Follow the Numbers: the Evolution in ERISA Law

I have noted two things - well, many things, only two of which are relevant to this post - in the past, one the line that Marx was wrong about a lot of things, but he was right that everything is economics, and the second that we are beginning to see an incremental evolution in the law of ERISA to account for the reality that pensions - predominant at the time of many of the earlier, key court rulings on ERISA - have been supplanted by defined contribution plans. We saw the latter, for instance, in dramatic fashion in the Supreme Court’s ruling in LaRue, with the justices’ discussion of how rules applicable to pensions may not be equally applicable to 401(k) plans. The two ideas - that everything is at base driven by economic reality and the evolution of ERISA law - are linked, in a way driven home by this column in the Washington Post yesterday arguing for a new retirement structure based on the belief that the defined contribution approach simply is not going to work for most employees. The author noted “that when ERISA went on the books in 1974, employers were contributing 89 percent of the funds in pension plans, but by 2000, the employers' share of contributions had dropped to 49 percent.” With that change, as I have argued before, we are going to see a real shift in court rulings on ERISA as applied to defined contribution plans, with rulings providing more protection - or at least more recourse - to plan participants when the conduct of plan fiduciaries, particularly in the realm of investment choices, is challenged. When ERISA was only concerned with a world in which almost all retirement benefits were in the form of a pension, investment mistakes were, speaking generally and in sweepingly broad terms, the problem of the sponsor, as the employee was still promised his or her benefits; defined contribution plans invert this paradigm, making investment mistakes by fiduciaries the employees’ problem, and the law of ERISA will continue to shift to give those employees more redress than they have traditionally had in that situation under ERISA.