Justia ERISA Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in Securities Law
Perrone v. Johnson & Johnson
Johnson & Johnson's Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) is an investment option within its retirement savings plans. The ESOP invests solely in J&J stock, which declined in price following news reports accusing J&J of concealing that its baby powder was contaminated with asbestos. J&J denied that its product was contaminated and that it had concealed anything about the product. J&J employees who participated in the ESOP alleged that the ESOP’s administrators, senior officers of J&J, violated their fiduciary duties of prudence under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, 29 U.S.C. 1002-1003. The Supreme Court has held that a plaintiff bringing such a claim must plausibly allege “an alternative action that the defendant could have taken" consistent with the securities laws, and that a prudent fiduciary in the same circumstances would not have viewed the proposed alternative as more likely to harm the fund than to help it. The J&J plaintiffs proposed that the defendants could have used their corporate powers to make public disclosures to correct J&J’s artificially high stock price earlier or that the fiduciaries could have stopped investing in J&J stock and held all ESOP contributions as cash.The Third Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the suit. A reasonable fiduciary in these circumstances could readily view corrective disclosures or cash holdings as being likely to do the ESOP more harm than good, given the uncertainty about J&J’s future liabilities and the future movement of its stock price. View "Perrone v. Johnson & Johnson" on Justia Law
Retirement Plans Committee of IBM v. Jander
In 2014, the Supreme Court held that a claim for breach of the duty of prudence imposed on plan fiduciaries by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) on the basis of inside information, must plausibly allege an alternative action that would have been consistent with securities laws and that a prudent fiduciary would not have viewed as more likely to harm the fund than to help it. The ERISA duty of prudence does not require a fiduciary to break the law and cannot require the fiduciary of an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) “to perform an action—such as divesting the fund’s holdings of the employer’s stock on the basis of inside information—that would violate the securities laws.”In 2018, the Second Circuit reinstated a claim for breach of fiduciary duty under ERISA brought by participants in IBM’s 401(k) plan who suffered losses from their investment in IBM stock. The Supreme Court vacated and remanded, characterizing the question as what it takes to plausibly allege an alternative action “that a prudent fiduciary in the same circumstances would not have viewed as more likely to harm the fund than to help it” and whether that pleading standard can be satisfied by generalized allegations that the harm of an inevitable disclosure of an alleged fraud generally increases over time.” The Court concluded that the Second Circuit did not address those questions and noted that the views of the Securities and Exchange Commission might “well be relevant” to discerning the content of ERISA’s duty of prudence in this context. View "Retirement Plans Committee of IBM v. Jander" on Justia Law
Pasternack v. Shrader
Plaintiffs, retired officers of Booz Allen, filed suit alleging that they were improperly denied compensation when, after their retirement, Booz Allen sold one of its divisions in the Carlyle Transaction. The Second Circuit affirmed the district court's dismissal of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), 29 U.S.C. 1001 et seq., claims on the ground that Booz Allen's stock-distribution program was not a pension plan within the meaning of ERISA, and denial as futile leave to amend to "augment" the ERISA claims with new allegations; affirmed the dismissal of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), 18 U.S.C. 1961 et seq., claims on the ground that they were barred by the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995 (PSLRA), 18 U.S.C. 1964(c); but vacated the district court's judgment to the extent it denied Plaintiff Kocourek leave to amend to add securities-fraud causes of action. The court remanded for the district court to consider his claims. View "Pasternack v. Shrader" on Justia Law
Pioneer Centres Holding Co v. Alerus Financial, N.A.
