ESOPs, Appraisers and Fiduciary Liability
There is much uproar at the moment over the possible expansion of fiduciary status to include appraisers, whose work includes valuing the assets held by the participants in ESOPs. Appraisers understandably do not want to assume that status, with its potential to turn them into defendants in ESOP breach of fiduciary duty litigation under ERISA; at a minimum, it opens them up to incurring defense costs (or the premium costs of insuring against that risk) from being named as a defendant. Personally, though, the risk seems to me to be overstated: appraisers will have to price that risk into their services, driving up the costs of operating an ESOP somewhat, but they are certainly not going to abandon the business, as some critics of this possible change have claimed. It’s a substantial business, providing appraisal services to ESOPs, and it is hard to imagine all the appraisers in America walking away from that work simply because of this risk, and the need to factor it into their pricing.
That said, however, I don’t believe it is necessary, or warranted, to expand the definition of fiduciary to capture appraisers of ESOP assets. I discussed this issue in depth in a presentation over a year ago to the New England Employee Benefits Council, as well as in a latter article in the Journal of Pension Benefits. Put simply, the structure of fiduciary responsibilities and liabilities that currently exists under ERISA is, in my view, sufficient to protect participants against problems with appraisals, and protecting participants from any such problems does not require turning appraisers into fiduciaries. I discussed this point, and my reasoning, in detail in this article.
Valuation and Appraisal Risks for ESOP Fiduciaries
Chris Rylands and Lisa Van Fleet's recent, very pithy summary of the Department of Labor’s enforcement initiatives with regard to ESOPs has been rattling around in my head for a couple of weeks now. The more I think about it, the more impressed I am by their ability to set out, in a couple of paragraphs, pretty much a cheat sheet of everything that really matters in running an ESOP. Focusing on the use of valuations by outside appraisers, they explained that, in the view of the DOL:
[ESOP] trustees . . . have a duty to prudently select . . .appraisers and that, even if the appraiser is prudently selected, the trustee still has an obligation to make sure the assumptions on which the valuation is based are reasonable under the circumstances. [The DOL] also said that trustees should be wary of a seller’s role in selecting the appraiser [and that] trustees should also read the appraisal.
The authors then captured what the DOL identified as key failings in appraisals that can make a valuation suspect:
•No discount applied for lack of marketability;
•Failure to take into account the risk associated with having only a single supplier or customer;
•Inconsistencies between the narrative of the valuation and the math in the appendices;
•Use of out of date financial information;
•Improper discount rates;
•Incomparable comparable companies – for example using a large public company as a comparable to a small private company; and
•Failure to test the underlying assumptions.
What is most interesting to me about this is that, although the authors were focusing on valuation and appraisal issues that risk drawing the attention of the DOL, they have also captured the fundamental issues in breach of fiduciary duty litigation arising out of ESOPs. These types of mistakes by ESOP plan fiduciaries in using and relying on appraisals will support breach of fiduciary duty litigation by ESOP participants, and if such mistakes caused a loss to the plan, will be sufficient to impose liability on the fiduciaries. In contrast, avoiding all of these potential traps is likely enough to insulate fiduciaries of ESOP plans from liability for breach of fiduciary duty.
The takeaway for ESOP fiduciaries? Pay attention to each one of these points in the handling of valuations, and you may prevent not just DOL enforcement action, but being named as a defendant in breach of fiduciary duty litigation instituted by plan participants.
A Football Story for Super Bowl Sunday, or Why Alex Smith Would Make a Great Fiduciary
Many, but probably not all of you, know the story of Alex Smith, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback. Long derided in the early part of his career, he came into his own over the past two seasons, succeeding especially well this past season, according to mathematical standards widely accepted among the football loving public as fair measurements of performance by quarterbacks (I would point out that since these measurements don’t demonstrate that the best quarterback in Sunday’s game – Baltimore’s Joe Flacco – is in fact the best quarterback in Sunday’s game, that they are deeply flawed measuring rods, but that is a story for a different day). It turned out though, that for Mr. Smith, all that statistical success is worth, for now, a grande cup of coffee at Starbucks, assuming he also has two bucks and eight cents on him. This is because he lost his starting job to his backup after an injury, and despite returning healthy within a short time, was never able to regain his job.
Has he pouted, caused trouble for the new quarterback, gone to twitter to rant, or tossed a hissy fit? No, no, no and no, according to all published reports. In fact, again according to all published reports, he has been helping the new quarterback – his former backup and the man who took his job from him – succeed, and has focused on helping the team win the championship.
