ERISA, Investment Strategies and the Duty to Investigate

ERISA litigation, particularly in the area of retirement benefits, is one of those areas of the law that can be particularly complicated because both the governing body of law and the underlying fact pattern to which it is applied can be tremendously complex. Take, for instance, the example of disputes over whether the fiduciaries of a retirement plan erred in selecting investments for the fund. This example, as you have probably guessed, is not chosen at random, but instead because Susan Mangiero has this interesting post here on a particular equity investment strategy involving short selling, and on the question of whether such an investment strategy by a retirement fund would be prudent or instead a breach of fiduciary obligations. The strategy itself is relatively complicated, at least to anyone approaching it from outside the investment world, and so too is the question of how it compares to other investment tools the fund could have selected. Fortunately for those of us who litigate such questions, the rules of evidence allow those questions to be answered in court by the use of experts who actually know these points inside and out and can comment on them in depth. These underlying factual details are ones that must be considered in passing on whether a fiduciary breach has occurred before even getting to the question of how a particular investment strategy fits within the fiduciary obligations imposed by ERISA.

After mastering the details of the investment strategy at issue, one then still has to evaluate whether its use was a breach of fiduciary duty under the law of ERISA. I am quoted in Susan’s post on the fact that this in turn depends heavily not so much on whether the investment strategy itself was sound, but more on whether the approach taken by the fiduciaries to selecting that investment strategy was sound. As Susan discusses in her post, this in turn depends very much on whether the fiduciaries sought sufficient outside expertise on the particular type of investment strategy at issue to allow a third party looking in on the decision making after the fact - such as a judge or a jury - to say that the fiduciaries fully considered the merits of the particular type of investment in question before investing and thus did not breach their fiduciary obligations, even if the investment went south.

What struck me about this duty to investigate, for lack of a better phrasing, is that the obligations of the fiduciaries in this regard in many ways mimic the approach of the ERISA litigator handed a case after the fact involving the particular investment strategy and the question of whether its use was a breach of fiduciary duties: the ERISA litigator at that point brings in independent experts to advise on the appropriateness relative to the market of using that particular investment strategy, and bases a defense to a large extent on testimony from such experts that the investment strategy was sound. The fiduciaries themselves, however, could have effectively deflected claims of breach of fiduciary obligation in selecting the investment strategy in the first place by doing the same thing before ever making the investment; retaining outside experts to render this opinion prior to making the investment provides a strong defense against claims that the fiduciaries breached their obligations by making the investment. Indeed, contemporaneous reliance on outside, independent expertise to evaluate investment strategies is perhaps the best steps a retirement plan can make to head off potential claims of breach of fiduciary duty involving the selection of investments.

In this way, the question for fiduciaries and the plans they serve becomes as much as anything one of pay me now, or pay me later. They can avoid problems by paying for independent advice and investigation before making investments, or they can pay for the same advice later in defending themselves if they are sued. As a litigator, obviously, I am happy to retain experts and resolve the problem after the fact; as a counselor, though, I would always recommend the preemptive approach of obtaining such expertise before selecting a particular investment strategy.
Written By:Steve Shechter On November 1, 2007 4:11 PM

Is not the duty to investigate proportional to the extent to which the investemnt offerings in the 401 (k) are beyound the traditional spectrum of risk tolerances commonly avialable to participants? In otherwords, is this not a risk that is greater for those "outside the box"?

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