I joked in a tweet the other day that I could be busy for the rest of my professional career if I could just represent all the company officers and officials out there who don’t know they are ERISA fiduciaries until after they are sued for breach of fiduciary duty. The joke was in response to a comment by Chris Carosa of the highly valuable Fiduciary News website about the expanding liability exposure of these officers, whom he dubbed “accidental fiduciaries.”
And it is true that company officers who play roles in company benefit plans – often simply as an adjunct to their usual list of job responsibilities – are sitting ducks for fiduciary exposure. I have spent years extracting company officers, whose real job focus was elsewhere (marketing, or sales, or operations, or the like) from suits against them for breach of fiduciary duty related to company benefit plans that they were involved with simply as a sideline to their “real” responsibilities. At the end of the day, though, what such officers have to understand is that they face potentially significant, and substantial, personal liability under ERISA for problems in the operations of such plans and therefore, if for no other reason than self-preservation, they need to treat this part of their responsibilities as also part of their “real” responsibilities. It can cost them too much money if they don’t.
I was prompted to write about this today by this interview with Samuel Rosenthal, the author of a deskbook on the potential legal liabilities of directors and officers. There isn’t much doubt that the significant risk of ERISA exposure, and the details of how to avoid that risk, need to be in any such book. There are standards of conduct that officers can follow that will avoid liability in this area; actions in contemporaneously documenting that conduct that can mean the difference between winning and losing lawsuits against them over company benefit plans; and issues with insulating themselves prospectively from potential liability for breach of fiduciary duty under ERISA, such as through insurance or indemnification agreements.