We all know that in reality, most companies that sponsor retirement plans, including 401(k)s, for their employees bring in outside advisors to manage the plan. There are at least two primary reasons for this, the first being that most companies don’t have the expertise to select investments and otherwise run plans themselves, and hope to get better retirement plan performance by relying on outside expertise. The second is the hope that fiduciary exposures will be reduced by bringing in, and relying upon, an outside advisor who has superior expertise with regard to retirement investing. These two factors ideally work in conjunction to improve retirement accounts for plan participants; the fear of legal liability inspires a desire to bring in experts, who in turn can do a better job in selecting investments than the company could on its own. In this way, we see the operation of a perfectly selected legal rule, and we see the important role that fiduciary liability rules play in the ERISA scheme; the exposure does not simply exist to support litigation after the fact, but also as a motivating force that improves plan performance on a day in, day out basis, by driving plan sponsors towards reliance on expertise that will both protect them and improve performance. It is possible, to some extent, to view almost all breach of fiduciary duty litigation as examples of failures in this dynamic. For instance, what are claims that companies breached their fiduciary obligations by excessively including company stock in a plan but instances in which a company, insufficiently afraid of its potential liability for breach of fiduciary duties, failed to either diversify investments on its own or bring in sufficient outside expertise to allow it to do so?

A good example of this dynamic at work can be seen in Judge Young’s just released ruling out of the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts in Bunch v. W.R. Grace, in which the court found that the company was insulated from breach of fiduciary duty claims with regard to the retention and sale of company stock in one of its retirement funds by the company’s retention of and reliance on an outside investment manager to make those decisions. The court found that the investment manager had properly acquitted itself with regard to those issues, and therefore the company could not be liable on claims that it had breached its fiduciary duties by selecting and relying upon that advisor. The court explained that If the investment manager “did not commit a breach, then [the company] did not fail in the discharge of its duty to select and monitor” the manager.

But you can take that analysis one step further. The interesting aspect in this regard of the ruling in Bunch is that the company was absolved of liability by its reliance on an outside expert because the outside expert did not itself breach any fiduciary obligations by the actions it took and decisions it made in that role. But what if the advisor had violated fiduciary obligations in its handling of its delegated duties? What then of the company’s attempt to protect itself by retaining and relying upon an outside expert? The answer in general is that the company can probably still successfully defend itself against claims for breach of fiduciary duty, so long as it can show that its own steps in selecting and monitoring the outside advisor were prudent, even if the chosen advisor turned out, in hindsight, to be the wrong choice of advisor or investment manager. And in that lies the two real teachings of Bunch. First, that companies can protect themselves from fiduciary liability by selecting and delegating to an outside expert and, second, companies have to pursue that old cliche – best practices – in making that delegation if they really want to avail themselves of the protection that bringing in outside expertise can provide. By abiding by the second teaching, they should be protected even if the advisor they selected thereafter, unlike the advisors relied upon by W.R. Grace in the Bunch case, falls down on the job.