Today, the United States Supreme Court granted certiorari in a case where the 6th Circuit found that a company may have breached its fiduciary duties under ERISA by continuing to offer company stock as a retirement plan investment option even after the value of the stock plunged.
The case is Fifth Third Bancorp v. Dudenhoeffer, No. 12-751 (don’t ERISA cases have the best names?) and here is the decision below in the 6th Circuit. SCOTUSBlog says the case is likely to be heard in March. The Solicitor General had urged the Court to hear the case.
The issue is whether courts should apply a presumption of prudence or reasonableness (sometimes called the Moench presumption based on a similar case by that name in another circuit court) when a company, like Fifth Third, decides to retain investments in its own securities for its ESOP (employee stock ownership plan) when the stock’s price dropped 74 percent because of the company’s involvement in subprime mortgage lending. The employees in the retirement plan claim they were never alerted to the company’s new riskier investment course.
Participants in Fifth Third’s ESOP filed an ERISA class action, asserting that the company’s actions violated their fiduciary responsibilities to plan participants and beneficiaries by imprudently investing in company stock. Initially, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio had determined that Fifth Third did not violate ERISA because plan fiduciaries are entitled to a “presumption of prudence” permitting investment in their own stock and the plaintiffs had not overcome that presumption by showing that the company had plausibly abused their discretion in investing the ESOP money in the company stock.
The participants appealed to the 6th Circuit, supported by an amicus brief by the Department of Labor (DOL). The DOL maintains that the presumption of prudence should not apply and that plaintiffs had plausibly alleged a breach of fiduciary duty. The 6th Circuit agreed, at least as far as holding that the presumption should not be applied at the pleading stage of the lawsuit.
The 6th Circuit also held that Fifth Third acted as an ERISA fiduciary when it incorporated its Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filings into the ESOP’s plan documents. The Court did not take cert. on a challenge to this finding.
The case law had been trending in favor of the presumption of prudence in these stock-drop cases in recent years, with the Sixth Circuit being a notable exception. It is always hard to predict where the Court will come out on ERISA fiduciary cases, but given that the Court granted cert. on the question as presented by the company (and did not re-write the question as requested by the Solicitor General), we may gain some insight. The question presented is:
Whether the Sixth Circuit erred by holding that respondents were not required to plausibly allege in their complaint that the fiduciaries of an employee stock ownership plan abused their discretion by remaining invested in employer stock, in order to overcome the presumption that their decision to invest in employer stock was reasonable, as required by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 . . . and every other circuit to address the issue.
Phrasing the question presented in such a leading manner suggests only one possible reasonable answer upholding the presumption of prudence in ERISA stock drop cases. But we shall see.
This article was originally printed on Workplace Prof Blogs on December 16, 2013. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Paul Secunda is a professor of law at Marquette University Law School. Professor Secunda is the author of nearly three dozen books, treatises, articles, and shorter writings. He co-authored the treatise Understanding Employment Law and the case book Global Issues in Employee Benefits Law. Professor Secunda is a frequent commentator on labor and employment law issues in the national media. He co-edits with Rick Bales and Jeffrey Hirsch the Workplace Prof Blog, recently named one of the top law professor blogs in the country.