I am sure Mr. Smith will get another starting job soon as a professional quarterback, but when his football career is over, I have the perfect job for him: ERISA plan fiduciary. I joke somewhat, but the reality is that his story, sketched in outline form above, is a perfect metaphor for the role of a fiduciary. Smith put the team ahead of his own interest, including financial (there’s a lot more money to be made as a starting quarterback, particularly one with a Super Bowl ring on his hand, than as a backup), and has focused on helping his teammates and employer succeed.
Isn’t that exactly what a plan fiduciary is supposed to do? A plan fiduciary is supposed to act prudently in the best interests of the plan participants and on behalf of the plan sponsor, who has placed him or her in that role. It requires, legally speaking, prudent decision making that is in the best interest of the fiduciary’s team – namely the participants and the plan – without regard to whether or not it is beneficial to the fiduciary. In fact, what could be a more accurate description of the prohibited transaction rules, than to say that they preclude a fiduciary from engaging in transactions to his or her own benefit, as opposed to transactions that benefit the plan and the participants? This is essentially the same thing as what Alex Smith has done in his workplace, which is avoid acting in ways that might benefit him at the expense of his teammates (such as undermining the new quarterback), conduct which would likely be seen as prohibited in the culture of his workplace.
Similarly, one can understand the structural conflict of interest rules in deciding claims for benefits as simply a codification of the idea that a plan or its fiduciary must not put its interests ahead of those of plan participants when deciding claims for benefits. Alex Smith, in the context of his work environment, has likewise elected to not favor his interests over those of his teammates, despite the fact that the interests of each conflict. He has, in essence, subjugated his interests – financial and otherwise – in being “the man” to his team’s conflicting interest in having him be a team player as they prepare for the biggest game of the year and, for many of his teammates, of their careers.
Smith has, in effect, demonstrated the exact obligation of putting others first, ahead of his own interest, that the law – both statutory and judicial – imposes on plan fiduciaries. One can also view it in reverse, as well. Imagine the chaos that would erupt in preparing for Sunday’s game if Smith instead took umbrage, undermined his coach or the starting quarterback, or otherwise acted out while his team tried to prepare for the Super Bowl. Not a good situation, one can be sure. Is this any different than the impact a fiduciary has when he puts his interests ahead of those of the plan’s participants? Think, for instance, of the circumstance where the fiduciaries of an ESOP are company officers, who, by dint of that role, may benefit from certain corporate actions that would not benefit, or might harm, employees participating in the ESOP. Acting in their own best interest and in disregard of the interest of the fiduciary’s team, namely the plan participants, would likewise create chaos, in the form of losses to plan participants and inevitable breach of fiduciary duty litigation. At the end of the day, both Smith in his realm and the fiduciary in his realm can make only one correct decision, which is to put the team, in the first instance, or the plan, in the second, first; anything else is a disaster waiting to happen.
So yes, Alex Smith – plan fiduciary. I like it.
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.
The Lessons of Fannie Mae, or How to Defeat the Moench Presumption
I have written at different times about the likely expansion, as we move forward, of fiduciary liability in ERISA litigation, despite the existence of a number of decisions and doctrines – such as the Moench presumption and the numerous decisions applying it – that seem to pose significant barriers to such liability being imposed. I have argued that, over time, lawyers for participants will develop effective tactics to get around those types of barriers, and will become more astute in their analysis of plan conduct and fiduciary behavior, which will have the effect of expanding fiduciary liability. I have also written, both here and elsewhere, that fiduciary exposure is going to increase dramatically once participants become more effective at avoiding these types of legal barriers that tend to defeat claims at the motion stage, and are instead able to move their claims into the fact intensive stages of summary judgment practice and trial. This is because court decisions over the past few years are suggesting that, once courts look under the hood at the actual operation of plans, they tend to find problems sufficient to allow the imposition of fiduciary liability. It is important to understand, in this regard, that the long running trend, which may now be turning, in favor of fiduciaries in high-stakes ERISA class action litigation was based more on legal rulings at the motion to dismiss stage, than on fact intensive inquiries by courts. In the excessive fee cases, for instance, fiduciaries made out quite well when the cases never made it out of motion practice, but have not made out as well when such cases have been tried.
