by Nancy Ross and Chris Scheithauer
On April 11, 2011, a divided Seventh Circuit panel reversed summary judgment in favor of Kraft Foods Global, Inc. in a class action ERISA breach of fiduciary duty case involving “excessive fees” claims in connection with Kraft’s 401(k) plan. The main take away from the decision is that fiduciaries must continue to be diligent and thoroughly consider plan administration issues and document why decisions were made or not made or practices followed, even on decisions and practices once thought to be routine or common industry standards. By following such a prudent practice, fiduciaries will substantially increase their ability to defend challenges concerning fiduciary conduct.
In Kraft, plaintiffs alleged three primary claims considered on appeal: that the use of a unitized company stock fund as an investment option was improper; that the plan’s recordkeeping fees were too high and imprudently monitored; and that the fiduciaries imprudently allowed the plan trustee to retain interest income from “float.”
In a 2-1 decision, the panel ruled that the plaintiffs could proceed to trial on their theory that the unitized company stock fund was imprudently designed because of “investment drag” and “transaction drag” that is inherent with the widely popular unitized funds. Like most company stock funds, Kraft plan participants held units of the fund rather than directly holding shares of company stock. The plaintiffs alleged that the fiduciaries should have considered the “drag” that unitized funds cause on gains (and losses). The Seventh Circuit ruled that there was no evidence that the fiduciaries ever consciously decided in favor of a unitized plan finding that the benefits of a unitized fund outweighed the downsides, or whether they just ignored the issue. According to the majority, that was sufficient to proceed to trial. In a strongly worded dissent, Judge Cudahy called the plaintiffs’ theories on this, and others in the case, an “implausible class action based on nitpicking with respect to perfectly legitimate practices of fiduciaries.”
The majority further reversed summary judgment for the defendants on whether the recordkeeping fees were too high. The plaintiffs argued that the fiduciaries should have solicited competitive bids from other recordkeepers about every three years. Kraft had used the same recordkeeper since 1995, without a competitive bid, although Kraft received advice from several third-party independent consultants that the fees were reasonable. The plaintiffs submitted an opinion from an expert finding that the fees were excessive. In a decision with potentially wide-sweeping ramifications, the Seventh Circuit held that while the defendants’ reliance on the contemporaneous opinions of outside independent consultants that the fees were reasonable may be enough to prevail at trial, it was not enough to overcome the plaintiffs’ contrary admissible expert opinion at summary judgment which created a genuine issue of fact. The use of a consultant cannot “whitewash” otherwise unreasonable fees and a trier of fact could conclude that the defendants did not satisfy their duty solely through the use of independent consultants to ensure that the recordkeeping fees were reasonable. The dissent argued that the fiduciaries’ use of an outside consultant to confirm the reasonableness of the fees showed a prudent process and asked “what the majority’s holding means for ERISA fiduciaries” and “what is adequate to support a fee without the fear of litigation?” As noted by the dissent, this decision “will only serve to steer [fiduciaries] attention toward avoiding litigation instead of managing employee wealth.”
The Seventh Circuit upheld summary judgment for the defendants on whether the float income the trustee received was a reasonable part of the trustee’s overall compensation, because the fiduciaries proved that they received reports showing the float income and the plaintiffs failed to offer admissible evidence that such information was not considered.