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How Much (Should) a New Committee Member Know?

Client Services

A recent federal court decision should remind us all of the importance of plan committee education.

The case involved a suit by participants in the SunTrust 401(k) plan (see Is Fiduciary Responsibility Retroactive?) that challenged the initial selection of, and subsequent acquiescence with, an ostensibly imprudent plan investment menu. The court’s decision focused on one aspect of the case: the liability of “new” plan committee members for actions that predated their involvement on the committee, but continued after their involvement. The court, in a decision that will likely be viewed favorably by new committee members, excluded them from liability for committee moves that predated their participation, at least to the extent they lack “actual knowledge” of imprudence. 

Along the way to that determination, Judge Orinda D. Evans of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia incorporated the testimony of those new committee members as to the training/information they received as they joined. While it may reflect their recollection more than the reality, they convey[1] a very strong sense of being handed reading materials, and left to their own devices to fill in the blanks. 

The deposition questions were doubtless focused on the particular aspect of fund selection, and perhaps dealt with nothing beyond that. Indeed, several of the committee members did recount both an exposure to the plan document itself and some awareness of the importance of their role as a plan fiduciary. 

As a baseline, I have long maintained that every plan committee member needs to know that: 

You are an ERISA fiduciary.

Even if you consider yourself to be a small and relatively silent member of the committee, you direct and influence retirement plan money, and fiduciary status is based on one’s responsibilities with the plan, not a title. Simply stated, if you (or the committee you are part of) control the plan’s assets (such as choosing the investment options or choosing the firm that chooses those options), you are a fiduciary to the extent of that discretion or control. 

You are responsible for the actions of other plan fiduciaries.

All fiduciaries have potential liability for the actions of their co-fiduciaries. For example, the Department of Labor notes that if a fiduciary knowingly participates in another fiduciary’s breach of responsibility, conceals the breach, or does not act to correct it, that fiduciary is liable as well. So, it’s a good idea to know who your co-fiduciaries are – and to keep an eye on what they do, and are permitted to do.

As an ERISA fiduciary, your liability is personal.

If they didn’t hear this message out the outset, the onset of litigation surely brought this reality home to the committee members. A committee member may be required to restore any losses to the plan or to restore any profits gained through improper use of plan assets. Now, you can obtain insurance to protect against that personal liability – but that’s probably not the fiduciary liability insurance you may already have in place, or the fidelity bond that is often carried to protect the plan against loss resulting from fraudulent or dishonest acts of those covered by the bond. If you’re not sure what you have, find out. Today.

The plan’s investment policy matters.

Note that I didn’t say the plan’s investment policy statement. The law (ERISA) doesn’t require that you have a written investment policy statement, but that same law does expect that the plan’s investments will be monitored as though one was in writing. Indeed, the vast majority of plans do have a written IPS – more than 90%, according to the Plan Sponsor Council of America’s 61st Annual Survey of Profit Sharing and 401(k) Plans.

More than that, generally speaking, you should find it easier to conduct the plan’s investment business in accordance with a set of established, prudent standards if those standards are in writing, and not crafted at a point in time when you are desperately trying to make sense of the markets. In sum, you want an IPS in place before you need an IPS in place.

And a suggestion for you: have a formal “on-boarding” process for plan committee members.

Every plan, and every plan committee is unique. But the responsibility, and the prudent expert standard to which those responsibilities must be held applies uniformly – and it has been called “the highest known to the law.” In forming and conducting the committee it’s imperative not only that the members be selected wisely, but that they be informed and engaged so that they can adequately and fully discharge those responsibilities.

One recent court decision (Wildman v. Am. Century Servs.) in favor of the plan committee defendants explains that the committee met regularly three times a year, and had “special meetings if something arose that needed to be discussed before the regularly scheduled meetings.” Moreover, the defendants testified that those meetings “were productive and lasted as long as was needed to fully address each issue on the agenda. On average, the meetings lasted an hour to an hour and a half.”

The plan provided “training and information about their fiduciary duties, including a ‘Fiduciary Toolkit,’ which outlined their duties as fiduciaries, as well as a summary plan document, and articles regarding fiduciary duties in general.” That kit included a copy of the current Investment Policy Statement, and the court noted that “the Committee members read these materials and took their responsibilities as fiduciaries seriously.”