The same phenomenon may be occurring in stock drop litigation under ERISA, given United States District Court Judge Paul Crotty’s decision this week denying, for the most part, the defendants’ motions to dismiss in the Fannie Mae ERISA stock drop action, which concerned the overwhelming collapse in the stock price of company shares held in an ESOP, along with a corresponding massive collapse in the value of the assets of the ESOP. The Court applied the Moench presumption, and found that, on the facts pled by the plaintiffs, it did not bar the claims. In essence, the Court found that the detailed facts pled by the plaintiff went far beyond the simple collapse in stock price that past cases, applying the presumption, have found is insufficient to sustain a stock drop case of this nature, and instead was sufficient to overcome the presumption of prudence that would have otherwise attached to the defendants’ decision to continue to hold company stock in the ESOP. In this, you see plaintiffs who have learned the lessons of the stock drop litigation to date and who now understand how to sustain such claims past the motion to dismiss stage, despite the power of the Moench presumption. You also see something else in the Court’s decision, which is a recognition of the key role that the actual facts will and should play in a stock drop case in deciding whether or not fiduciary liability exists, in contrast to allowing the presumption itself to dictate the outcome at the motion stage. The Court found that the detailed knowledge of the defendants pled by the plaintiffs would, as opposed to the allegations in cases that have failed to overcome the Moench presumption, be sufficient to maintain the action and overcome the presumption, stating that “if [Fannie Mae’s] alleged situation . . . is not sufficiently ‘dire’ to state a claim, it is not clear what would be sufficient.”
The Impact of Appraisals on the Potential Liability of ESOP Fiduciaries
This is an interesting story on a number of levels. The article tells the tale of the Department of Labor suing the fiduciaries of an ESOP for failing to properly scrutinize and challenge an appraiser’s report valuing company stock, which was used to support the price paid by the plan for company stock. The article illustrates a significant problem in ESOPs that hold private company stock, which is the need to have appraisers set the price of the stock for purposes of the ESOP’s operations. This becomes a closed circle in valuation, consisting of the plan fiduciaries and the appraiser; no one else really plays a role or is involved. This absence of sunlight creates an environment in which, if the plan and/or the fiduciaries have a motivation to do so, the valuation of the ESOP holdings – i.e., of the portion of the company owned by the employees – can be distorted. Even in the absence of a motivation to do so, this closed process, in which there is no competing public market valuing the holdings or other outside check on the valuation, can result in a distorted valuation out of sheer error. The only check on that potential problem are the fiduciary obligations of the ESOP’s fiduciaries, and the enforcement tools, whether of the DOL or participants, provided by breach of fiduciary duty litigation, which allows participants and/or the DOL to pursue fiduciaries for problems that crop up in this process.
One of the most important takeaways from the article, as well as from my own experience in ESOP litigation, is the fact that the fiduciaries of ESOP plans should not assume they can simply obtain a valuation, treat it is correct, rely on it, and be safe from potential personal liability for a fiduciary breach. As the article points out, the fiduciaries, even when they rely on an appraisal report, can violate their fiduciary obligations, and be liable for doing so, if they do not properly analyze and vet the appraisal. ESOP plan fiduciaries should not simply receive an appraisal, use the numbers in it to run the plan, and put the report in a drawer; they need to analyze it, quiz the appraiser, and test its numbers. Only these later steps – and only when done well - will give those fiduciaries any real protection from breach of fiduciary duty litigation involving the valuation of ESOP assets.
Plan Administrators and the Risk of Personal Liability: A Primer
Often when I chat with middle and upper level managers of mid-size and larger companies who have been assigned the job of administering their employer’s 401(k), ESOP or other benefit plans, I wonder if they are fully cognizant of the risks of personal liability they are taking on, and whether they have made sure that, through insurance or otherwise, they are protected against breach of fiduciary duty lawsuits. I particularly wonder this in those cases in which it appears that, while they are taking on the role, they are simultaneously not high enough up the corporate food chain to clearly have enough power to control for and avoid potential problems in the plans they have been charged with administering. This leaves those administrators in the situation of being exposed as fiduciaries to personal liability for problems in the plan, while not having enough power to avoid or cure the problems. As fiduciaries, of course, they risk personal liability for the plan’s losses, and, as this excellent piece here explains in detail, it’s a liability they will have trouble ever shaking, even if their employer goes belly up and leaves them sitting there holding the bag.
