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.
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.