ERISA Litigation and Use of Economic and Fiduciary Experts

On April 29, 2014, I presented with Attorney Joseph Callow and Attorney Ron Kravitz on the topic of case management and the use of experts. Having spoken several times at this relevant periodic conference about ERISA litigation for the American Conference Institute, I heard attorneys repeatedly emphasize the importance of good experts without ever going into much detail. As a result, I volunteered to develop this program and am appreciative of the time and knowledge of my esteemed panelists. Entitled "Expert Coordination: Working With Financial and Fiduciary Experts," the workshop consisted of a perspective from the defense, courtesy of Keating Muething & Klekamp PLL partner, Joseph M. Callow. The plaintiff's view about the use of experts was presented by Shepherd, Finkelman, Miller & Shah, LLP partner, Attorney Ronald S. Kravitz. I offered comments from the perspective of someone who has served as a testifying expert, calculated damages and provided forensic analyses as a behind-the-scenes economist.

Notably, our individual observations about what makes for a smooth process were similar, including the reality of tight litigation budgets and the desires of corporate General Counsel or Litigation Counsel to avoid excessively large invoices. We gave multiple suggestions. For example, one way to keep costs in check is to engage an expert on an incremental analysis basis with each work segment tied to a limited scope. Another idea is for an expert and supporting number crunchers to put together a budget. This disciplined projection of time and related fees, created at the outset, allows counsel and expert to share expectations about what is needed and how much money it will take to accomplish those tasks. Moreover, if an insurance company has to approve defense costs, putting together a detailed budget can help to avoid delays. The creation of a budget is likewise a tool for deciding whether a litigator and/or expert can accept a flat fee for non-testimony work. If the scope of work is ill-defined, it will be harder for either counsel or expert or both to commit to a flat fee at the same time that corporate clients favor the flat fee approach.

We all agreed that the engaging attorney and his or her litigation team reap benefits when the expert provides suggestions about further data and document evaluation. In other words, the attorneys look to the expert to be pro-active and helpful with respect to fact gathering and subsequent assessment of said information. Working with an expert who is relatively easy-going as opposed to an individual with a "difficult" personality is a plus for the legal team.

Timing matters too. If an expert is hired early on, he or she can make recommendations during discovery. If the expert is engaged too late in the process and discovery has ended, that expert's report could be adversely impacted in terms of completeness. 

Attorney Callow repeatedly urged litigators to do their homework when selecting an expert. Attorney Kravitz talked about the high price tag of having to replace an expert, once hired, in the event of poor quality work. In reply to my question about the use of lawyers as fiduciary experts, both gentlemen said that judges may not be receptive to having an attorney testify. If an attorney is needed, the better approach is to have that person serve as a consultant.

Click to access the April 29, 2014 slides for our session about the use of financial and fiduciary experts for ERISA litigation matters. Click here to read "Tips From the Experts: Working Effectively With A Financial Expert Witness" by Dr. Susan Mangiero and published by the American Bar Association.

$89 For An Umbrella and No Money To Retire

In between business meetings in Greenwich, Connecticut the other day, it started to rain heavily so this blogger walked a few blocks to an upscale department store (the closest in sight), in search of a reasonably priced umbrella. Since I have so many umbrellas already (but had forgotten to pack one), I figured I would spend a modest $15 or $20 to buy another umbrella to keep me dry. How much could an umbrella cost after all? To my surprise and shock, none of the umbrellas came in at less than $89 (plus tax of course). For some people, that's a tiny price for protection. Certainly this merchant was thriving with designer attire, shoes and jewelry finding its way into shoppers' bags.

However, the reality is that not everyone is going to shell out 89 big ones for an umbrella, no matter what the brand. For a large segment of the U.S. population, money is a scarce resource and confidence in a secure future is low. According to the results of a recent Wells Fargo/Gallup Investor study, optimism is down and pessimism is up. At the same time that 68% of respondents say they have "little to no" confidence in the stock market as a way to prepare for retirement, 80% of investors urge lawmakers to act now so that savings is encouraged.

Unfortunately, most of the initiatives that individuals cite as "must have" elements of a national retirement readiness program are in direct conflict with the political grab to raise taxes. Consider a few examples.

