One recurring problem in ERISA litigation is the tendency of courts to address and decide novel and complex issues on motions to dismiss, rather than after allowing full development of the factual record. New and original breach of fiduciary duty theories can look entirely different when considered by courts on the full record than they appear when analyzed solely on the pleadings, at the motion to dismiss stage. The excessive fee cases presented this dynamic perfectly, with early decisions, such as Hecker v. Deere, that were resolved on motions to dismiss appearing, in hindsight, to be incorrect in comparison to later decisions, either made after a full factual record was developed, such as in Tibble, or on motions to dismiss after years of litigation had established a broader and more general understanding of the issues raised by those types of claims. One of the underlying themes of my article, “Retreat from the High Water Mark,” was that the early decision on the excessive fee theory in Hecker was flawed, precisely because the court did not have before it a detailed, factual understanding of the nature of the claim and of the fee structure. As a result, the court, by deciding such a novel theory at the motion to dismiss stage, had to assume facts about the mutual fund marketplace and 401(k) plans that were not necessarily true.
My biggest criticism of the Moench presumption, more than its effort to strike a balance between fiduciary obligations under ERISA and securities law obligations imposed on public companies and their officers, is the creation and application of the presumption at the motion to dismiss stage, rather than waiting to see what the evidence shows as to whether corporate insiders underserved the interests of participants when serving as the fiduciary for company stock plans. Just as the history of excessive fee litigation shows, and as I discussed in “Retreat from the High Water Mark,” it is much easier to more accurately determine whether fiduciary obligations are breached when the facts are all before the court, rather than by means of the assumptions, surmise and allegations that can animate decision making in such complex and novel areas at the motion to dismiss stage. The Moench presumption effectively precludes stock drop claims under ERISA, and effectively establishes the governing rule of law for fiduciaries of employer stock plans. The rule and its application may be right, or it may be wrong, but it would be a lot easier to determine that by considering the obligations as fiduciaries of corporate insiders in light of the true facts of their conduct, which the application of the presumption at the motion to dismiss stage – and in fact even its creation without and before any court has ever fully developed and analyzed the facts of such a claim – precludes.
I was thinking of this because Mitchell Shames, who is now an independent fiduciary at Harrison Fiduciary and before that was the long time general counsel for State Street Global Advisors (including during the time that the First Circuit blessed their structure for handling exactly these types of conflicts, in Bunch v. W.R. Grace), has pointed out that corporate insiders serving as fiduciaries in this context do actually face conflicts, and not just in theory. Mitchell has written an excellent post detailing, from firsthand knowledge, the conflicts faced by corporate insiders who are tasked with making investment decisions of this kind for plan participants.
Mitchell writes that when a CEO appoints insiders to make these types of decisions:
everyone takes notice. While CEO lieutenants may be adept at various technical and managerial skills, often, intense loyalty to the CEO is a common attribute. (Dissidents typically do not rise to the C-suite).
This loyalty often includes a precise understanding of the CEO’s goals and priorities with respect to corporate strategy and is often rewarded by promotions, committee appointments, raises, bonuses, stock options and other assorted perks. The senior managers are properly incentivized to advance the vision of the CEO.
Upon assuming a spot on a fiduciary committee, however, these same senior managers are required to shed the very skills that contributed to their corporate rise. When making decisions on behalf of the plans, they are supposed to set aside any allegiance to the CEO, forget about the stock options they may have patiently accumulated over the years, and make decisions irrespective of an impact on corporate earnings.
The potential for conflicts of interest are real; they are not the abstract musings of lawyers and academics. Many transactions squarely put the corporation and the plan on opposite sides, with competing goals.
I was struck, in regards to my concerns about the limitations imposed by “motion to dismiss decision making” and their relationship to the Moench presumption itself, by Mitch’s conclusion, in which he asked: "So, can these corporate offices so deftly switch hats as ERISA lawyers assume? Are fiduciary committee members so professional, so trustworthy, so ethical, that they are immune to the human impulses which gave rise to [the principle that]: ‘No one can serve two masters’?"
One wonders whether the Moench presumption would seem to fairly balance the needs of sponsors and participants if it was considered only after a full factual record was created that might show this type of problem with conflicts faced by the fiduciaries. Would the rule seem to make as much sense in that light as it does when a court is faced with only the allegations of a complaint? Would a court reach a different conclusion than at the motion to dismiss stage on this issue if the judge was considering this type of claim after hearing a senior corporate officer who had served as the fiduciary testify as to his understanding of his obligations, conflicts, and the need to balance them?
We can’t know this definitively. What we do know, though, is that it would certainly be a lot better to decide what the legal rule governing stock drop cases should be by first learning all the relevant facts, and then creating the rule, rather than by doing it in reverse (which is essentially where we are right now, with the Moench presumption applied by courts at the pleading stage).