The Pioneer Centres Holding Company Employee Stock Ownership Plan and Trust and its trustees sued Alerus Financial, N.A. for breach of fiduciary duty in connection with the failure of a proposed employee stock purchase. The district court granted summary judgment to Alerus after determining the evidence of causation did not rise above speculation. The Plan appealed, claiming the district court erred in placing the burden to prove causation on the Plan rather than shifting the burden to Alerus to disprove causation once the Plan made out its prima facie case. In the alternative, the Plan argued that even if the district court correctly assigned the burden of proof, the Plan established, or at the very least raised a genuine issue of material fact regarding, causation. Finding no reversible error, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court. View "Pioneer Centres Holding Co v. Alerus Financial, N.A." on Justia Law
Trustees of the Upstate New York Engineers Pension Fund v. Ivy Asset Management
Plaintiffs, trustees of an Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), 29 U.S.C. 1001 et seq., pension fund, filed suit against its investment manager and principals alleging that defendants knew by 1998 that investing with Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities LLC (BLMIS) was imprudent; that these defendants breached their fiduciary duty by failing to warn the fund of this fact; that if warned, the fund would have withdrawn the full sum appearing on its 1998 BLMIS account statements; and that prudent alternative investment of that sum would have earned more than the fund’s actual net withdrawals from its BLMIS account between 1999 and 2008. Plaintiffs also filed suit against Bank of New York Mellon Corporation, which acquired the investment manager in 2000, alleging that it knowingly participated as a non‐fiduciary in the fiduciary breach. The district court dismissed the complaint for failure to state a claim under Rule 12(b)(6) and for failure to allege an actual injury sufficient to establish Article III standing under Rule 12(b)(1). The court concluded that plaintiffs failed to allege facts sufficient to show Article III standing where plaintiffs have not plausibly alleged losses in excess of their profits; the increase in pension funds does not constitute a cognizable loss; the court rejected plaintiffs' claim of disgorgement of Simon and Wohl; and the complaint fails to state a claim against BNY Mellon for participation in a breach of fiduciary duty by Ivy, Simon, and Wohl. Accordingly, the court affirmed the judgment. View "Trustees of the Upstate New York Engineers Pension Fund v. Ivy Asset Management" on Justia Law
In re AIG Securities Litig.
This case concerns employee benefits plans sponsored by AIG or its affiliates under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), 29 U.S.C. 1001 et seq. At issue is whether the Plans are "affiliates" of AIG for the purposes of a class action settlement agreement. The district court held that appellants are "affiliates" of AIG and thus ineligible for their own portion of a class settlement agreement with AIG. The court held that appellants have standing to appeal the district court's denial of the motion to direct and dismissed appellants' appeal as to the denial of their motion to intervene as moot. On the merits, the court held that because ERISA imposes important statutory limits on an employer’s control over the management and policies of an employee benefit plan, those plans do not fall within the ordinary meaning of "affiliate." Therefore, the court concluded that appellants are entitled to their own portion of the settlement and appellees will have a somewhat smaller portion. The court vacated the denial of the Plans' motion to direct. View "In re AIG Securities Litig." on Justia Law
Chesemore v. Fenkell
Trachte, a Wisconsin manufacturer, established an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) in the mid-1980s. In the late 1990s, Fenkell and his company, Alliance, began buying ESOP-owned, closely-held companies with limited marketability. Typically, Fenkell would merge the acquired company's ESOP into Alliance’s ESOP, hold the company for a few years with its management in place, and then spin it off at a profit. Alliance acquired Trachte in 2002 for $24 million and folded its ESOP into Alliance’s ESOP. Trachte’s profits, however, were flat and its growth stalled, so Fenkell arranged a complicated leveraged buyout involving creation of a new Trachte ESOP managed by trustees beholden to Fenkell. The accounts in the Alliance ESOP were spun off to the new Trachte ESOP, which used the employees’ accounts as collateral to purchase Trachte’s equity back from Alliance, Trachte and its new ESOP paid $45 million for Trachte’s stock and incurred $36 million in debt. The purchase price was inflated; the debt load was unsustainable. By the end of 2008, Trachte’s stock was worthless. The employee participants in the new ESOP sued Alliance, Fenkell, and trustees, alleging breach of fiduciary duty in violation of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act. The district court found the defendants liable, crafted a remedial order to make the class whole, awarded attorney’s fees, and approved settlements among some of the parties. Fenkell conceded liability. The Seventh Circuit affirmed the order requiring him to indemnify his cofiduciaries. View "Chesemore v. Fenkell" on Justia Law
Rinehart v. Lehman Brothers Holdings
Plaintiffs filed suit on behalf of a putative class of former participants in an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) invested exclusively in Lehman’s common stock, alleging that the Plan Committee Defendants, who were fiduciaries of the ESOP, breached their duty of prudence under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), 29 U.S.C. 1001 et seq. Specifically, plaintiffs alleged that the Plan Committee Defendants breached ERISA by continuing to permit investment in Lehman stock in the face of circumstances arguably foreshadowing its eventual bankruptcy. Plaintiffs also filed claims against Lehman's former directors, including Richard S. Fuld. The district court dismissed plaintiff's consolidated amended complaint (CAC) and second consolidated amended complaint (SAC) for failure to state a claim. The court affirmed. The Supreme Court subsequently held in Fifth Third Bancorp v. Dudenhoeffer that ESOP fiduciaries are not entitled to any special presumption of prudence. After remand, the district court dismissed plaintiffs' third amended complaint (TAC). The court agreed with the district court that, even without the presumption of prudence rejected in Fifth Third, plaintiffs have failed to plead plausibly that the Plan Committee Defendants breached their fiduciary duties under ERISA by failing to recognize the imminence of Lehman’s collapse. The court concluded as it had before, that plaintiffs have not adequately shown that the Plan Committee Defendants should be held liable for their actions in attempting to meet their fiduciary duties under ERISA while simultaneously offering an undiversified investment option for employees’ retirement savings. Accordingly, the court affirmed the judgment. View "Rinehart v. Lehman Brothers Holdings" on Justia Law
Fish v. Greatbanc Trust Co.