  • Sixty-nine percent of the survey respondents say it is "extremely" or "very important" that politicians encourage every company to offer a 401(k) plan to its employees. Since there is already talk in Washington, DC about stripping companies of the tax benefits associated with offering retirement plans, it is unlikely that employers will realize further tax advantages at the expense of big spenders having to lose tax "revenue."
  • Sixty-six percent cite the need for the government to figure out how Americans who participate in 401(k) plans can get "more quality investment advice." Anticipating increased regulations as relates to investment fiduciary duties, some financial advisors are becoming less generous with information for fear of being sued. As described in "401(k) Lawsuits, Investment Advisers and Fiduciary Breach" (November 18, 2012), breach of fiduciary duty is cited as the top complaint in FINRA arbitration matters.
  • Sixty-nine percent want the government to establish initiatives that will motivate individuals to participate in their employer's 401(k) retirement savings option, assuming that they work for a company that offers benefits. Yet here we are, talking about a fiscal cliff that could impact millions of people with incomes below the magical "rich" benchmark of $250,000.  For one thing, in the absence of inflation indexing, the Alternative Minimum Tax that was enacted decades ago will show up as a nasty spring 2013 surprise for countless tax-paying middle-class households. Then there is the issue of jobs not created because employers will be writing larger checks to the IRS instead as various tax rates go up.

The United States is not alone in having to tackle difficult problems. The list is long and includes (but is not limited to) insufficient aggregate savings, underfunded social programs that are not sustainable safety nets without reform, high unemployment, corporate jitters about parting with cash, uncertain tax and regulatory environment and conflicting interests that make it almost possible to come up with near-term solutions.

There is a way forward to expand economic growth but that will require political courage. Let's hold our policy-makers accountable in 2013.

ERISA Litigation Against Service Providers

Seyfarth Shaw ERISA attorneys Ian Morrison and Violet Borowski wrote an interesting blog post about what they describe as a discernible growth in lawsuits "filed by (or on behalf of) ERISA plans (sometimes class actions) against investment providers for charging excessive fees or otherwise gleaning improper profits from investments used in ERISA plans."

What they point out as noteworthy is the fact that the plans' fiduciaries frequently have no involvement in filing a complaint against a service provider(s) since several courts have allowed plan participants to seek redress without getting permission or even having an obligation to inform a company sponsor. 

At first blush, they offer that this situation may seem benign and possibly even helpful to a sponsor if the result of litigation against a service provider(s) results in reduced costs for everyone. The plot thickens however if a participant's complaint and related discovery later leads to legal scrutiny of a plan's fiduciaries, alleging that they knew about problems but did little or nothing to rectify a "bad" situation.

Attorneys Morrison and Borowski point out the challenges that fiduciaries must confront when a participant(s) files a lawsuit.

  • "Do they join with the service provider on the theory that a common defense is the best defense?
  • Should they join the participant plaintiffs in attacking the provider and at the same time potentially implicating themselves?
  • Or, should they remain on the sidelines, potentially risking being sued for taking no post-litigation action to recover for the provider's alleged breach?"

According to "Wait, You Mean My Plan Is A Plaintiff?" (May 24, 2012), attorneys Morrison and Borowski suggest that plan sponsors set up Google alerts to track any lawsuits that involve a company's benefit plan(s).

As an expert who has been involved in service provider cases, Dr. Susan Mangiero adds that a good offense is to conduct a comprehensive review of agreements on a regular basis. Should litigation occur and an expert is engaged, that person(s) will likely have to review whatever communications were provided to plan participants during the relevant time period as well as the contracts between the plan sponsor and a vendor(s). Another prescriptive course of action is to ensure that communications are robust, especially now with new fee disclosure rules in place.

401(k) Stock Drop Litigation - Back in Fashion Again?

Back from a somewhat relaxing weekend (I had to work part of the time), I opened my mail to find two publications, each with a front page article about 401(k) "stock drop" cases. Is it coincidental or a harbinger of next season's hottest trend in litigation?

According to "401(k) fee suits not soon to retire" by Amanda Bronstad (The National Law Journal, May 28, 2007), earlier filed cases focus on undisclosed fees levied by mutual funds. In contrast, more recent lawsuits look at fees charged for annuities while "others challenge the prudence of employers that invest in funds that charge high fees - even if they're fully disclosed to employees."

In "Stock-drop suits hitch 401(k) ride," writer Susan Kelly describes a resurgence in ERISA lawsuits (Financial Week, May 28, 2007) with companies of all sizes now vulnerable to allegations that stock in the 401(k) plan is a no-no.

