In our fifth installment of ERISA at 45, Chicago partner Kim Jones speaks with Sarah Bassler Millar, Chicago partner and Chair of Drinker Biddle’s Employee Benefits and Executive Compensation Group, about the considerable increase in 401(k) litigation and the increased pressure on plan performance; excessive fee lawsuits and the three ERISA cases to watch before the U.S. Supreme Court this term; and the focus employers should place on prudent decision-making to reduce plan sponsor liability, especially in light of high-dollar amounts in settlements.
The Second Circuit Court of Appeals gave participants in New York University’s (NYU) retirement plans a second chance at pursuing their claims of plan mismanagement under ERISA. On October 1, 2019, the Second Circuit overturned the Southern District of New York’s dismissal of the participants’ lawsuit against the independent investment advisor who advised NYU on its retirement plans, even though the complaint alleged substantially the same claims against NYU in a separate lawsuit on which NYU prevailed.
In Sacerdote v. New York University (Sacerdote I), filed in 2016, retirement plan participants brought a class action alleging that NYU breached its fiduciary duties and committed prohibited transactions under ERISA by causing its retirement plans to pay unreasonable administrative and recordkeeping fees and maintain imprudent investment options. Plaintiffs subsequently filed a related action in November 2017, Sacerdote v. Cammack Larhette Advisors, LLC (Sacerdote II), against independent investment advisor Cammack Larhette Advisors, LLC (Cammack). The NYU defendants in Sacerdote II quickly moved to dismiss the suit as duplicative of Sacerdote I, and the Southern District of New York ultimately dismissed the action in its entirety, finding that defendants were in “privity with NYU in Sacerdote I because they had a sufficiently close relationship with NYU and their interests with aligned with those of NYU.”
In several recent ERISA plan lawsuits, plaintiffs have alleged that the plan fiduciary breached its fiduciary duties under ERISA with respect to participant data (e.g., participants’ ages, choice of investments, asset size, etc.), arguing that such participant data is a “plan asset” that the plan fiduciary failed to safeguard. Although ERISA does not specifically address whether participant data is a plan asset, the settlements reached in those lawsuits reveal an emerging trend that plan sponsors need to consider.
The withdrawal liability case of the year came to an anticlimactic end on Monday, September 16, 2019, as the Second Circuit docket sheet of New York Times Company v. Newspaper and Mail Deliverers’ Publishers’ Pension Fund pinged to life with a stipulation withdrawing the case with prejudice.
The most-watched issue in the case was a challenge to the Segal Blend discount rate assumption used by many multiemployer pension plans to calculate employer withdrawal liability. The discount rate assumption can have a massive effect on an employer’s withdrawal liability as even a small variation can dramatically increase a withdrawal calculation.
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