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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
In our fourth installment of ERISA at 45, Sarah Bassler Millar interviews Jeremy Pelphrey regarding the DOL’s focus on the fiduciary process in ESOP transactions and administration, current trends in ESOP transactions, and the positive implications of ESOPs for employee-owners.
In Pizzella v. Vinoskey, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia held that an independent fiduciary hired to represent the interests of participants in an employee stock ownership plan (the ESOP) engaged in a prohibited transaction and breached its fiduciary duties of prudence and loyalty in a $21 million transaction involving the ESOP’s purchase of stock from one of the company’s founders. The ESOP was awarded a $6.5 million judgment based on the amount that the Court determined the ESOP had overpaid for the stock. The Court held that the founder and independent fiduciary were jointly and severally liable for this judgment.