In re Lehman

I have been wanting to post about the decision early last month in In re Lehman Brothers ERISA Litigation, in which the Southern District of New York dismissed ERISA stock drop claims against a number of officers and a named fiduciary, but, as it turns out, I have been too busy using the decision for my own purposes in my own practice to find time to post about it. Well, all that changes today, driven in part by this client advisory memorandum from Shearman & Sterling on the decision, which provides an excellent overview of the decision. The interesting thing to me about the memo, and its interaction with the decision itself, is the memo’s focus on the named fiduciary being exonerated on the basis of the famous - or infamous, depending on which side of the bar you sit on - Moench presumption. There is much to be said about the Moench presumption, and when it is appropriate to apply it or not apply it, including both the question of whether this single Third Circuit decision should have been allowed to morph into the de facto standard applied across the board in many circuits and district courts to an often somewhat disparate series of factual scenarios, and the issue of whether its sweeping acceptance should be understood as reflecting a judicial predisposition against allowing ERISA to be turned into an easier to plead version of securities class action litigation. I am not going to talk about all of that today, and neither did the Shearman & Sterling memo. What I am going to talk about is a particular point in the Lehman Brothers decision that is less the focus of the Shearman & Sterling memo, but, in many ways, of more significance to the day in, day out practice of handling disputes over ERISA plans, which is the status of company officers and directors. If there has been one consistent bone of contention between defense lawyers and lawyers who represent participants - whether individually or as a class - it has been the question of whether lumping in the directors and officers of the company sponsoring a plan as defendants, based solely on that capacity (or, more often, that capacity with just a little window dressing added on top) is appropriate. Lehman Brothers answers that in an authoritative voice, pointing out that such directors and officers do not become fiduciaries solely by means of that status, and further cannot be sued as fiduciaries based on the additional allegation that they had some authority to select those who made plan decisions unless they are being sued for mistakes stemming directly from taking action in that regard. Too often, lawsuits treat the directors and officers as additional deep pockets who should be named as defendants, but as Lehman Brothers points out, such individuals do not belong in the case unless they actually exercised operative control over an aspect of the plan that allegedly went awry and are being sued for that exact aspect of the plan’s operations.