Why You Can Never Generalize When Considering Whether Brokers Are Plan Fiduciaries

A couple of loyal blog readers have commented that I have veered off a good bit on digressions this past couple weeks, and I can’t deny it - maybe it’s a lawyer’s version of a summer fling. Anyway, today I return to a central focus of this blog, ERISA and, in particular today, investment advisors and their potential liability as fiduciaries. This law firm newsletter, passed on by the Workplace Prof, has a nice discussion of the question of when a broker or other investment advisor to a defined contribution plan (and I suppose a defined benefit plan as well) crosses the line, by rendering professional services to the plan, into the dangerous realm of being deemed a fiduciary. The Prof highlights the following discussion from the newsletter:  

[T]here are lawsuits and NASD arbitrations claiming that brokers have become ERISA fiduciaries. They are, in the main, based on allegations that the brokers gave investment advice. The cases are usually filed by the plan sponsor or its fiduciaries (e.g., the responsible officers, the committee or the trustee) to recover investment losses. Some of those cases are won by the plans and others are won by the brokers. The legal issue is whether the broker made investment recommendations that rose to the level of ERISA-defined “investment advice,” which is different than either the securities law definition or the conversational meaning of those words. Stated slightly differently, ERISA did not make every broker a fiduciary, nor did it turn every investment recommendation into fiduciary advice. Instead, ERISA and the DOL regulations crafted a specific and limited definition of fiduciary investment advice.

This is a nice summary of the point addressed in the newsletter, but as one of my law school professors liked to say whenever someone stopped after the first part of a holding, you need to read on. When you go the newsletter itself, you find that the summary really reflects simply the holding under a particular, and detailed, set of facts from one particular case. And that is exactly as it should be. The determination of whether a particular broker or other financial advisor to a plan became a fiduciary as a result of investment advice rendered to the plan is highly fact specific, and should turn on exactly what events occurred in any one particular case. As a result, one neither can nor should jump to any particular conclusion about the fiduciary status - and accompanying potential exposure - of any particular broker or advisor (or of brokers or advisors as a class) from the newsletter, the case discussed in the newsletter, or the Prof’s post. Instead, it is important to analyze the status of a particular broker on the basis of the exact role played by that particular broker or advisor with regard to a particular plan.