Plaintiffs, employees of Antioch, participated in an employee stock ownership, plan (ESOP). In 2003, Antioch borrowed money to buy back all stock except the stock owned by the ESOP. The buy-out left Antioch bankrupt and ESOP worthless. Plaintiffs filed suit under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), 29 U.S.C. 1001, claiming breach of fiduciary duties. The district court granted the defendants summary judgments. The presumptive limitation period for violations is six years from the date of the last action constituting part of the breach or violation, but the time is shortened to three years from the time the plaintiff gained “actual knowledge of the breach or violation.” Applying the three-year limitations period, section 1113(2), the court reasoned that proxy documents given to plaintiffs at the time of the buy-out and their knowledge of Antioch’s financial affairs after the transaction gave them actual knowledge of the alleged ERISA violations. The Seventh Circuit reversed. The claims for breach of fiduciary duty do not depend only on the disclosed substantive terms of the 2003 transaction, but also depend on the processes used to evaluate, negotiate, and approve the transaction. Plaintiffs’ knowledge of the substantive terms of the buyout, therefore did not give them “actual knowledge of the breach or violation” alleged in this case. View "Fish v. Greatbanc Trust Co." on Justia Law
Fifth Third Bancorp v. Dudenhoeffer
Fifth Third maintains a defined-contribution retirement savings plan for its employees. Participants may direct their contributions into any of several investment options, including an “employee stock ownership plan” (ESOP), which invests primarily in Fifth Third stock. Former participants sued, alleging breach of the fiduciary duty of prudence imposed by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), 29 U.S.C. 1104(a)(1)(B) in that the defendants should have known—on the basis of both public information and inside information available to Fifth Third officers—that the stock was overpriced and risky. The price of Fifth Third stock fell, reducing plaintiffs’ retirement savings. The district court dismissed; the Sixth Circuit reversed. A unanimous Supreme Court vacated. ESOP fiduciaries are not entitled to any special presumption of prudence, but are subject to the same duty that applies to ERISA fiduciaries in general, except that they need not diversify the fund’s assets. There is no requirement that plaintiffs allege that the employer was, for example, on the “brink of collapse.” Where a stock is publicly traded, allegations that a fiduciary should have recognized, on the basis of publicly available information, that the market was over- or under-valuing the stock are generally implausible and insufficient to state a claim. To state a claim, a complaint must plausibly allege an alternative action that could have been taken, that would have been legal, and that a prudent fiduciary in the same circumstances would not have viewed as more likely to harm the fund than to help it. ERISA’s duty of prudence never requires a fiduciary to break the law, so a fiduciary cannot be imprudent for failing to buy or sell in violation of insider trading laws. An allegation that fiduciaries failed to decide, based on negative inside information, to refrain from making additional stock purchases or failed to publicly disclose that information so that the stock would no longer be overvalued, requires courts to consider possible conflicts with complex insider trading and corporate disclosure laws. Courts confronted with such claims must also consider whether the complaint has plausibly alleged that a prudent fiduciary in the same position could not have concluded that stopping purchases or publicly disclosing negative information would do more harm than good to the fund. View "Fifth Third Bancorp v. Dudenhoeffer" on Justia Law