Extrapolating From Employer Stock Drop Cases to Other Types of Investment Losses

Susan Mangiero, who brings expertise in finance and investments to the discussion over the propriety of various investments in defined contribution plans and whether their presence in a plan can support a claim for breach of fiduciary duty, has written this interesting post on the issue I discussed here, namely the role of CFOs in running plans and different approaches to reducing the fiduciary liability risks of including employer stock as investment options. What she points out is something we litigators, with our backwards looking focus – what is litigation, after all, but a fight over something that already happened? – may not have noticed: namely, that the fights over employer stock are likely laying the ground work for future fights over other investment choices. This idea is interesting, in that breach of fiduciary duty litigation is, in fact, much like the old saying about people who accomplish something who are standing on the shoulders of the people who came before and tilled the ground. Fiduciary duty suits involve the courts confronting a new situation, such as employer stock drops, and creating rules to deal with them, and then later suits involving other similar fiduciary acts build upon, flow from, or distinguish the rules created in those earlier cases. In future cases involving other types of investments, such as the bond losses Susan references, one key factual distinction is going to come into play, which is that stock is unique to a certain extent in this context, because of the competing obligations imposed on company officers by the securities laws and ERISA, which has driven much of the development of the law of stock drop claims in the ERISA context (along with a concern that the class action bar should not be allowed to easily reframe securities class actions as ERISA breach of fiduciary duty cases, a concern that either flows directly from or fits very easily with the recognition that corporate officers are in a position of having to serve different masters with differing agendas, in the form of the securities laws and ERISA, when employer stock is held in a plan). The question for the next round of cases, such as disputes over bond losses, is how comparable those scenarios are to that conflict, as it only makes sense to extend the breach of fiduciary duty rules developed in the employer stock drop context to other types of losses to the extent that similar concerns are as present in those cases as they were in the employer stock drop context.