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'Special' Treatment

ERISA

Our industry has long disparaged the apparent “overindulgence”1 of participants in the stock of their employer as a retirement investment. However, for plan fiduciaries – and those who advise them – there may be a more pressing concern.

Anyone who has been paying attention to 401(k) plan litigation these past several years knows that a common trigger – perhaps the most common trigger – for litigation is the presence of company stock in the plan; more specifically, the presence of company stock that has sharply declined in value. In fact, these days no sooner does some big earnings surprise or unanticipated business calamity make the headlines than the plaintiffs’ bar is out “trolling” for potential clients. And let’s face it, a 401(k) plan is a class action litigant’s dream – potentially thousands of similarly situated and comparably injured plaintiffs in one place (so to speak).   

But if the instances of litigation have been numerous, the odds of success – for plaintiffs – have been anything but.

Prudent ‘Presumptions’

For a long while, these claims failed to clear a “presumption of prudence.” Now, one needn’t scour ERISA’s text to discern the boundaries of this legal construct; indeed, that would be a futile effort. Rather, it is a concept gleaned by the courts (and subsequently enshrined in legal precedent) from their understanding of the black letter of the law. It is a concept that found its footing in a 1995 case called Moench v. Robertson. Now, in that case, as in many of the new generation of “stock drop” cases (drawing their name from the fact that the action arises after the value of the stock drops), a plan participant sued a plan committee for breaching its fiduciary duty based on its continued investment in employer stock after the employer’s financial condition “deteriorated.” In the aftermath of the Moench ruling, nearly every court district court that considered the issue of prudence of employer stock holding had rejected plaintiff claims based on this so-called “presumption of prudence.”

That was the “law of the land” in such matters until 2014 when the Supreme Court seemed truly concerned that the “presumption of prudence” standard basically established a standard that was effectively unassailable by plaintiffs outlined a new standard – a “more harm than good” standard that emerged with Fifth Third Bancorp v. Dudenhoeffer. The notion here was that a plan fiduciary might be excused from taking action with regard to company stock in the retirement plan – such as removing it as an option, or forcing a liquidation of those investments – if doing so would do “more harm than good.”

More Harm?

“Inspired” by this new standard, many of the so-called “stock drop” suits which hadn’t passed muster under the “presumption of prudence” threshold refiled. But ironically, those too had generally come up short of the new standard – though they did at least routinely get past the summary judgment stage. Which, of course, meant more time and expense for the fiduciary defendants – but no recovery for the plaintiffs (or the plaintiffs’ attorneys, who generally work on a contingent fee basis in these class actions).  

At least that was the case until a recent district court decision (Jander v. Ret. Plans Comm. of IBM) was overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which concluded that, in fact, the plaintiffs plausibly alleged facts showing that a prudent ERISA fiduciary “could not have concluded” that a corrective disclosure of an allegedly overvalued IBM business would have done “more harm than good to the fund.”

In fact, the plaintiff in that case – recently accepted by the Supreme Court – argued that no duty-of-prudence claim against an ESOP fiduciary has passed the motion-to-dismiss stage since the 2010 decision in Harris v. Amgen, nothing that “imposing such a heavy burden at the motion-to-dismiss stage runs contrary to the Supreme Court’s stated desire in Fifth Third to lower the barrier set by the presumption of prudence.”

What’s Next?

And yet, that same Second Circuit Court of Appeals whose decision teed up the issue that the nation’s highest court will now consider – within a week of that decision – found that a similar case lacked the “special circumstances” necessary to overcome the more harm than good bar.

As for what lies ahead, the forthcoming review by the U.S. Supreme Court could bring a new, more relaxed pleading standard to the fore. Or it might establish a “new” standard that doesn’t do anything more to improve plaintiffs’ prospects than the “more harm than good” did beyond the “presumption of prudence.”

In any event, plan fiduciaries who still maintain company stock as plan investment option (and according to the Plan Sponsor Council of America’s 61st Annual Survey of Profit Sharing and 401(k) Plans, 12% of plans allow company stock as an investment option for both participant and company contributions, and 4% restrict it to company contributions only) might well want to spare themselves the cost and aggravation of litigation that seems inevitable when (if?) the value of that stock holding goes down.

In this day and age, a plan fiduciary unable to see the potential for employer-security-related litigation is perhaps unworthy of the role, and a dual-role plan/corporate fiduciary unable to appreciate the potential for a conflicted duty vis-à-vis his or her fiduciary responsibility to the retirement plan is surely living in a state of active denial.

Because while “special” circumstances may seem to warrant such consideration, ultimately, perhaps inevitably, the end result seems to eventually be putting not only prospective plaintiffs, but the plan fiduciaries, between a rock and a hard place.

Footnote

1. Participants given an option to invest in company stock have long invested what professionals would deem an inappropriately large percentage of their portfolio there ( Vanguard’s How America Saves 2019 report notes that 4% of participants with the option to invest in company stock have more than 20% of their balance so invested) – arguably the least diversified investment option on the menu, and one that is inextricably tied to the success of their employer’s business (meaning that when the business slips, so might the prospects of their continued employment). On the other hand, an investment in their employer is seen by many as a mark of confidence and loyalty – and, for many, it’s doubtless the investment on that menu that they best understand. 

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