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.
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 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.
The Director of the SEC’s Division of Corporation Finance William Hinman gave a speech in which he discussed whether a digital asset originally offered as a security can become something other than a security over time. The speech provided some of the most important considerations to date for analysis of blockchain token transactions under US securities law.
Emily Rickard presented “ESOP Fiduciary Responsibility for Value Determination” at the National Center for Employee Ownership National Conference addressing the fiduciary duties involved in the selection of an ESOP appraiser and the review of a valuation report.
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.
The Department of Labor’s fiduciary rule has recently been rendered unenforceable following a recent 5th Circuit Court of Appeals decision. In an article published by the Society for Human Resource Management, McDermott partner Brian Tiemann weighs in on what this means for plan sponsors. “As a result of the Fifth Circuit’s ruling, the suitability standard is effectively restored” for advising plan participants on investments, distributions and rollovers, Tiemann observed. He also points out that advisors may want to revise service agreements with plan fiduciaries to clarify the scope of advice that fiduciaries will provide participants.
Originally published by the Society for Human Resource Management, May 2018.
ESOP transactions continue to grow in sophistication as sellers, plan sponsors and fiduciaries seek to meet certain goals and regulatory requirements. Allison Wilkerson, and other panelists for this presentation, reviewed a number of advanced transaction structures that are being utilized more and more to address specific needs identified by one or more of the parties involved in the arrangement. Such structures include the use of warrants in a financing structure, implementation of clawback and/or earn out requirements, use of incentive plans for successive management, and provisions that may be impactful with respect to future transaction or planning.
This presentation provides information to those companies/sellers/ESOP fiduciaries who are pursuing an ESOP transaction with alternatives that may provide an opportunity to better address the goals and objectives of the shareholders, ESOP, Company, employees and other stakeholders.
On May 10, 2018, the IRS announced cost-of-living adjustments to the applicable dollar limits for health savings accounts and high-deductible health plans for 2019. Many of the limits will change for 2019.
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.