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A Fiduciary ‘Idiot Light’

Among the assorted “idiot lights” that adorn my current car dashboard is one that alerts me to low tire pressure.

It’s come in handy on precisely two occasions – one when a nail had punctured my tire (though I had already discerned that I had a problem from the sound of the flat tire nanoseconds before the light came on); the other when I had neglected to keep an eye on the tire pressure (which coincided with a day that I had let my daughter take my car to work). Other than that, it’s never really been on or an issue – or a help – until recently, when it came on, and stayed on, about 100 miles from home.

Now my owner’s manual suggested that this behavior might be a sign of a bad sensor, and sure enough, (after 100 miles of driving angst) that was subsequently confirmed by my mechanic – who also informed us that it would cost a couple of hundred dollars to replace it. Perhaps needless to say, that light continues to illuminate my dashboard.

Since the initial flurry of so-called “excess fee” litigation a decade ago, many have perhaps become numbed to the filings. Nearly all have involved multi-million, and multi-billion dollar plans – name brand companies. One might well expect – and many pundits have opined – that this litigation, funded, if not fueled, by a contingency fee structure, was really a concern for those larger plans and their larger asset pools.

Fiduciary Failings?

Or would have, until the recent filing in the case Damberg v. LaMettry’s Collision, Inc. (D. Minn., No. 0:16-cv-01335), which involved participants who were part of a 114-participant plan that had (in 2014) less than $10 million in plan assets.

These small plan participants alleged that the plan fiduciaries breached their fiduciary duties by:

  • selecting an unduly expensive structure for its 401(k) plan – one that bundled recordkeeping and investment management services;

  • failing to conduct an RFP for the structure to minimize expenses;

  • failing to evaluate whether an unbundled or alternative fee structure was a better option;

  • failing to conduct due diligence regarding whether the assessed fees (retail versus institutional shares) were appropriate; and

  • failing to actively monitor the selected structure’s fees and expenses.

They also challenged the application of asset-based fees for recordkeeping (rather than a flat per-participant fee), and went on to suggest that for retirement plans with more than 100 participants, a reasonable annual per capita fee paid by retirement plan participants should not exceed $18.

Nothing New?

These types of charges are nothing new, of course. All (with the possible exception of the concerns expressed about the bundled pricing structure) have been invoked in just about every one of the previous excessive fee lawsuits.

What is different, of course, is that these charges are being leveled at a plan that is considerably smaller than those that have thus far been the targets of this type of litigation.

On many occasions during the months since that sensor light on my car dashboard started blinking, I have worried that I might actually have a problem, one “masked” by my choosing to ignore the glaring reminder on my dashboard. I’ve worried that, by ignoring the warning signs that “idiot light” is meant to detect, I will one day wind up feeling like a true idiot, and all because I was too cheap (or lazy) to replace that tire sensor.

Plan fiduciaries – and those who guide them – have had at least a decade to see the writing on the wall on these excessive fee lawsuits. Those who have been ignoring these risks because they think they are immune, or are too small to be a target, should have just seen an “idiot light” come on their fiduciary dashboard.

See also: 5 Things Plan Sponsors Should Know; 5 Things Plan Sponsors Don't (Always) Do — But Should.