Fiduciary Duty

Seems like we’ve written this before, but this time we (actually a federal district court) really means it:  the court in Lee v. Verizon granted last Friday Verizon’s motion to dismiss a class action lawsuit challenging its transfer in late 2012 of $7.5 billion of pension liabilities to Prudential (Lee v. Verizon, N.D.

On March 19, the Eighth Circuit addressed a long-running case involving alleged fiduciary duty breaches in the administration of 401(k) plans. (Tussey v. ABB, Inc.)  Although the Eighth Circuit emphasized that courts owe deference to choices entrusted by plan documents to fiduciary discretion – and reversed one finding of liability partly on that basis – the decision affirmed a finding that plan fiduciaries in this case are liable for $13.4 million for failing to monitor and assess the reasonableness of the plan recordkeeper’s compensation from revenue sharing.

Tussey was among a wave of plan expense cases filed in 2006; a 16-day trial occurred in 2010.  Two years later, the trial court ruled that:

  • The plan’s fiduciaries breached their responsibilities with respect to 401(k) plan fees paid to the plan’s recordkeeper, Fidelity, by (i) failing to monitor the level of fees (particularly fees from revenue sharing); (ii) failing to negotiate rebates from Fidelity or the plan’s investment funds; and (iii) failing to select the least expensive share class for certain funds.  The court noted that, as a result of the compensation that Fidelity received from the 401(k) plan (mostly through revenue sharing from mutual funds), Fidelity was able to provide discounts to ABB for other services, such as health plan administration;
  • The fiduciaries also imprudently replaced a Vanguard mutual fund with Fidelity-managed target date funds; and
  • Fidelity improperly failed to allocate to the plans the interest earned by brief deposits of contributions and disbursements going to or from investment options (“float”).

The trial court assessed the fiduciaries’ liability to the plans at more than $35 million, ruled that Fidelity owned $1.7 million related to float, and held both the fiduciaries and Fidelity liable for more than $13 million in attorneys’ fees and costs.

The appellate court reversed the trial court in part, remanding the target date fund ruling for reconsideration and exonerating Fidelity with regard to float. But the Eighth Circuit affirmed the $13.4 million judgment against the fiduciaries for failing to ensure that the recordkeeper’s revenue-sharing income was not unreasonable and not subsidizing the provision of other Fidelity services to ABB.
Continue Reading Appellate Court Affirms Fiduciaries’ Liability for Failure to Monitor Revenue Sharing Paid to Recordkeeper

Earlier today, a federal district court granted Verizon’s motion to dismiss a class action lawsuit challenging its recent transfer of $7.5 billion of pension liabilities to Prudential (Lee v. Verizon, N.D. Tex.).  The court concluded that plaintiffs had failed to state a claim that the transaction violated ERISA’s disclosure and fiduciary obligations.  The

Employees and retirees frequently receive information relating to benefits – eligibility to participate, coverage for certain medical treatment, enrollment status, anticipated benefits at retirement, and so forth.  Sometimes that information appears in formal documents published by named plan fiduciaries.  Other times it comes in response to one-off inquiries made to persons working in the HR department or employed by a third-party administrator.  A recent Fifth Circuit decision highlights the risk posed by erroneous information:  fiduciaries’ possible liability for extra-contractual relief that will make a misinformed plaintiff “whole.”
Continue Reading Providing Erroneous Information to Participants May Expose Plan Fiduciaries to Liability for “Make Whole” Relief

The Fourth Circuit recently held that participants in a defined benefit plan lacked standing under Article III of the United States Constitution to challenge investment decisions made by the plan’s fiduciaries.  David v. Alphin, No. 11-2181 (4th Cir. Jan. 14, 2013).  The plan at issue was overfunded and the participants had not failed to receive any benefit to which they were entitled under the plan.  The Fourth Circuit held that the plaintiffs had not experienced an injury that would be redressed by a favorable outcome in the litigation.  Without such an injury, the plaintiffs did not have constitutional standing under Article III.
Continue Reading Participants Lack Standing to Challenge Defined Benefit Plan Investment Decisions

Earlier today, a federal district judge rejected an attempt by two Verizon retirees to block the $7.5 billion transfer of pension liabilities to Prudential (Lee v. Verizon, N.D. Tex.).  The court denied plaintiffs’ request for a temporary restraining order or preliminary injunction, finding that the plaintiffs did not establish a substantial likelihood of success on their claims that the transaction would violate ERISA.
Continue Reading Verizon May Proceed with $7.5 Billion Pension Settlement, Court Rules

Courts continue to apply the fiduciary exception to the attorney-client privilege to the fiduciaries of ERISA-governed plans.  Under the fiduciary exception, plan participants and the Secretary of Labor can obtain testimony or documents relating to confidential communications between plan fiduciaries and their lawyers regarding plan administration.

Although the Third Circuit has ruled that the fiduciary