Breach of Fiduciary Duty Litigation: When the Best Defense is a Good Offense

Anyone who writes anything for a long time, as I have this blog, cannot help but end up with certain recurring themes. When it comes to the management of 401(k) and similar plans, one of those themes has been the importance of compliance and a careful decision making process by fiduciaries, an idea borne out of this litigator’s belief that, in the courtroom, the best defense is a good offense. In the context of breach of fiduciary duty litigation, this old chestnut should be understood as meaning that the best way to defend fiduciaries against such claims is to present a long history of active oversight of investment and other decisions by the defendant fiduciaries. Not only is that good for plan returns themselves in the long run in most instances, but it goes far towards insulating the fiduciaries themselves against being liable on claims for excessive fees, too much stock, or other alleged problems. Many claims of this nature will never even reach the point of really examining the specific conduct of particular fiduciaries, and are instead often decided at an earlier stage, such as motions to dismiss, on the basis of broader defense theories, such as the existence of presumptions in favor of the retention of employer stock in a plan, or “law and economics” type theories, such as in Hecker, that the marketplace shows that the decision making was fine, or on the application of ERISA safe harbors. But one cannot be sure that this will always be the case, and some breach of fiduciary duty litigation against fiduciaries will always get past these types of early suit Maginot lines, and in those instances the next best line of defense is to be able to demonstrate specific conduct by the defendant fiduciary that shows strong efforts being made to get the challenged issues - whether the expenses or fees of a plan, or something else - correct. If the plaintiff or class gets to that point of the case, being able to show that will more often than not determine who wins.

I write of this today, and it is on my mind, because of a press release that crossed my desk this week concerning the decision of a major defined contribution plan to use an index BrightScope created from its data to benchmark the performance of its target date retirement funds. The release notes that:

The BrightScope On Target Index will help [the plan sponsor] measure the performance and risk attributes of their target date portfolios while giving participants the ability to see how accurately their target date portfolio lives up to its stated goals.

At the end of the day, anything and everything plan sponsors can do to put accurate, transparent information in front of fiduciaries as part of their decision making process makes it harder for liability for breach of fiduciary duty to be imposed on those fiduciaries, and this is a perfect example of a plan sponsor doing so.