Is a motion to dismiss a good tool for disposing of major breach of fiduciary duty lawsuits? In essence, should it be treated as a mini-summary judgment proceeding, that tests the sufficiency of the case’s theories against, not the detailed facts of a specific case, but instead against the world as a whole as understood by the court? Or are these cases instead ones that are better decided by – and both litigants and the development of the case law better served by – a decision on the actual factual merits of a case, after drilling down into the conduct in question?

The former scenario is, in essence, the route taken by the court in Hecker, and Kevin LaCroix provides another example in his post yesterday, on the dismissal of the breach of fiduciary duty lawsuit in the Huntington Bancshares ERISA litigation. What happened in both cases is, in a nutshell, the court comparing the allegations of fiduciary errors to the market as a whole, finding that what took place was not inconsistent with what was occurring in the broader market (in the case of Hecker, that being the pricing on mutual funds in a plan, and in the case of Huntington, that being the stock losses in the plan), and that therefore, essentially by definition, the plan fiduciaries could not have fallen below the standard of care imposed on them. I can understood the arguments on both sides, and particularly those in support of this approach. A fiduciary is charged with acting with the skill and care of a prudent person in that position, and one can argue that this standard was not breached if the plan losses were consistent with what occurred across the market and with regard to others similarly situated; after all, if all the other investment managers took the same beating, then the plan’s fiduciaries, by definition, were acting like all others with expertise in the area when they likewise took the same pummeling. Plus, of course, conducting extensive class action litigation to further analyze what the market itself seems to be telling us – that the fiduciaries were acting like all other prudent investors since all got clobbered to the same extent – is a tremendous drain on the defendant’s resources. Then you add on top of that the realpolitik of the situations, which is that we know that most cases of these types settle after expensive litigation if they survive the motion to dismiss stage and possibly the summary judgment stage, so in many ways these procedural stages dictate the outcome, and there will never actually be a trial to allow a full drilling down into the actual facts of fiduciary conduct which can serve as the basis for a decision; delaying the day of reckoning from the motion to dismiss stage to the summary judgment stage, in this way of thinking, doesn’t really change that, as there will undoubtedly be factual disputes at the summary judgment stage that will preclude a fact based decision and instead any decision at that stage will, like the motion to dismiss rulings, likewise be based on the types of broader legal theories addressed by the courts in the motions to dismiss in these types of cases.

But on the other hand, is it really safe or fair to just assume that fiduciaries have lived up to their obligations, simply from the existence of broader market indicia? I am thinking in particular of two sets of data that crossed my desk recently, the first courtesy of 401(k) blogger Josh Itzoe and the second courtesy of the guys at BrightScope, who slice and dice the data on this field for fun and profit. In this post, Josh points out survey results showing that a large number of plan sponsors don’t really have a structure in place for operating 401(k) plans at a high level, while this chart here, passed along by BrightScope and based on its data, shows the wide range of fees that plans assume in their 401(k)s. This information reflects the tremendous diversity one can find in operating talent, execution, fees and other aspects of a plan that can seriously impact performance. Under those circumstances, is it really appropriate to stop the analysis of fiduciary conduct at the motion to dismiss stage, before investigating the aspects of a particular plan, just because the market as a whole lines up in a reasonably consistent manner with the performance of or fees in a particular plan? Market performance may be down, or fees across the market may line up with those in a plan, but this doesn’t by definition mean that a plan sponsor is living up to its obligations without further analysis. Behind those market numbers and the relationship of a particular plan’s performance to those numbers, may very well be a fiduciary whose operational structures and/or charges to plan participants fall below what other fiduciaries are doing; I am not sure it is fair to allow the muck of a bad market to provide cover for that.