If you were going to read just one ERISA decision this year – or were starting from scratch, with a blank slate, and wanted to know the law governing breach of fiduciary duty claims under ERISA – I would read this one, Judge Holwell of the Southern District of New York’s opinion in Prudential Retirement Insurance and Annuity Co. v. State Street Bank and Trust Company. To set the stage in a nutshell, one can do worse than to borrow the opening paragraph of the Court’s opinion:

Plaintiff Prudential Retirement Insurance and Annuity Co. ("PRIAC"), brought this action pursuant to sections 409(a) and 502(a)(2) and (3) of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 ("ERISA") against defendant State Street Bank and Trust Company ("State Street") on October 1, 2007. PRIAC commenced this suit as an ERISA fiduciary on behalf of nearly 200 retirement plans (the "Plans") that invested, through PRIAC, in two collective bank trusts managed by State Street—the Government Credit Bond Fund ("GCBF") and the Intermediate Bond Fund ("IBF") (collectively, the "Bond Funds"). This Memorandum Opinion and Order follows a seven day bench trial on the issue of whether State Street breached its fiduciary duty to the Plans by (1) failing to manage the Bond Funds prudently, (2) failing to manage the Bond Funds solely in the interest of the Plans, and (3) failing adequately to diversify the Bond Funds’ assets.

In the process of awarding over 28 million dollars in damages to the plaintiff, the Court’s opinion roams in an orderly manner (can you roam in an orderly manner? I am not sure) across the most important issues in breach of fiduciary duty litigation, presenting detailed explanations of the relevant legal standards, including an excellent explanation and analysis of a fiduciary’s duty to act prudently, of the fiduciary’s duty to act with loyalty and of the same fiduciary’s duty to diversify. One particular issue that the opinion handles with great subtlety and depth concerns damages, with the Court presenting an excellent and thoughtful analysis of the burden of proof on this issue and of the relevant standards for calculating damages in this context. As the Court’s analysis reflects, this aspect of breach of fiduciary duty litigation is not fully fleshed out in the case law and is subject to real dispute, but the opinion addresses the issue masterfully.

One reason, by the way, that the damages issues are not fully developed in the case law at this point is the relative infrequency with which they arise in court, in comparison to the liability issues raised by a breach of fiduciary duty claim. There are a number of reasons for this. One is the trend in many circuits, post-Iqbal, towards deciding such claims at the motion to dismiss stage, resulting in many cases being decided at an early stage on liability in a context in which the legal issues governing damages never become relevant and never get aired. Another is the tendency of liability to be decided at the summary judgment stage, leading – more often than not – to settlement before the damages issue is ever presented to a court, if the summary judgment ruling finds a breach of fiduciary duty to have occurred. The combination of these events means that liability is far more written about by the courts than is damages in the context of ERISA breach of fiduciary duty litigation. As the opinion in Prudential makes clear, though, the subtleties of the damages determination become very important when the breach generates extremely large losses.