administrator of an employee deferred profit sharing plan. The petition is itself interesting reading, and is available here (thanks to the efforts of the Workplace Prof), and details what the petitioner views as a split among the circuits on two specific points concerning the law of ERISA. The first is whether a plan participant can sue a fiduciary for breaches of fiduciary duty that harmed only a subset of a plan's participants and not the plan as a whole, while the second concerns the extent to which the administrator of a retirement plan can follow, or instead must decline to follow, a plan sponsor's directive that is not prudent from an investment perspective.
Tough choices that these types of cases present, as to where to draw the line between the sponsor's right to operate its plan and the protection that should be extended to the participants. Perhaps the question of whether the participant can protect herself within the structure of the plan, seperate from what the administrator or sponsor does, might act as a guide post on where that line should be drawn.
It's a bird, it's a plan . .
This being - roughly - the start of a new month, I engaged in my usual habit of reviewing any ERISA decisions issued in the past month by the courts in the First Circuit, just to make sure I didn't miss anything while busy with the usual run of business. As it turns out, on July 20th, the United States District Court for the District of Rhode Island issued its opinion in Holm v. Liberty Mutual Life Assurance Co. and Bank of America , a case in which an employee who had resigned from a company without first seeking disability benefits thereafter sought them later. In many ways, this is a traditional denial of benefits decision in this circuit, with the court finding that the plan granted the administrator sufficient discretion to invoke the arbitrary and capricious standard of review and then finding that under that standard the administrator's denial of benefits must be upheld since there was sufficient evidence in the record to support the decision. The court does offer some good language, and a good synopsis of the circuit's most popular decisions, on these points, and, frankly, you can tell on one read of the opinion that the outcome should have been the same regardless of the level of review applied by the court.
What makes the decision more interesting than most, however, is that the case presented the somewhat unique situation of the defendants raising the question of whether the benefit was even provided under an ERISA governed plan, and the court provides a nice summary of the law in this circuit for making that determination. As per the court (I have left out the cites):
ERISA provides a broad definition for employee benefit plans, and this definition has been divided by the First Circuit into "five essential constituents:"
(1) a plan, fund or program (2) established or maintained (3) by an employer or by an employee organization, or by both (4) for the purpose of providing medical, surgical, hospital care, sickness, accident, disability, death, unemployment or vacation benefits ... (5) to participants or their beneficiaries. . . . In determining whether a specific plan is an ERISA plan, the First Circuit reviews the extent of the employer's role in administering the benefits. Those obligations are the touchstone of the determination: if they require an ongoing administrative scheme that is subject to mismanagement, then they will more likely constitute an ERISA plan; but if the benefit obligations are merely a one-shot, take-it-or-leave-it incentive, they are less likely to be covered. Particularly germane to assessing an employer's obligations is the amount of discretion wielded in implementing them.
The court had little trouble concluding that the benefit plan in question was "clearly an employee benefit plan as defined by the ERISA statute" in light of the actual facts of the matter.
Equitable Relief under Section 502(a)(3)
Last week, in Sereboff v. Mid Atlantic Medical Services, Inc., http://www.supremecourtus.gov/opinions/05pdf/05-260.pdf, the Supreme Court returned to the question of what particular relief sought by a fiduciary can properly be pursued under the equitable relief provisions of Section 502(a)(3)(B) of ERISA, which provides that:
A fiduciary may bring a civil action under ¬ß 502(a)(3) of ERISA "(A) to enjoin any act or practice which violates any provision of this subchapter or the terms of the plan, or (B) to obtain other appropriate equitable relief (i) to redress such violations or (ii) to enforce any provisions of this subchapter or the terms of the plan."
502(a)(3)(B) is understood, under Supreme Court precedent, to only allow fiduciaries to pursue equitable relief, spawning a class of litigation over the issue of what particular relief sought by a plan or other fiduciary should be deemed to be "equitable" for these purposes. In Sereboff, the Court returned to the specific question of when can the plan obtain reimbursement from beneficiaries who had collected a third party tort recovery. In the case before the Court, the beneficiaries had collected health benefits from the plan and thereafter obtained a tort settlement from those who had caused the injuries that required the health care in question; the plan contained an
"Acts of Third Parties" provision [, which] requires a beneficiary who is injured as a result of an act or omission of a third party to reimburse [the plan] for benefits it pays on account of those injuries, if the beneficiary recovers for those injuries from the third party.
The Court concluded that this issue is not decided by simplistic characterizations of the recovery, such as should it be characterized as restitution, a recovery normally understood at least in casual legal thought as equitable, or instead as compensatory damages, but instead by analyzing the history of equitable relief under Supreme Court precedent and determining whether, on that long history, the relief in question would qualify as equitable.
Who is a Fiduciary?