Arguably the personal interests of the new plan committee members in the SunTrust case were, at least at this stage, “well-served” by their lack of education (more specifically, the lack of “actual knowledge”) regarding the background of the decisions made prior to their appointment. However, this is only one set of issues, and they may yet be held to account for their subsequent affirmation (be it active or passive) in the continuance of those decisions. 

And that’s when ignorance of your duties as a plan fiduciary can be really expensive. 

Footnote

1. Defendant Jerome Lienhard stated in his deposition that he received binders describing the funds in the Plan “presumably” containing documents describing fiduciary standards, that he spoke with Defendants Donna Lange and Ken Houghton about being a Benefits Plan Committee member and, upon becoming a member of the Benefits Plan Committee in August of 2006, familiarized himself with the Plan document. However, he did not recall taking action to determine whether previous breaches of fiduciary responsibility had been committed.

Defendant Christopher Shults said that he received training regarding the funds in the Plan when he became a Benefits Plan Committee member, and that he was “directed… to meet with an investment consultant representative "to become more educated about the investment decisions made by the Benefits Plan Committee.” However, he did not "remember any of the details of specificity around what we discussed" and he did not recall discussing previous investment decisions by the Benefits Plan Committee with the representative. Nor did he recall learning about selection decisions made by the Benefits Plan Committee prior to his becoming a member.

Defendant Mimi Breeden remembered that she “would have talked to subject matter experts and [her] staff and others to come up to speed on what the committee’s work was” and “what key priorities were,” that she “probably” had knowledge of the history of the Plan before 1997 but could not recall it or any information about the 1996 selection of Affiliated Funds, and that she could not recall whether she ever knew about the initial selection of Plan funds in 1996.

Defendant Mary Steele was sure she had read the Plan document at some point while a member of the Benefits Plan Committee and that Defendant Donna Lange briefed her regarding her fiduciary responsibilities as a Benefits Plan Committee member and “the most important things that [she] need[ed] to know about the committee,” and that while she did not remember how the SunTrust proprietary funds first came to be offered in the Plan, but that the 1996 change in the Plan from common trust funds to mutual funds “sound[ed] familiar.”

Defendant Thomas Kuntz did not recall whether he received any training regarding his duties as a Benefits Plan Committee member or whether he reviewed prior meeting minutes, though he recalled that the Benefits Plan Committee, “[a] s a matter of course,” “reviewed all the funds in the plan ... for appropriateness.” In a disposition he explained that he believed the proprietary funds in the Plan were appropriately included because “[t]hey looked to be reasonable choices based on assessments that [he] might have had at the time,” though he did not recall what those assessments were.

Defendant Donna Lange said that she was not aware of the process used in initially selecting the Affiliated Funds in 1996, just that “the approved funds were in place when [she] arrived.” As for that 1996 fund selection, Lange went on to say that she did not "recall studying this other than being aware “this is the plan, this is what we started with.” She did state, however, that she knew the Plan was only using proprietary funds when she arrived.

Defendant Aleem Gillani stated in his deposition that he does not recall ever being briefed or “brought up to speed” on the Benefits Plan Committee's decisions prior to becoming a member, and that he had no knowledge of them when appointed to the Benefits Plan Committee.

Finally, Defendant William H. Rogers, Jr. stated in his deposition that he has no knowledge of the initial Affiliated Funds selection in 1996, 1999, and 2001.

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All comments
Roger Levy
3 weeks 5 days ago
As one would expect, this is an insightful report. However, if investment committees are expected to prudently monitor the decisions previously made, each committee member must know the origins of prior decisions. Thus, onboarding new members should focus on this need. Prudence requires that, if a committee does not know why a particular decision was made, that decision must be revisited, with appropriate due diligence and documentation. Looking back may also yield evidence of fiduciary breach by prior members. If so, legal advice would be required as to the responsibility for seeking restitution from such members for any losses sustained by the plan. Accepting appointment as an investment committee member should not be undertaken lightly.