The board of directors of Bowers + Kubota Consulting, Inc. recently won an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) fiduciary/breach case brought against them by the Department of Labor. See Walsh v. Bowers, et al., No. 1:18-cv-00155-SOM-WRP (D. Haw. Sept. 17, 2021). After a full trial on the merits, the district-court judge entered judgment in favor of the defendants, largely based on the court’s rejection of the DOL’s critiques of the valuation upon which the trustee relied. What is perhaps most interesting about the court’s decision is the contrast between the discussion in this case of fundamental ERISA and valuation concepts, on the one hand, and the discussion of fundamental ERISA and valuation concepts in two other cases in which courts entered judgment against the defendants.
On September 10, 2021, the Seventh Circuit decided Smith v. Board of Directors of Triad Manufacturing Inc., No. 20-2708, holding that benefit plans may require claimants to arbitrate claims under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, 29 U.S.C. § 1001, et seq. (ERISA), but may not preclude claimants from obtaining relief that ERISA provides.
Triad Manufacturing, acting through its board of directors, established an employee stock ownership plan (Plan) in December 2015, when several of Triad’s largest shareholders (Selling Shareholders) sold all of their stock to the Plan. The Plan was a defined-contribution employee retirement plan governed by ERISA. Triad, acting through the Board, was the Plan’s sponsor, GreatBanc served as the Plan’s trustee and James Smith was a former Triad employee and a participant in the Plan. When the value of Triad’s stock dropped significantly in the weeks following the ESOP transaction, the value of Smith’s interest in the Plan decreased commensurately, eventually prompting Smith to sue.
On August 23, 2021, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois dismissed an ERISA stock-drop lawsuit brought against fiduciaries of Kraft Heinz Food Company’s employee stock ownership plan (ESOP), holding that the plaintiffs failed to meet the “more harm than good” pleading standard set forth in Fifth Third Bancorp v. Dudenhoeffer, 573 U.S. 409, 428 (2014). Osborne v. Emp. Benefits Admin. Bd. of Kraft Heinz, No. 20-cv-2256, 2021 WL 3725613 (N.D. Ill. Aug. 23, 2021).
Following the Fifth Circuit’s decision in Ortiz v. American Airlines, plan fiduciaries should be aware that the application of the Thole decision may be deemed inapposite to claims for a defined-contribution plan, where participants’ benefits are tied directly to fiduciary investment decisions.
Recently, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals held that a plaintiff was required to request attorneys’ fees during an arbitration of an ERISA claims dispute. Having failed to do so, the plaintiff could not subsequently seek a fee award from the district court. The Sixth Circuit held that because the parties were obligated to arbitrate their ERISA disputes, the court’s jurisdiction was limited, and the parties were obligated to raise any remedy issues during the arbitration.
The Ninth Circuit’s recent decision in Bafford v. Northrop Grumman (April 15, 2021) affirmed the district court’s dismissal of the plaintiffs’ breach of fiduciary duty claims under ERISA but vacated the district court’s holding that state-law professional and negligent misrepresentation claims were preempted.
Northrop Grumman (Northrup), sponsor of the ERISA-governed retirement plan at issue, delegated administration of the plan to an administrative committee (the Committee). The Committee, in turn, contracted with a record keeper to provide outside administrative services. One of the services offered by the record keeper was an online benefits portal to assist plan participants in estimating pension benefits.
For the full alert, visit the Faegre Drinker website.
On June 14, 2021, the Department of Labor (DOL) issued an information letter stating that plan fiduciaries have a duty under ERISA’s claim regulations to produce upon request recordings or transcripts of phone calls between benefit claimants and plan representatives regarding their benefit claims. The DOL letter is a call for plan administrators to revisit and potentially refine their processes for recording and storing such conversations.
Claims-related audio recordings may need to be disclosed to claimants upon request, according to an information letter dated June 14, 2021 (“Information Letter”), issued by the Department of Labor’s (“DOL”) Employee Benefits Security Administration (“EBSA”). Although DOL information letters are not binding, as a result of the Information Letter, claimants may start to request audio recordings of conversations relating to benefit denials. Plan sponsors and claims administrators should be prepared for these requests and should train personnel handling telephone calls with claimants accordingly.
The Information Letter addresses whether ERISA and DOL claims procedures regulations thereunder require a plan fiduciary to provide, upon a claimant’s request, a copy of an audio recording and transcript of a telephone conversation between the claimant and a representative of the plan’s insurer regarding a benefit denial. The request at issue in the Information Letter was denied by the claims administrator on the basis that “recordings are for ‘quality assurance purposes,’” and “are not created, maintained, or relied upon for claim administration purposes, and therefore are not part of the administrative record.” The claims administrator maintained that the actual recording is distinct from the notes made available to the claimant, which contemporaneously documented the content of the recorded conversation, and which became part of the “claim activity history through which [the insurer] develops, tracks and administers the claim.”
A federal judge in the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota dismissed breach of fiduciary duty claims against UnitedHealth Group, holding that participants in ERISA-governed, employer-sponsored health plans lack standing to challenge UnitedHealth Group’s practice of cross-plan offsetting because they have not been denied any benefits and have not been individually injured. The decision underscores the Supreme Court’s ruling that plaintiffs must demonstrate individual injury in order to assert breach of fiduciary duty claims under ERISA.
On May 21, 2021, the terms of the proposed ERISA class action settlement in Cates v. The Trustees of Columbia University in the City of New York were announced. The settlement, which includes a $13 million payment and many non-monetary terms, serves as a reminder for fiduciaries/committees to review their processes for selecting and retaining investment options — and to examine the fees and services of plan providers.