Last week, the Supreme Court issued its anticipated ruling in the ERISA fiduciary-breach class action Hughes v. Northwestern. In its unanimous decision, the Court vacated the Seventh Circuit’s dismissal of the case and sent the case back to the lower court for further review. The narrow decision may boost plaintiffs in similar ERISA cases involving challenges to retirement plan fees and investment options, but it also offers hope to defendants.
On December 21, 2021, the Department of Labor (DOL) issued additional guidance on the use of private equity investments in certain retirement plans, warning that most plan fiduciaries will not have enough experience to adequately evaluate such investments.
The DOL’s guidance relates to a June 3, 2020 “information letter” (which is a non-binding statement) issued by the Employee Benefits Security Administration of the DOL . In that information letter, the DOL addressed private equity investments in “designated investment alternatives” (or DIAs) offered to participants in individual account plans, like 401(k) plans, considered whether ERISA prohibits offering certain private equity investments to participants in individual account plans.
On January 20, 2022, the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida enforced a mandatory arbitration and class action-waiver provision (Arbitration Provision) in an ERISA-governed defined contribution plan, precluding a putative class of former and current plan participants from pursuing breach-of-fiduciary duty claims against plan fiduciaries in federal court. The plaintiffs in Holmes v. Baptist Health South Florida, Inc., 2022 WL 180638, argued that the plan’s Arbitration Provision was unenforceable as it both violated the “effective vindication” doctrine and was unenforceable because the participants did not knowingly agree to it. The court rejected both arguments.
Holmes adds to the flurry of recent decisions on the enforceability of mandatory arbitration and class action-waiver provisions in defined-contribution plans, which have yielded inconsistent results and are still working their way through courts of appeals. However, plan sponsors following this line of cases can glean several takeaways from the Holmes decision:
There is nothing a plan sponsor or ERISA fiduciary can do to prevent allegations of fiduciary breach; however, there are many things they can do to be prepared to rebut such claims. Unfortunately, because of “headline news,” it is easy for plan sponsors to focus on cautionary tales of what other plan sponsors and fiduciaries did wrong. However, it is just as important, if not more so, to be aware of what plan sponsors and fiduciaries did right….in their legal victories. Two recent fiduciary victories provide valuable insights into how a court would evaluate the decisions and processes of plan committees. In these cases, the courts highlighted conduct by the fiduciaries as evidence that they did not breach their fiduciary duties. Specifically, the judges focused on having a process of review, seeking outside help, and diligently maintaining records. The favorable views of these activities provide guidance for other plan sponsors and fiduciaries regarding how their conduct will be viewed if they face similar claims in the future.