Ten Ways to Stay Out of Trouble

I talk a lot on these electronic pages about compliance. Its really, from my perspective as a litigator, an ERISA lawyer’s take on the old sports saw that the best defense is a good offense. I often say that, in this economy and this investment market, any problems in the operations of a plan will become grist for a lawsuit, including seemingly minor things that participants - and class action lawyers - would have simply ignored in years past while the markets were only going up, even if they suppressed returns slightly. That’s not the case when the markets take a precipitous fall, and when many participants are finding themselves out of work or forced into retirement with substantially reduced account balances. And so compliance becomes doubly important, as the best defense to the risk posed by litigation. It may or may not prevent getting sued, but strong compliance makes for a strong defense, and for a substantial reduction in the risk of getting hit for a large judgment or settlement.

This is a long lead in to this article here, on ten principles the author identified from a major ERISA conference for protecting plan sponsors and fiduciaries from liability and litigation exposures. They are very much of a piece with the idea of pro-actively protecting oneself by means of compliance. For instance, one of them has to do with watching the fees in investment options, something I have noted frequently in posts addressing how plan sponsors should position themselves going forward in the face of the glut of excessive fee claims.

One point in the article on which I do break ranks a bit from the author is in the tenth point, which discusses the importance of hiring an ERISA lawyer with litigation skills when sued, rather than just a litigator with strong litigation skills. I don’t disagree with the point about needing to hire a lawyer with significant ERISA knowledge, and not just a good litigator who hopes to learn about the subject. That latter option is not a good bet. Most areas of the law can be mastered just fine by a high quality litigator asked to handle a case, but not this one. The courts themselves are in so much disagreement from one circuit to the next - and often from one district court judge to the next in the same circuit - over various issues, and ERISA issues often raise so many subtle points, that it is just not an area that can be well litigated by someone without substantive knowledge, honed over years, of ERISA.

That said, though, it isn’t enough to just hire a good litigator who knows his or her way around ERISA. What you need is a trial lawyer, with a demonstrated record of trying and winning cases before both judges and juries, who is substantively steeped in the law of ERISA. You need it if the case ever gets tried, obviously. But more importantly, you need a trial lawyer leading your team to get the best result period, whether that is by settlement or a resolution on the papers at some point along the way. You can only fight fire with fire in a courtroom, and if the other side is fronted by experienced trial lawyers, you will be at a disadvantage every step of the way - from discovery to settlement discussions to motion practice - if you aren’t as well, in litigating against them. Conversely, if the other side’s team isn’t fronted by an experienced trial lawyer, having your team led by one will put them at a disadvantage, and will substantially increase the odds of getting a result that favors your side.

So therein lies the rub. An ERISA trial lawyer is what you need. But in this day and age, in which so few lawyers try cases anymore - or are trained to do it since most cases they will see settle or head off to arbitration - that’s not the easiest thing to find, although I do know at least one.