Brown University Only Partially Successful in 403(b) Lawsuit

A federal judge in Rhode Island recently permitted several claims against Brown University to proceed in a lawsuit alleging that the university and its fiduciaries breached their fiduciary duties under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, as amended (ERISA), by mismanaging Brown’s defined contribution plans. This decision follows the recent decision in a similar class action lawsuit against Northwestern University (see blog post here) in which a federal judge granted Northwestern a complete victory in its motion to dismiss.

Unlike in that decision, the court in Short v. Brown University allowed plaintiffs to proceed with claims relating to record-keeping services, including engaging more than one record-keeper, incurring excessive administrative fees and failing to conduct a competitive record-keeping bidding process. Of note, the court indicated that whether particular record-keeping fees are excessive involves questions of fact that cannot be resolved on a motion to dismiss. If other courts were to adopt that line of reasoning, a plaintiff who alleged that any level of fees was excessive could survive a motion to dismiss. The court also permitted plaintiffs to advance claims that Brown chose more expensive funds with poor historical performance, including the CREF Stock Account and the TIAA Real Estate Account.

The court dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims that Brown acted imprudently by offering investment options with multiple layers of fees and using revenue sharing and asset-based fees. Like other courts that have ruled on class action lawsuits against fiduciaries of university defined contribution retirement plans, the Brown court also dismissed the plaintiffs’ claim that Brown acted imprudently by including too many investment choices in its lineup.

J. Christian Nemeth
J. Christian (Chris) Nemeth provides legal counsel on complex commercial litigation and government investigations, including ERISA matters, financial and banking cases, business torts and breach of contract actions. Chris is the Co-Chair of the Firm’s ERISA Litigation group and works closely with the Firm’s Employee Benefits department on all types of Litigation matters, Department of Labor investigations and similar issues. Read Chris Nemeth's full bio.

Joseph K. Urwitz
Joseph (Joe) K. Urwitz focuses his practice on employee benefits, executive compensation and Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) fiduciary matters. He advises clients on a wide range of issues, including fiduciary duties and prohibited transactions, employee benefit matters arising in mergers and acquisitions, benefits issues unique to nonprofit entities, deferred compensation arrangements, equity award and bonus plan design, employment and severance arrangements, and qualified plan work. Read Joe Urwitz's full bio.

Mary K. Samsa




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