A recent summary-judgment decision explains how individual releases can bar the individual from pursuing ERISA fiduciary-breach claims on behalf of the plan. A plan, employer or fiduciary that wants to ensure a release that includes ERISA claims on behalf of a plan should consider language that addresses the court’s areas of inquiry in the case, which are outlined in this article.
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.
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.
Make a New Year’s resolution to improve the fiduciary governance practices for your employee benefit plans. Join McDermott lawyers Brian Tiemann and Finn Pressly for a refresher course on your fiduciary duties, an overview of common pitfalls and best practice tips to keep your plan administration on track in 2018. We will also provide an update on the Department of Labor’s expansion of the fiduciary rule and what the latest extension of the special transition period means for plan sponsors and service providers.
Date: Friday, January 5, 2017
Time: 10:00 – 10:45 am PST
11:00 – 11:45 am MST
12:00 – 12:45 pm CST
1:00 – 1:45 pm EST
Mark your calendars for the first Friday of every month! McDermott’s Employee Benefits Group will be delivering timely topics in our “Fridays With Benefits” monthly webinar series.
Employee Stock Ownership Plans (ESOPs) are becoming a popular—and tax effective—way for companies to manage succession planning. When structured properly an ESOP can provide huge financial benefits to companies and their employees alike. There have been several craft brewers who have taken advantage of the ESOP structure in the past year, and we expect this trend to pique the interest of craft distilleries. In this article, originally published in Artisan Spirit, Marc E. Sorini and Emily Rickard explore at a very high level some of the issues involved with starting and maintaining a craft distillery ESOP.
Offering employer stock in a 401(k) plan investment lineup can seem like a win-win situation. It can enable employees to become company owners—real, skin-in-the-game, participants in their employer’s economic future—through a simple deferral election. The U.S. Supreme Court has even recognized the value of employer stock funds, confirming that Congress sought to encourage their creation through provisions and standards contained in the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”).
However, in the wake of a series of high-profile employee lawsuits seeking recovery against Enron, Lehman Brothers, and other employers for losses from 401(k) investments in employer stock, such funds can—almost as easily—seem a recipe for disaster. This article examines the quandary that employer stock funds pose for plan sponsors, who must navigate ERISA’s careful balance of (1) ensuring fair and prompt enforcement of employee rights under employer-provided retirement plans while (2) encouraging employer creation of these plans.
Originally published in Bloomberg Law, May 25, 2017
Employees are often the greatest assets of a business. Their departure to work for competitors (including their own fledgling businesses) can pose one of the greatest risks to the success of the business. These risks have been emphasized in two recent cases in which employers discovered the hard way (by losing) the need for careful drafting of employment contracts and practical management of the employment relationship from beginning to end.
To read the full article, click here.