ERISA Whistle Blowers

In the aftermath of the November 17, 2014 Strafford CLE webinar entitled ERISA Plan Investment Committee Governance, I asked several attorneys for their thoughts about whistle blower protection.

Attorney Stephen P. Wilkes, Of Counsel to The Wagner Law Group, took time out of a busy schedule to share his thoughts about a hypothetical scenario. He wrote the following:

Person X, a corporate officer, is a member of the Investment Committee for the corporate retirement plan ("Plan"). Person X determines that a specific course of action is in the best interest of the Plan (e.g. remove employer securities as an investment option or replace Bank Y with Bank Z as trustee). However, the Chief Financial Officer ("CFO") of this made-up company inappropriately steers the decision to one that serves the corporate interest and not the Plan interest (e.g. maintain employer securities as an investment option or continue to use Bank Y as trustee because it is providing corporate finance services to the company at below-market prices).What is Person X to do? He or she has a duty to serve the company and its shareholders, yet as an ERISA fiduciary, is there is a duty owed in this instance to the Plan and its participants? Person X complains to the U.S. Department of Labor ("DOL"). Five months later, Person X is terminated from employment by the CFO for "performance issues."

There is an inherent conflict of interest when corporate officers serve in an ERISA fiduciary capacity. The DOL and the U.S. Supreme Court have each determined that one can wear dual hats (sometimes an ERISA fiduciary, other times not an ERISA fiduciary),

In this hypothetical situation, Person X is clearly wearing the ERISA fiduciary hat when engaged in Plan Investment Committee work and owes the corresponding duty at that time to the Plan and its participants and beneficiaries.

The very purpose of the whistleblower statutes (such as ERISA Section 510 or Sarbanes-Oxley Section 1514A) is to root out problems and protect the reporting individual (the "whistleblower") from retaliation in this sort of scenario.The legal mechanism is in place to protect whistleblowers.There are some legal distinctions yet to be fully resolved about whether or not a particular retaliation is unlawful or not. They turn on whether an employee "has given information or has testified or is about to testify in any inquiry or proceeding." In other words, there are some open legal issues about whether unsolicited grievances are protected (as compared to whistle-blowing about ERISA violations during an active or ongoing investigation).

The question as to whether the presence of senior management who serve alongside mid-level or junior-level employees at the ERISA fiduciary table creates a "chilling" effect is a good one. Though the answer ultimately turns on the compliance culture of each company, potential problems can be mitigated well in advance with solid corporate governance and ERISA fiduciary training, as well as having appropriate policies and procedures in place with regard to risk management.

On behalf of the readers of Pension Risk Matters, thank you Attorney Wilkes.Your insights are much appreciated.

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