“The point is that you’re not insulated from making bad [investment] decisions in your — [ . . . ] plan by the fact that you’ve made some good [investment] decisions in your plan, are you?”
The fiduciaries of two 403(b) plans maintained by Northwestern University were sued for ERISA fiduciary breach on the grounds that the plans paid excessive recordkeeping fees, in part because of the existence of multiple recordkeepers, offered retail share class mutual funds and annuities when cheaper and materially identical institutional class alternatives were available to a plan of Northwestern’s size, and had a too-large roster of investment options that confused participants (Northwestern made changes that corrected some of these issues by the time the Supreme Court heard oral argument.) The Northwestern fiduciaries moved to dismiss these claims, in part, on the grounds that the participants could have chosen from among lower-priced investments offered by the plans, hence failed to successfully allege that a fiduciary breach occurred.
In a unanimous decision by Justice Sonia Sotomayor in Hughes v. Northwestern University, the Supreme Court addressed a narrow issue on the standard of pleading an ERISA fiduciary breach:
- Whether, if plaintiffs can allege the existence of overpriced or otherwise imprudent investment options or recordkeeping arrangements, their complaint will survive a motion to dismiss, and may proceed to trial, even if participants could have chosen from among other investments that were not similarly flawed.
The Supreme Court answered this question “yes,” and remanded the case to the Seventh Circuit to determine whether fiduciary breaches were sufficiently alleged, notwithstanding that the Northwestern University 403(b) plans included some low-cost investment options which participants, in the self-directed arrangement, were free to choose over higher-priced options.
In reaching its conclusion the Supreme Court called out the Seventh Circuit for using “flawed” reasoning in its over-reliance on participant choice: “[s]uch a categorical rule is inconsistent with the context-specific inquiry that ERISA requires and fails to take into account respondents’ duty to monitor all plan investments and remove any imprudent ones.” Hughes Opinion at p. 2, citing Tibble v. Edison Int’l, 575 U.S. 524, 530 (2015).
In other words, because ERISA fiduciaries must continually monitor investment options (and recordkeeping contracts, and other arrangements whose costs offset the growth of ERISA assets), the maintenance of some options that reflect fiduciary prudence does not excuse the continued presence of other options that do not.
Reliance throughout the Hughes opinion on the Tibble case is instructive. In that case, plaintiffs alleged in 2007 that the Edison 401(k) Savings Plan added mutual funds in 1999 and in 2002 with retail share pricing when materially identical, lower-priced institutional-class mutual funds were available. The district court allowed the allegations regarding the funds added in 2002 to proceed but not the funds added in 1999, because more than six years had passed since the overpriced funds were added to the investment mix, and that exceeded the applicable statute of limitations for fiduciary breach.
The Ninth Circuit affirmed, but the Supreme Court disagreed, holding that ERISA fiduciary’s continuing duty to monitor and remove imprudent investments meant that the statute of limitations with regard to the 1999 fund additions remained open, because imprudent retention of an investment was a fiduciary breach, separate and distinct from a breach that occurs at the point of selecting an investment. 575 U.S. at 529, citing, inter alia, A. Hess, G. Bogert, & G. Bogert, Law of Trusts and Trustees § 684, at 147-148.
While it does not provide bright-line answers to what constitutes a fiduciary breach, the Hughes decision does acknowledge the complexity that the duty of prudence encompasses, stating that examinations of fiduciary prudence “will necessarily be context specific,” turning on the factual circumstances that prevail at the time the fiduciary acts; that at times, the circumstances facing an ERISA fiduciary will implicate “difficult tradeoffs,” and that courts must give “due regard” to the “range of reasonable judgments a fiduciary may make based on her experience and expertise.” Hughes Opinion at p. 6.
What does this mean for plan sponsors, plan investment committees, and other fiduciaries of 401(k), 403(b) and other ERISA retirement plans? Nothing that common sense did not already dictate, but seeing the issues addressed so succinctly by the country’s highest court should be an impetus for plan fiduciaries to take the proper steps, which include (but are not limited to):
- They must regularly evaluate the performance and pricing of their entire universe of investment options, as well as their recordkeeping and other vendor relationship, in a regular benchmarking or other apples-to-apples comparison process.
- They must also put those relationships out to competitive bid at the outset of the relationship and periodically thereafter.
- The benchmarking and bidding process must be documented in the form of meeting minutes and resolutions as must the periodic, such as quarterly, review of investment performance.
- Use of a carefully chosen ERISA 3(21) investment advisor or 3(38) investment manager will assist with this process, but the choice and retention of the fiduciary advisor or manager is itself subject to the fiduciary standard and failing to benchmark and bid out those relationships could lead to potential liability.
- An investment policy statement that articulates the process through which fiduciaries fulfill their duties of prudence, loyalty, and diversification with regard to selection and retention of investments is also advisable. However, care must be taken to not create too specific a set of guidelines as drifting from them could itself give rise to fiduciary liability.
In summary, the Supreme Court has weighed in, and ERISA fiduciaries who can point to some prudent investment options will not defeat fiduciary breach allegations at the pleading stage if they have not also regularly monitored and pruned inefficient and overpriced investments and recordkeeping relationships from their plan lineup. Plan sponsors and other fiduciaries who already have good fiduciary hygiene practices in place should have little to fear, but those who do not now have no comfort that some is good enough, for defeating allegations of fiduciary imprudence.
The above information is a brief summary of legal developments that is provided for general guidance only and does not create an attorney-client relationship between the author and the reader. Readers are encouraged to seek individualized legal advice in regard to any particular factual situation. © 2022 Christine P. Roberts, all rights reserved.
Photo credit: Bill Mason, Unsplash
 Justice Elena Kagan, Transcript of Oral Argument, Hughes v. Northwestern (19-1401), Retrieved at https://www.supremecourt.gov/oral_arguments/argument_transcripts/2021/19-1401_d18f.pdf