Outcomes remain unknown at this time with federal judges in three cases having refused to dismiss (Kraft, Boing, Bechtel). Not all cases are home runs for the plaintiffs. As the National Law Journal article details, the federal judge in a case against Exelon Corp. "dismissed claims that excessive fees in a 401(k) plan caused investor losses." In the Northrup Grumman case, some of the defendants, "including the board of directors," were dismissed.

Along these lines, we think our forthcoming June 4 webinar on the topic of 401(k) plan governance is timely. Click here  to get more details and/or to register. We'll start at noon and end at 1:15 p.m. EST. The webinar is free to subscribers. The cost to non-subscribers is $125. Pension Governance, LLC is registered with CFA Institute as an Approved Provider of professional development programs. This program is eligible for 1.5 PD credit hours as granted by CFA Institute.

Topics to be discussed include the following:
  • Description of fiduciary duties under ERISA
  • Discussion of procedural prudence as relates to 401(k) plan selection of fiduciary advisors
  • Overview of safe harbor and selection of fiduciary advisor pursuant to the Pension Protection Act of 2006
  • Litigation trends in the area of investment fiduciary breach as relates to plan sponsors and service providers such as consultants
  • Fiduciary investment process for assessing 401(k) provider fees
  • Role of fiduciary advisor in providing financial education
  • Governance considerations with respect to selection of default investment 
  • Structural changes in money management industry in response to material shift away from defined benefit plans
  • Fiduciary advisor “red flag” practices such as soft dollar questions, revenue-sharing, limited disclosure.
Dr. Susan M. Mangiero, AIFA, AVA, CFA, FRM, president of Pension Governance, LLC will moderate an expert group of panelists to include:

  • Mr. Blaine F. Aikin, AIF®, CFA, CFP® - Managing Partner, Fiduciary360
  • Mr. David J. Bauer - Partner, Casey, Quirk & Associates LLC
  • Mr. David Vriesenga - Chief Rating Officer, Cefex - Centre for Fiduciary Excellence, LLC.
We hope you can join us for what is sure to be an informative and lively discussion!

401(k) Fee Analysis - Who Benefits?

Thanks to attorney Stephen Rosenberg for giving our 401(k) fee webinar a round of applause. In "401(k) Plan Fees and Breaches of Fiduciary Duty", Rosenberg writes "On the key issue of how to avoid incurring liability for breach of fiduciary duty as a result of the fees incurred by 401(k) plans and their impact on plan performance, the speakers emphasized a commitment to due diligence. In particular, the speakers favor a systemic and periodic review of the entire issue of the fees affecting the plan, and proper investigation and selection of funds and advisors with the issue of fees firmly in mind. In other words, don't put the plan together without thinking about the issues of fees and ensuring that the applicable fees are consistent with industry benchmarks, and even after you do that, don't just forget about the issue, but instead return to the topic regularly and make sure fees and performance remain appropriate."

Some other points are noteworthy, especially given questions that arose after the event.

1. A comprehensive fee analysis, done before manager selection and regularly thereafter, benefits multiple constituencies - plan sponsors, participants, shareholders, money managers and consultants.

2. While plan participants arguably have limited information, relative to what is available to plan sponsors, both groups should understand fee structures and the expected economic effect of different types of fees. Remember that all fees are not "created equal." For example, some fees may be front-ended or tied to performance and therefore differ as regards portfolio performance impact.

3. What looks like "higher" fees on the surface may not be necessarily "bad" (and this is a gross simplification). In part, it depends on what they represent. A plan participant could have more flexibility in one situation (i.e. fewer restrictions perhaps), thereby boosting base fees. It likewise depends on, apples-to-apples, how a particular fund's fee structure compares to an appropriate fee benchmark. Other issues might come into play. Bottom line - A thorough analysis is paramount.

4. Fees are influenced by many factors, including asset class, investment strategy, market structure, fund structure, performance, terms, regulation and competitiveness.

Regarding the process itself, the U.S. Department of Labor provides guidance in its online publication, "A Look At 401(k) Plan Fees."

Here are a few excerpts:

"Establish a prudent process for selecting investment alternatives and service providers

Ensure that fees paid to service providers and other expenses of the plan are reasonable in light of the level and quality of services provided

Select investment alternatives that are prudent and adequately diversified

Monitor investment alternatives and service providers once selected to see that they continue to be appropriate choices"

Other resources exist in the form of checklists such as those provided by the Foundation for Fiduciary Studies. Click here to access the "Self-Assessment of Fiduciary Excellence" for investment stewards, investment advisors and money managers, respectively.

More to come...