So you’re an amateur fiduciary, nominally in charge of a company’s pension plan or 401(k) plan but generally relying on your outside vendors and service providers for substantive advice and decision making, and you get sued for breach of fiduciary duty because of losses resulting from the investment advice you received from them. So what’s the first thing you do? File third party actions for contribution or indemnity against the outside vendors on the theory they were fiduciaries as well and must reimburse you for any loss you are held responsible for because of your role as a fiduciary? Well, not necessarily in Massachusetts, where at least one judge has now concluded, on an issue that has been treated differently in different courts, that ERISA did not expressly incorporate such rights as against other fiduciaries, and so therefore they do not exist. The case is Charters v. John Hancock, and here is a nice article on it, here is nice post elsewhere on it, and here is the decision itself.

The central issue of the case and of the court’s reasoning is presented well in the article, where the court’s reasoning is explained as follows:

Under the indemnification and contribution principle, when one person is subject to liability because of another person’s action, the second person has to make good the loss, and contribution requires the loss to be distributed among several liable fiduciaries. In his ruling, Groton noted that federal appellate courts are divided on the issue of whether ERISA permits indemnification and contribution, but said Groton was siding with those courts that have found that courts should not imply statutory remedies, which are not allowed under ERISA.

"Here neither party disputes that ERISA does not explicitly provide for claims of contribution and indemnification among co-fiduciaries. Allowing fiduciaries who have breached their duty to resort to contribution and indemnification to recover from co-fiduciaries is not ‘of central concern’ to ERISA," Groton asserted.

There is a lot of room for argument on both sides of this issue, as to whether a fiduciary should have or does have such a claim against another fiduciary, and I can certainly see both sides of it, or argue either side of it. It is more of a policy issue as to how ERISA should be applied, than it is a jurisprudence question of understanding and interpreting the statute, and is one that the entire system would benefit from a simple declaration one way or the other, by Congress or the Supreme Court, as to what the rule shall be on this going forward.

In the Charters case itself, it is worth noting, and important to practitioners to recognize, that the court was confronted by this issue in a case where the defendant was using indemnification as a counterclaim to ward off a breach of fiduciary duty claim against it by a trustee by trying to pass the liability back to the trustee; it may well be that the court would have reached a different conclusion if presented with a more traditional contribution/indemnification scenario, where the defendant fiduciary was not trying to use the doctrines offensively, but instead simply to spread the liability owed to the plaintiff as a result of fiduciary breaches among all fiduciaries who may have participated in the breach.

Finally, although it seems to be the court’s rejection of the contribution and indemnity doctrines as applicable under ERISA that has caught the attention of observers, of at least equal interest is the court’s further discussion of a particularly timely issue, which is the defendant’s status as a fiduciary and possible breach of fiduciary duty based on failure to disclose fees fully and on receiving “revenue sharing payments in the form of 12b-1 and sub-transfer agency fees from
the funds in which it invested on the Plan’s behalf.” The court provides a nice analysis of these issues, making the case a good starting point for analyzing them with regard to the ever growing number of such cases being filed.