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.
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.
The US Department of Labor’s Employee Benefit Security Administration recently released final rules on the adjudication of disability claims under welfare and retirement plans (the Final Rule). The purpose of the Final Rule is to add procedural protections and safeguards that are aimed at providing a full and fair claims review process for disability benefit claims, similar to those applicable to group health plans under the Affordable Care Act. The Final Rule also contains helpful guidance for claims and appeals procedures under all types of ERISA plans.
On October 2, 2014, the Supreme Court of the United States granted the plaintiffs’ petition for a writ of certiorari in Tibble v. Edison International to answer “Whether a claim that [Employee Retirement Income Security Act] ERISA plan fiduciaries breached their fiduciary obligation by offering higher-cost retail-class mutual funds to plan participants, even though identical lower-cost institutional-class mutual funds were available, is barred by 29 U.S.C. § 1113(1) when fiduciaries initially chose the higher-cost mutual funds as plan investments more than six years before the claim was filed.” The underlying claim asserts that the investment committee of the Edison 401(k) Savings Plan (the Plan), a defined contribution plan sponsored by Edison International, breached its fiduciary duty, although the issue presented to the Supreme Court focuses on the statute of limitations applicable to that claim.
The Plan’s investment committee selected a variety of funds for the investment of Plan assets. The funds selected by the investment committee were retail-class funds, which charged higher fees than the comparable institutional-class funds available in the retail market. Plan participants sued, alleging that lower-cost mutual funds were available and should have been selected for the Plan’s investment portfolio. The district court dismissed the case and the U.S. Court for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the dismissal on the basis that the funds were selected more than six years earlier and were therefore barred by ERISA statute of limitations.
ERISA provides a six-year period within which a participant or beneficiary may sue based on allegations of a breach of ERISA fiduciary duties. In general, the ERISA statute of limitation period begins to run on the date of the last act that constitutes a fiduciary breach owed to the beneficiaries. The U.S. District Court for the Central District of California dismissed several claims in the plaintiffs’ lawsuit, concluding that these claims were statutorily barred because the plaintiffs’ filed them after expiration of the six-year statute of limitations period. In addition, the district court ruled that it must defer to the investment committee’s selection of the higher-cost mutual fund by application of the deferential Firestone standard previously set by the Supreme Court.
In its petition for certiorari, the plaintiffs asked that the Supreme Court determine whether ERISA’s six-year limitations period begins on the date that the investment committee initially selected the higher-cost mutual fund options for the Plan’s investment portfolio or whether the on-going offering of such funds constituted a “continuing” fiduciary breach, thereby extending the period. The Supreme Court elected not to address whether the Firestone deference applies to fiduciary breach actions with respect to whether a fiduciary failed to follow plan terms in the selection of investment options.
This case follows the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Heimeshoff v. Hartford Life & Accident Insurance Co. Heimeshoff concluded that an ERISA plan’s contractual three-year limitations period for benefit claims was enforceable, despite the fact that the statute of limitations began to run before the participant’s benefit claim had been decided by the plan administrator. Conversely, in Tribble v. Edison, Int’l., the Supreme Court is asked when ERISA’s statutory limitations period accrues for fiduciary breach claims. The case holds important ramifications for plan sponsors. If the Supreme Court agrees with the plaintiffs and finds that a fiduciary violation is ongoing, fiduciaries may be open to larger classes in class action cases and potentially increased liability for successful fiduciary breach claims. On the other hand, if the Supreme Court upholds the Ninth Circuit’s decision with respect to the limitations period’s accrual, plan participants will be limited when challenging investment decisions that occurred before the limitations period.