Fiduciary and Investment Issues

In a presentation at McDermott’s Employment and Employee Benefits Forum, Ted Becker and Chris Scheithauer explored the various ways that disgruntled employees file lawsuits with plaintiffs’’ lawyers. Lawsuits have been brought in cases alleging, imprudence in the management of plans, challenging fees, involving company stock, actuarial equivalence and more. They used recent cases such as, NYU, American Century Services and IBM, as examples of the various types of lawsuits and the important lessons employers can take away from them. In addition, they provided attendees with key strategies to minimize exposure to lawsuits, including demonstrating a thoughtful and deliberative decision-making process.

Looking ahead to 2019, they touched on ERISA issues to watch for including, venue/forum selection clauses in plan documents, arbitration agreements and impact on fiduciary duty claims, statute of limitations and burden of proof issues.

View the full presentation.

The District of Massachusetts court struck the plaintiffs’ jury-trial demand in their ERISA complaint for damages and equitable relief against 401(k) plan fiduciaries. The court followed the “great weight of authority” in ruling that there is no right to trial by jury in ERISA actions for breach of fiduciary duty.

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Join us on March 7 in Chicago for our annual Benefits Emerging Leaders Working Group, which provides benefit professionals with tools to better serve employees in an ever-changing benefits landscape.

Our presentations will tackle the latest benefits hot topics and best practice solutions and will be supplemented with important networking opportunities aimed to connect tomorrow’s benefit leaders with a broad network of professionals.

Speakers from The Art Institute of Chicago, Alera Group Inc. and McDermott will lead interactive discussions around a range of topics, including:

  • Affordable Care Act (ACA) Penalties – Marketplace Letters
  • Investment Committee Meetings – Red Flags and Best Practices
  • Developments in Parental and Caregiver Leaves – A Case Study Approach
  • Legislative Rundown – What’s Happening in Washington
  • Around the Horn – A Group Discussion

Register Now.

A recent Eighth Circuit decision regarding “cross-plan offsetting” serves as an important reminder of how ERISA’s fiduciary duties impact both employers and fiduciaries who handle claims.

The case involved the common practice of cross-plan offsetting, which occurs when a claims administrator resolves an overpayment to a provider by refusing to pay that provider for a future claim (or reducing the amount paid for that future claim)—even if the latter claim was made by a participant in an unrelated plan. Cross-plan offsetting allows claims administrators to quickly recover overpaid benefits without the time and expense associated with one-off recovery actions against providers. Defendant UnitedHealth Group (UnitedHealth) initially applied this practice among its in-network providers, but then expanded cross-plan offsetting to non-network providers beginning in 2007. This practice was challenged by two out-of-network doctors in the case at issue, Peterson v. UnitedHealth Group, Inc.

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Recently, the US District Court for the District of Columbia dismissed a proposed class action lawsuit brought by former Georgetown employees under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) over fees and investments in its two retirement plans. Plaintiffs alleged that Georgetown breached its fiduciary duty of prudence under ERISA by selecting and retaining investment options with excessive administrative fees and expenses charged to the plans, and unnecessarily retained three recordkeepers rather than one.

The court dismissed most of the claims on the grounds that plaintiffs had not plead sufficient facts showing that they had individually suffered an injury. Because they challenged defined contribution plans (as opposed to defined benefit plans), the plaintiffs had to plead facts showing how their individual plan accounts were harmed. In this case, the named plaintiffs had not invested in the challenged funds, or the challenged fund had actually outperformed other funds, or, in the case of the early withdrawal penalty from the annuity fund, the penalty had been properly disclosed and neither plaintiff had attempted to withdrawal funds – thereby suffering no injury. Moreover, in dismissing the allegations that the Plans included annuities that limited participants’ access to their contributed funds, the court rejoined, “[i]f a cat were a dog, it could bark. If a retirement plan were not based on long-term investments in annuities, its assets would be more immediately accessed by plan participants.” As to another fund, the court rejected the claim that the fiduciaries should be liable for the mere alleged underperformance of the fund, noting that “ERISA does not provide a cause of action for ‘underperforming funds.” Nor is a fiduciary required to select the best performing fund. A fiduciary must only discharge their duties with care, skill, prudence and diligence under the circumstances, when they make their decisions.

Continue Reading Georgetown University Defeats Retirement Plan Fee Litigation and “If a Cat Were a Dog, It Would Bark”

Late last year, the Ninth Circuit held that in order to trigger ERISA’s three-year statute of limitations a defendant must demonstrate that a plaintiff has actual knowledge of the nature of an alleged breach. Accordingly, the court held that merely having access to documents describing an alleged breach of fiduciary duty is not sufficient to cause ERISA’s statute of limitations to begin to run. Instead, the court rejected the standard embraced by other courts and ruled that participants should not be charged with knowledge of documents they were provided by did not actually read. The Ninth Circuit’s decision underscores circuit split over what is sufficient to demonstrate the existence of actual knowledge for purposes of triggering ERISA’s three-year statute of limitations.

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What to expect in 2019 and how to prepare now. Join McDermott lawyers Judith Wethall, Ted Becker and Rick Pearl for an interactive discussion regarding ERISA litigation trends.

Join our lively 45-minute discussion while we tackle the following items:

  • Plaintiffs’ law firm’s solicitations
  • Health & Welfare Fee Litigation
  • Defined-Benefit Plan Litigation – Actuarial Equivalence lawsuits and greater concern about discretionary decisions
  • Stock-Drop Cases – The Jander decision: Relaxing the Dudenhoeffer standard and the potential impact of a stock market decline
  • 401k/403b – Fee/investment update
  • ESOP transactions – New DOL and plaintiffs’ counsel’s theories

Friday, January 11, 2019
10:00 – 10:45 am PST
11:00 – 11:45 am MST
12:00 – 12:45 pm CST
1:00 – 1:45 pm EST

Register now. 

Todd Solomon and Brian Tiemann presented on alternative investments for pension plans during the Association for Financial Professionals (AFP) Conference in Chicago. They discussed various rules benefit plan investors should consider, including the “look-through” rule and the “significant” investment rule. They also addressed common hedge fund structural and operational issues, and problems if a fund holds ERISA plan assets.

View the full presentation.

The US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit has solidified a circuit split on who has burden of proving loss causation in ERISA breach of fiduciary duty cases. The First Circuit joined the Fourth, Fifth and Eighth Circuits holding that once a plaintiff demonstrates a fiduciary breach, the defendant has the burden to negate loss causation. Other circuits, including the Sixth, Ninth, Tenth and Eleventh Circuits, have held that a plaintiff bears to burden to establish loss causation. This issue is ripe for Supreme Court review.

Access the full article.

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.