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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 J. Christian Nemeth's full bio.

The US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit recently affirmed a Minnesota district court’s dismissal of a claim against Wells Fargo & Company (Wells Fargo) under ERISA. A former employee had alleged Wells Fargo breached fiduciary duties by retaining Wells Fargo’s own investment funds as a 401(k) option, and defaulting to those funds when plan participants failed to elect another option.

In holding that the former employee failed to state a claim, the court in Meiners v. Wells Fargo & Co. reasoned that the plaintiff failed to plead facts showing the Wells Fargo investment funds were an imprudent choice. Specifically, the court found that the plaintiff’s allegations that an allegedly comparable fund performed better was not sufficient, especially given the other fund’s differing investment strategy. The court’s prior decision in Braden v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. established that plaintiffs could show that “a prudent fiduciary in like circumstances” would have selected a different fund by providing a basis for comparison–in other words, a benchmark. However, the Eighth Circuit declined the plaintiff’s invitation to extend the rationale of Braden by allowing a plaintiff to demonstrate imprudence with a benchmark that only possesses some similarities to the fund at issue.

The Eighth Circuit’s decision is in line with other courts’ rejection of ERISA claims based on the plaintiffs’ subjective views of which funds are the best overall investment. A US district court judge for the Northern District of Illinois recently labeled such breach of fiduciary duty claims “paternalistic” while dismissing a class action against Northwestern University.

A federal judge in the Northern District of Illinois recently dismissed a lawsuit against Northwestern University alleging that the University and its fiduciaries mismanaged its retirement and voluntary savings plans. This is the latest decision in a series of class action lawsuits against prominent universities in which plaintiffs allege fiduciary violations of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, as amended (ERISA) for retirement plans governed by Internal Revenue Code Section 403(b). Northwestern is the second university to obtain a complete victory on a motion to dismiss in a 403(b) university case; the first university to do so was the University of Pennsylvania in Sweda v. University of Pennsylvania.

In Divane v. Northwestern University et al., No. 16 C 8157 (N.D. Ill. May 25, 2018), plaintiffs alleged that Northwestern University and its fiduciaries breached fiduciary duties, engaged in prohibited transactions under ERISA and failed to monitor other fiduciaries. Specifically, fiduciaries allegedly mandated the inclusion of particular stock accounts in the plans, imposing excessive record-keeping fees, improperly allowed payment for record-keeping expenses through revenue sharing, and included too many investment options. The Court rejected all of plaintiffs’ fiduciary duty claims.

The Court also rejected plaintiffs’ claims that defendants engaged in prohibited transactions. Namely, the Court held that there was no transfer of plan assets that would substantiate a prohibited transaction claim under ERISA Section 1106(a)(1)(D) and similarly rejected plaintiffs’ Section 1106(a)(1)(C) argument that fiduciaries engaged in transactions that resulted in “furnishing of goods, services, or facilities between the plan and a party in interest” as a “circular “argument.

The Court denied plaintiffs’ motion for leave to amend, amounting in a complete victory for Northwestern.

In a recent 2-1 decision, the Fifth Court vacated the US Department of Labor’s controversial expansion of the ERISA fiduciary regulations (the New Fiduciary Rule). If the DOL does not seek a rehearing, the Fifth Circuit will enter a mandate revoking the New Fiduciary Rule nationwide. However, given recent fiduciary regulations proposed by the Securities and Exchange Commission, the DOL may be less likely to appeal the ruling and no longer seek to enforce the New Fiduciary Rule.

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Join us for a webinar on Friday, May 4 as McDermott litigation attorney Chris Nemeth joins employee benefit attorney Judith Wethall to discuss what’s new in employee benefits litigation. Chris will give you a peek into a world you hope never to go! Learn about disturbing trends, traps and how to prevent your employee benefit plans from being targeted.

Friday, May 4, 2018
10:00 – 10:45 am PDT
11:00 – 11:45 am MDT
12:00 – 12:45 pm CDT
1:00 – 1:45 pm EDT

Register now.

A lawsuit against Vanderbilt University is moving forward based on allegations that the university and its fiduciaries mismanaged its retirement plan by paying excessive fees and maintaining poor investment options.

In that lawsuit, Cassell v. Vanderbilt et al., plaintiffs filed a 160-page complaint alleging multiple violations of ERISA. Cassell v. Vanderbilt, No. 3:16-cv-02086 (M.D. Tenn. Jan. 5, 2018). Cassell is one of numerous class action lawsuits that have been filed against prominent universities based on similar allegations. The lawsuits allege that Internal Revenue Code Section 403(b) plan fiduciaries breached duties of prudence and loyalty, and engaged in prohibited transactions. Vanderbilt University, like other schools, filed a motion to dismiss the claims. The court granted part of its motion, but allowed the rest of the lawsuit to proceed.

Continue Reading 403(b) University Cases Move Forward: Cassell v. Vanderbilt University

The US Department of Labor has taken the position that certain indemnification clauses are void against public policy under Section 410 of ERISA. This policy has been adopted by private plaintiff classes; as evident from a recent settlement, a policy that voids indemnity provisions can limit defense budgets, make settlements more likely and potentially create dangerous precedent for ESOPs.

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The ESOP industry is paying close attention to a Tenth Circuit appeal that will address the deferral of corporate deductions for certain accrued expenses payable to ESOP-participating employees. This appeal, which pertains to an underlying tax court opinion, Petersen v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue (decided June 13, 2017), is critically important to certain ESOP-owned S corporations for tax planning and other purposes.

Internal Revenue Code (IRC) Section 267(a)(2) defers deductions for expenses paid by a taxpayer to a “related person” until the payments are includible in the related person’s gross income. IRC Section 267(c) sets out constructive ownership rules for purposes of determining if certain persons are “related persons.” Section 267(c) provides that stock owned, directly or indirectly, by a trust shall be considered as being owned proportionately by its shareholders. In Peterson v. Commissioner, the US Tax Court addressed whether an ESOP trust is a “trust” for purposes of IRC Section 267(c).

Continue Reading A Matter of Trusts: Tenth Circuit to Decide Important ESOP Case

Through a series of recent settlements, the US Department of Labor has outlined the process steps fiduciaries should follow in connection with a transaction involving a purchase from, or sale to, an employee stock ownership plan.

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