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When an employee separates from employment with a severance payment, the employee will frequently agree to a broad release of claims against the employer. Special concerns arise when applying a general release to potential claims that arise under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA). Although participants cannot be forced to forfeit their vested pension benefits or the assets in their individual retirement plan accounts, there have been a spate of class action lawsuits in recent years alleging that retirement plan fiduciaries breached their duties under ERISA § 502(a)(2). When faced with a prior release agreement, ERISA plaintiffs often argue that participants cannot individually waive fiduciary breach claims because they are bringing them on behalf of the plan. The Seventh Circuit rejected that argument in Howell v. Motorola, Inc., 633 F.3d 552 (7th Cir. 2011), dismissing the plaintiff’s fiduciary breach claim in a stock drop action because he had knowingly and voluntarily executed a general release. Other courts, however, have held that individual releases do not bar ERISA fiduciary breach claims brought on behalf of the plan. See, e.g., In re Schering Plough Corp. ERISA Litig., 589 F.3d 585, 594 (3d Cir. 2009). While neither the D.C. Circuit nor the district court had to directly address this issue—the argument was not properly raised by the plaintiff—they both concluded in a victory for plan sponsors that the plaintiff’s prior release agreement barred her fiduciary duty claims under ERISA § 502(a)(2).

Continue Reading D.C. Circuit Holds That a Participant Who Signed a Release Could Not Assert ERISA Fiduciary Breach Claims on Behalf of Her Retirement Plan

Background:  On August 20, 2019, a Ninth Circuit panel in Dorman v. Schwab, No. 18-15281, reversed the district court’s denial of Schwab’s motion

to compel arbitration and held that Schwab could force the plaintiff to individually arbitrate his fiduciary duty claims challenging the administration of Schwab’s 401(k) plan.  In 2017, plaintiff Michael Dorman filed a putative class action in federal court alleging that Schwab had breached its fiduciary duties under ERISA by adding allegedly poorly performing in-house investment funds to its 401(k) plan investment lineup.  In 2015 – two years before the lawsuit was filed – Schwab had amended its 401(k) plan document to include an arbitration clause stating that “[a]ny claim, dispute, or breach arising out of or in any way related to the Plan” had to be resolved by individual, rather than class or collective, arbitration.  Based on this 2015 plan amendment, Schwab filed a motion in the district court to compel individual arbitration.  The district court denied the motion because it concluded that the plan’s arbitration provision was unenforceable with respect to the plaintiff’s fiduciary duty claims.


Continue Reading Mandatory Arbitration: The Next Frontier for ERISA Retirement Plans?

At the table in the kitchen, there were three bowls of porridge.  Goldilocks was hungry.  She tasted the porridge from the first bowl.

“This porridge is too hot!” she exclaimed.

So, she tasted the porridge from the second bowl.

“This porridge is too cold,” she said

So, she tasted the last bowl of porridge.

“Ahhh, this porridge is just right,” she said happily and she ate it all up.

Virtually all companies that offer participant-directed retirement plans permit their participants to elect an income-producing, low risk, liquid fund, such as a money market fund or a stable value fund. A stable value fund, as the name suggests, is a conservative investment option designed to provide stability, as opposed to growth.

Stable value funds have desirable features.  By combining bonds and an investment wrap, participants can achieve bond-like returns without the interest-rate volatility present in bond funds.  But those features do not eliminate the risk of losses, they just delay them. Indeed, a stable value fund with a longer duration is riskier than a fund with a shorter duration.

The stability-enhancing features of a stable value fund mean that, if a stable value fund invests in a bond that defaults, the value of the fund will not take an immediate tumble, but the loss will be amortized over a period of time.  Over the long run, the performance of a stable value fund approaches the performance of the underlying bond portfolio, minus the expenses of maintaining the wrap coverage and administering the fund.

There is, however, no typical stable value fund. According to How to Evaluate Stable Value Funds and Their Managers by Andrew Apostol, “[d]ue to the varying expectations of individual plan sponsors and the range of management techniques used by their stable value managers, there is not a single style or strategy that is common across all stable value funds.” For example, the plans for a Silicon Valley startup or a hedge fund will differ. Even if both aim for stability, the participants likely have different risk targets, which will lead to different markups across stable value funds.

Even though there is no typical stable value fund, there are three typical types of lawsuits filed against fiduciaries offering stable value funds. Fiduciaries have been sued for 1) offering a stable value fund that is too risky and 2) offering a stable value fund that is not risky enough. Only Goldilocks, it seems, could safely offer a stable value fund.

Considering the litigation risks for fiduciaries who do not set the stable value fund just right—a task that always looks easier in the hindsight of a lawsuit—a fiduciary may conclude the best option is not to offer a stable value fund at all. Yet fiduciaries have also been sued for 3) not offering a stable value fund. Let’s take a deeper dive into these three bears of a lawsuit.
Continue Reading Stable Value Funds: A Financial Investment with Risky Litigation Consequences