Lanfear, Home Depot and Moench
If you like an extended metaphor – and anyone who has read this blog for awhile knows I do – you should enjoy the Eleventh Circuit’s decision this week in Lanfear v Home Depot, adopting the Moench presumption and explaining exactly how it is to be applied in that circuit. What’s a better analogy than the hard working ant who stores food up for winter, to stand in for plan participants?
But the decision has other things going for it that are much more useful than a nice analogy. In particular, it nicely synthesizes the current state of the case law among those circuits that apply the presumption, and explains exactly how, under its synthesis, a stock drop case needs to be analyzed. In so doing, it also explains how to plead one if you want to get around the barriers that the Moench line of cases has created. Its as good and workable an explanation of a standard as any of the cases offer, and one that, frankly, seems to grant participants as fair a shot at recovering on a stock drop claim as they are likely to see. In my view, it nicely balances the conflicting interests and obligations that come into play when you allow, as occurs in stock drop cases, corporate insiders, securities laws and ERISA to intersect.
On the Other Hand, There May Not Be Any Structural Impediments to Breach of Fiduciary Duty Class Actions in the Sixth Circuit
An astute and clearly knowledgeable reader passed along the point that the recent Sixth Circuit decision in Pfeil v. State Street Bank implicitly rejected the structural barriers to bringing class actions over fiduciary breaches that had been created by the developing case law in other circuits and which were discussed in my recent article, Structural Impediments to Breach of Fiduciary Duty Claims. The Pfeil decision, in allowing the putative class action to proceed past the stage of motion practice, refused to allow a stock drop type case to be ended, prior to the full development of the facts needed for the plaintiffs’ case, by the early application of lowered – or merely altered and fact specific, depending on your point of view - fiduciary standards with regard to employer stock holdings in defined contribution plans, in circumstances in which the plaintiffs could not have, at the outset of the case, full and complete information about the fiduciary breaches at issue. In this way, the Sixth Circuit, deliberately or not, mitigated the difficulties for plaintiffs, identified in my article, that are caused by the intersection of the Iqbal and Twombly pleading standards with the limited information available to plaintiffs at the outset of the case.
Pfeil is interesting for a couple of other reasons as well. One is that, in some ways, it is not a pure stock drop claim, because the plan documents imposed an obligation on the fiduciary to divest under certain circumstances, and the question is whether the fiduciaries failed to comply with those plan terms, rather than simply being the question of whether the holding of the stock under the stock drop scenario in and of itself constituted a breach. Second, I have always felt that the stock drop case law reflected an attempt, implicitly at least and perhaps even subconsciously, to balance the obligations of a company under the securities laws and under ERISA when it comes to stock held in employee plans; Pfeil, by focusing on the liability of an outside fiduciary, does not have that dynamic. Three, I have written before about the evolutionary nature of plaintiffs’ class actions in ERISA, with the idea being that, over time and in response to early defeats – such as Hecker or the stock drop cases – the plaintiffs’ bar will craft more sophisticated and carefully targeted theories of liability, that will eventually pass muster. You see that here in Pfeil, in which a more nuanced approach to a fiduciary breach involving employer stock is able to leap a hurdle – a motion to dismiss – that earlier, less nuanced stock drop theories were not able to clear.
Structural Impediments to Breach of Fiduciary Duty Claims
As many of you know, I write a regular column on ERISA litigation for Aspen’s Journal of Pension Benefits, usually focused on whatever issue has my attention at the moment, although I try to balance that against what readers might have an interest in as well. When it came time to write my article for the publication’s winter issue, I was musing on what seemed to me to be a contradiction in a webinar I had listened in on, in which two prominent experts – who shall remain nameless to protect the innocent – discussed liabilities arising out of the operation of defined benefit and defined contribution plans. The contradiction resided in the fact that they discussed the range of problems and difficulties facing such plans, and the seemingly incongruous fact that, nonetheless, plan sponsors and fiduciaries were unlikely to face liability in a courtroom for their handling of such problems and difficulties. How could that be, I wondered? So I fleshed out an answer, which became this article, titled Structural Impediments to Breach of Fiduciary Duty Claims.
Although I didn’t spell it out explicitly, the article focuses on the barriers to prosecuting such claims as class actions, because that is the forum in which these issues and impediments really manifest themselves, although the issues apply as well to breach of fiduciary duty claims brought by individuals solely on their own behalf. I also used ESOP class actions as an exemplar, for several reasons, running from my own experience with litigation over them to my somewhat morbid fascination – as a lover of newspapers - with the legal morass that the ESOP of the Chicago Tribune (and other affiliated papers) tumbled into.