Still mining Judge Woodlock's summary judgment opinion in Kansky v. Aetna Life Insurance Company and Coca Cola Enterprises, available here http://pacer.mad.uscourts.gov/dc/cgi-bin/recentops.pl?filename=woodlock/pdf/kansky%20may%201%202006.pdf.
Who is a fiduciary under ERISA? According to Judge Woodlock, under 29 U.S.C. section 1002 (21)(A),
"a person is a fiduciary with respect to a plan to the extent (i) he exercises any discretionary authority or discretionary control respecting management of such plan or exercises any authority or control respecting management or disposition of its assets, (ii) he renders investment advice for a fee or other compensation, direct or indirect, with respect to any moneys or other property of such plan, or has any authority or responsibility to do so, or (iii) he has any discretionary authority or discretionary responsibility in the administration of such plan." 29 U.S.C. ¬ß 1002(21) (A).
Section 1132(c) Applies Only to the Actual Plan Adminstrator
The recent summary judgment decision in Kansky v Aetna Life Insurance Company and Coca-Cola Enterprises, http://pacer.mad.uscourts.gov/dc/cgi-bin/recentops.pl?filename=woodlock/pdf/kansky%20may%201%202006.pdf, by Judge Woodlock of the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts, which I discussed in an earlier posting, contains nice discussions of several particular issues that often arise under ERISA and in ERISA litigation. In a previous post I discussed the de facto claim administrator theory and the question of whether any entity other than the designated plan administrator can be liable for penalties under 29 U.S.C. ¬ß 1132(c) for failing to produce certain documents upon request. The law in this circuit, I pointed out, is no. Judge Woodlock dropped a footnote in the Kansky summary judgment opinion that sums up the point nicely:
Kansky's May 3, 2004 request for forty different kinds of materials was addressed to Dawn Lee Dumond at Aetna Life Insurance Company in Lexington, KY. (AR000960-AR000965) The Summary of Coverage document and the LTD Plan brochure given to employees establish that Coca-Cola Enterprises Inc., or its Welfare Benefits Committee, is the "Plan Administrator" for purposes of ERISA, not Aetna. (AR000165, AR000209) See 29 U.S.C. ¬ß 1002(16)(A)(1) (The administrator is "the person specifically so designated by the terms of the instrument under which the plan is operated."). And it is only the administrator that may be held liable for failing to mail requested material pursuant to 29 U.S.C. ¬ß 1132(c) when that material has been requested. Consequently, Aetna informed Kansky in a letter dated June 17, 2004 replying to the document request that "Coca Cola Enterprises (CCE), and not Aetna Life Insurance Company (Aetna), is the Plan Administrator fo the CCE ERISA Plan" and it is "the Plan Administrator [who] is obligated to provide Plan documents upon request." (AR000114). There is no evidence in the record that a request was later made to Coca-Cola Enterprises. In any event, Aetna forwarded the claim file and the Plan documents to Kansky in June 2004. (AR000458-AR000460).
Thus, there is now even more support in the First Circuit for the proposition that only requests made to the actual plan administrator can possibly trigger exposure under 29 U.S.C. ¬ß 1132(c). Even better, this proposition is now supported by the most recent authority on this question in this circuit.
De facto plan administrators
One interesting question in ERISA is the extent to which any particular party who manages or provides services to a plan is required to disclose information to plan participants who contact it concerning the plan, plan benefits or a claim for benefits submitted under the plan. Section 1132(c) of ERISA http://www4.law.cornell.edu/uscode/html/uscode29/usc_sec_29_00001132----000-.htmlimposes certain obligations of disclosure and allows courts to impose penalties on plan administrators who fail to comply with those obligations.
Courts recognize that not every entity that plays a role in the administration or operation of the plan should be deemed a plan administrator subject to the obligations of that part of ERISA. Courts in a number of jurisdictions have applied what could be called the de facto plan administrator rule to this question, finding that, regardless of whether a party is actually declared the plan administrator in the plan documents, if the party is effectively operating the plan and would have been in a position to resolve such a request, that party should be deemed subject to the obligations of disclosure imposed by this statute. In February, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed without comment a decision by the Middle District of Georgia, Hamall-Desai v. Fortis Benefits Ins. Co., 370 F.Supp.2d 1283 (N.D.Ga. Dec 17, 2004) (NO. CIV.A. 103CV1529BBM), in which the court applied the de facto plan administrator test; the district court issued a detailed ruling addressing both that issue and a range of benefit issues.
Here in the First Circuit, however, the courts have not accepted the de facto plan administrator approach, and the district courts have consistently limited the obligations of this statutory provision to plan administrators only, regularly distinguishing the only First Circuit decision that suggests a different approach. The most recent to do so was the federal district court for Maine, in 2004, in an unpublished decision, Davis v. Verizon New England Inc., http://www.med.uscourts.gov/opinions/cohen/2004/dmc_05052004_2-04cv07_davis_v_verizon.pdf