On the Ambiguous Nature of Fiduciary Status

It is actually amazing, if you really step back and think it through, the amount of energy and analysis that goes into the question of determining who is, and who is not, a fiduciary under ERISA in various scenarios. There is a reason for this, though, and it is that acquiring – or being assigned – the status of fiduciary when the assets or operations of an ERISA governed plan are at issue can be highly fact dependent, and someone who is a fiduciary in one context may not be one in another. The Department of Labor has tried, through rulemaking, to simultaneously expand and make more consistent who is a fiduciary and when, a project I have expressed some doubts about both in speaking engagements and in a recent article in the Journal of Pension benefits. The issue becomes even more complicated, though, if and when you try to coordinate that issue under ERISA with similar, but not identical, obligations imposed by the SEC, a point addressed in detail in this article here, which emphasizes that the different roles and obligations of advisors and consultants operating in one sphere as opposed to those operating in the other argue against trying to create one consistent, overriding fiduciary definition applicable in both spheres. As a wit once noted, a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, and I am not sure that isn’t the case here: rather than trying to shoehorn two different regulatory and legal regimes into one supposedly consistent fiduciary definition, it may make at least as much sense to allow different fiduciary standards to apply to different statutory bodies of law.