The Seventh Circuit’s opinion in Hecker v Deere is interesting in a number of ways, and on a number of levels. I won’t detail the facts of the case in depth here, but the case turns on the question of the plan sponsor’s and service providers’ potential fiduciary liability for allegedly high fees in the mutual funds offered in a 401(k) plan and the limited degree of disclosure provided to participants about the fees. You can find the case itself here, and for those of you who don’t have an interest – or possibly the time – in reading the entire 33 page opinion, a readers digest overview of the case itself right here. It is, though, a well-written, fluid, almost elegant opinion, an easy read if you care to take the time.

Perhaps most notable, from an overview perspective, is the fact that the Seventh Circuit simultaneously gave the scope of protection granted to fiduciaries by Section 404(c) pretty much as broad an interpretation as possible, and the scope of fiduciary obligations with regard to investment selection and fee disclosure as narrow a one as possible. Its an interesting double whammy. I am not saying its right or wrong (although Ryan Alfred at BrightScope has made a detailed argument that the court is off base in reading the protections of section 404(c) so broadly), but it is certainly a very interesting framework. If you think of it as a Ven diagram, with one circle the world of problems that can arise with mutual funds and 401(k) plans, and the other the extent of fiduciary obligations in the view of the Seventh Circuit, the overlap is smaller than one would have anticipated.

Then there is the question of the court’s view of the fiduciaries’ obligations of disclosure with regard to fees in the plan, finding that the statute and the regulations did not require more disclosure than was made, and thus there was no breach in failing to disclose more information about the fee structure. Paul Secunda in his piece on the intersection of preemption and the statute’s limited remedies (in which he emphasizes how those two aspects of ERISA can result in harms that cannot be remedied) discusses what he views as two competing ideological camps with regard to the interpretation of ERISA, literalists and remedialists. I don’t fully agree with this particular bicameral division of the world, but it offers a handy frame of reference for understanding the Seventh Circuit’s ruling: the panel took a truly literalist approach to the question of disclosure, finding that what the statute and regulations don’t expressly require, is not required. This seems, I have to say, hard to square with the idea that a fiduciary’s obligations run to a high level of care, which would seem to raise the question of whether a fiduciary has more obligations than simply those that are required by express mandates, but the panel does not squarely address that question.

This leads into a central point that animates the case, in my opinion, and which can be summed up in two famous words: caveat emptor, at least if you are the plan participant. The court finds that the mutual funds in the plan are numerous and also sold to the public as a whole, and therefore the fees are, in some broad sense, fair and appropriate, as they are what the public marketplace as a whole is willing to bear. But is the public pricing as a whole a fair determination of whether fees charged within a 401(k) plan are excessive or not? Isn’t this just using the lowest common denominator to make this call? After all, a public buyer does not have the leverage or the expertise – at least in theory – that a plan sponsor brings to negotiating investment options and their fees. Part of the problem in analyzing this question is that the district court, and now the appeals court, resolved the case on a motion to dismiss, where argument and supposition play too much of a role and factual development of these types of questions have not occurred. Deciding whether the fees are excessive on an actual factual record may suggest an entirely different answer than just the assumption that the market as a whole has acquiesced in the pricing, so therefore it was not excessive when a plan sponsor signed off on it. But for a plan participant, the ruling clearly means one thing: it is your responsibility to engage in the same full due diligence that you would have to pursue if you just purchased the mutual fund from a 1-800 number, and you are not entitled to rely on the plan’s fiduciaries to have done that for you.