Thinking ESOPs: Courts Desperately Need Contextual Clues in Disputes Over Enforceability of Arbitration Provisions

Enforcement of an ERISA plan’s arbitration provision has become a hotly litigated issue. Plaintiffs and courts often raise two objections to arbitration provisions in ERISA plans, including ESOPs. The first is whether participants or the plan itself consented to the arbitration provision. The second is whether class-action waiver language, which requires individualized arbitration, is enforceable under ERISA.

There have been several important ERISA arbitration decisions in recent years, including many involving ESOPs. Interestingly, these decisions suggest that courts are struggling with the same statutory-interpretation problems that courts struggle with when addressing a number of issues raised by ESOP litigation. Many key ERISA provisions are difficult, if not impossible, to interpret based solely on their express language. This is a real problem in ESOP litigation because many disputes turn on a court’s interpretation of the opaque ERISA provisions that are implicated by the disputes.

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Thinking ESOPs: Sixth Circuit Enforces ERISA Exclusion in ESOP Trustee’s Insurance Policy

A recent Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals decision serves as a warning to policyholders: read your entire policy, understand each provision and confirm that the policy language accurately reflects your understanding of the coverage you purchased.

Navigating an insurance policy is not easy. A policy’s declarations, general terms, insuring agreements, definitions, exclusions, conditions and endorsements collectively set forth the scope of the policy’s coverage. With very rare exceptions, both the insurer and the policyholder will be bound by the language found in the policy. This is true even if the language in the policy is unfavorable to the policyholder and does not cover risks the policyholder was attempting to mitigate through insurance.

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Thinking ESOPs: Court Rejects DOL Claims of ESOP Overpayment

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.

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ERISA Litigation Roundup: Seventh Circuit Weighs in on Arbitration and Class Waiver Provisions in Defined-Contribution Plans

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.

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Thinking ESOPs: Enforceability of Arbitration Provisions — There Might Be More to the Analysis

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.

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Thinking ESOPs: What the Supreme Court’s Decision in a 401(k) Fee Case Could Mean for ESOPs

The U.S. Supreme Court recently agreed to hear a challenge to the dismissal of an Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) 401(k) excessive fee case. The case involves a question about whether jury trials are appropriate in ERISA cases, but also a question about what an ERISA lawsuit must plead in order to survive a motion to dismiss, particularly when the lawsuit brings a claim for breach of fiduciary duty in managing a 401(k) plan’s fees and investment options. The 401(k) community is watching this case closely, and the employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) community also should pay close attention.

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Federal Courts Continue to Dismiss ERISA Stock-Drop Claims Post-Jander

Ever since the Supreme Court’s decision in Fifth Third Bancorp v. Dudenhoeffer, 573 U.S. 409 (2014), plaintiffs’ attorneys have been trying to crack the code for pleading an ERISA duty-of-prudence claim against fiduciaries of employee stock ownership plans (ESOPs) following a drop in the company’s stock price. Those attempts have been largely unsuccessful, with the notable exception of Jander v. Retirement Plans Committee of IBM, 910 F.3d 620 (2d Cir. 2018), vacated and remanded, 140 S. Ct. 592, reinstated, 962 F.3d 85 (2d Cir. 2020). When the Supreme Court granted certiorari in Jander, many ERISA lawyers expected the Court to clarify how a plaintiff could satisfy the Dudenhoeffer standard while still preventing meritless stock-drop claims. But as it often does, the Supreme Court ducked the issue and remanded the case without addressing the merits.

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Preventing an ERISA Litigation Outbreak After COVID-19 – Part 1: ESOPs

In addition to raising a host of regulatory issues for employee benefit plans, including compliance with the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to cause a sharp rise in ERISA litigation in the coming months. Faegre Drinker’s ERISA litigation team will be issuing a series of alerts designed to help clients navigate the fiduciary and plan liability issues associated with COVID-19. Part One of our series provides helpful guidance for ESOP fiduciaries carrying out their duties during this uncertain time.

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Supreme Court Remands Second Circuit Stock Drop Decision

The U.S. Supreme Court is poised for a flurry of ERISA-related activity this year, with four cases on the docket. The first decision out of this quartet came on January 14, 2020, when the Supreme Court remanded the closely watched Retirement Plans Committee of IBM v. Jander to the Second Circuit Court to consider issues that were not fully developed at the court of appeals.

In Jander, the plaintiffs were participants in IBM’s employee stock ownership plan (ESOP), which invested in IBM stock. The plaintiffs alleged that the ESOP fiduciaries’ failure to make early corrective disclosures about an incorrect business valuation was a breach of fiduciary duty that caused the IBM stock to drop significantly.

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