Making Bets on U.S. Supreme Court Decisions

If I ever earn a spot on a game show like Jeopardy, answering questions about sports will be a challenge. I recognize that, unlike me, there are serious fans who spend more than a few hours each week, vetting all sorts of statistics and data points about what team is likely to win and by how much. At family gatherings, I hear nephews and in-laws waxing poetic about games such as Fantasy Football. According to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association ("FSTA"), only skilled parties need apply, adding that there is no gambling.

Big money is at stake. According to "Industry Demographics: At A Glance," nearly 34 million individuals, mostly men, played fantasy sports in the United States in 2013. Canada counts roughly 3.1 million fantasy sports players. Over a twelve month period, aggregate league fees for fantasy games tallied $1.71 billion. For information materials, the spend was $656 million. It was $492 million for challenge games. (For us neophytes, what is a challenge game?) Decade-long performance reflects "explosive absolute growth" of 241 percent or an annualized growth rate of 13.1 percent for 2008 through 2018. See "Top 10 Fastest Growing Industries" (April 2013).

So here I am, sitting at my computer, researching certain ERISA litigation matters, and lo and behold, what do I find? You guessed it - FantasySCOTUS. According to its dedicated website, over 20,000 lawyers, law students and "other avid Supreme Court followers" have opined as to how they believe cases will be decided. Click to view a short video about this Harlan Institute initiative.

For those who are waiting with bated breath for commentary about stock drop cases, fear not. Of 53 predictions, as of today, 23 votes are for affirmation by the U.S. Supreme Court and 30 votes are for reversal. There is even a breakdown of votes as to how each justice is expected to respond to the April 2, 2014 hearing about prudence. Click to check out the Fifth Third Bancorp v. Dudenhoeffer roster of votes. Click here to download a transcript of the hearing.

What will they think of next?

Fifth Third Bancorp v John Dudenhoeffer

For those unable to attend the April 2, 2014 U.S. Supreme Court hearing, a review of the transcript of Fifth Third Bancorp et al v. John Dudenhoeffer et al (No. 12-751) may be of interest. Appearances were made by Robert A. Long, Esquire and partner with Covington & Burling LLP (on behalf of Petitioners), Ronald Mann, Esquire and Albert E. Cinelli Enterprise Professor of Law with the Columbia Law School (on behalf of Respondents) and Edwin S. Kneedler, Esquire, Deputy Solicitor General, Department of Justice (on behalf of the United States, as amicus curiae, supporting Respondents.)

I will leave the legal interpretation to attorneys. The bullet points shown below are excerpted from the transcript and by no means reflect the totality of today's discussion. No doubt we will soon get insights from practicing attorneys who can properly parse the legal issues, ahead of a formal opinion from the U.S. Supreme Court bench.

From my perspective as an economist, I think it is always good whenever further guidance is provided about the important role of the ERISA fiduciary. Notwithstanding this notion of "more is better" in terms of shedding light on fiduciary duties, I envision a kerfuffle as it relates to the discussion about stock valuation. Encouraging the use of an independent appraiser makes sense. However, the valuation community has already been vocal about its fears that an expanded fiduciary standard could increase its liability and thereby cause some firms to exit the market and push up the price of an appraisal as a result. As an aside, during her April 1, 2014 presentation before Practising Law Institute pension plan investment workshop attendees, Counsel for Appellate and Special Litigation, Elizabeth Hopkins mentioned that ESOP enforcement continues to be an active area for the U.S. Department of Labor, with a particular emphasis on the valuation of company stock.

  • There were several questions about what constitutes "prudence," along with comments about the value of a stock that is issued by the plan sponsor and related disclosure requirements if the price of said stock is deemed to be "overvalued".
  • Throughout the proceeding, there were questions and comments about ERISA versus SEC Rule 10b-5 with respect to the use of information known by company executives.
  • Justice Kennedy asked about the landscape relating to the use of an independent fiduciary. Attorney Long commented that not all problems would be solved that way since "you'd have to have a monitoring trustee who would have to give the independent trustee any inside information that they had."
  • Justice Alito asked if an ERISA fiduciary can "take into account the interests of the participants as employees as opposed to their interests as investors" and offered that "It doesn't seem to me that those will necessarily be the same. And there may be situations in which something that would be potentially good for the participants as investors would be quite bad for them as employees." For example, individuals could lose their jobs if decision-makers for an Employee Stock Ownership Plan ("ESOP") stop buying company stock and this signal possibly leads to "bankruptcy and liquidation for the company."
  • Attorney Mann started to address what he called a "rock and a hard place" issue. Various justices commented thereafter, asking what a fiduciary is supposed to do when they have information about a stock. His reply was that, similar to a "corporate context where directors ordinarily are protected by the business judgment rule, if a situation arises in which their interests patently diverge from the interests of the shareholders, they don't simply decide to represent both interests but pick one over the over. They instead step aside and appoint...allow independent people to represent the shareholders."
  • Justice Kennedy asked Attorney Mann how he would write a statute to promote employee ownership of company stock.
  • Attorney Kneedler began his comments with a reference to Section 1104 and the focus of "operating the plan for the exclusive purpose of providing benefits to participants and their beneficiaries, which means the interests of employees are taken into account only insofar as they are participants in the plan, not more generally." He agreed with Justice Sotomayor that a "stock drop in and of itself" is not necessarily proof of poor procedural prudence. He added that "fiduciaries have an obligation to actually exercise their discretion and actually investigate...monitoring of the ... investment."
  • Justice Breyer inquired about the materiality issue, i.e. how much "in assets is accounted for by the ownership" of company stock by an ERISA plan.
  • Subsequent questions and comments focused on the notion of selling existing positions of company stock versus not buying anymore when material information suggests that the stock is expensive relative to its intrinsic worth.
  • When the podium returned to Attorney Long, he stated that "There is no circuit split on the issue that we've spent all our time discussing this morning. The only circuit split is on whether this presumption applies at the motion to dismiss stage." He cited the intent of Congress to encourage company ownership and suggested that rendering ESOPs "unworkable" would "basically cause many companies to say we can't put fiduciaries in that situation, so we're not going to have ESOPs at all."

The case was submitted at 11:30 a.m. Click here to download the Fifth Third Bancorp v. John Dudenhoeffer hearing transcript.

Dr. Susan Mangiero Will Speak at ACI ERISA Litigation Conference

I am delighted to join the roster of multi-disciplinary speakers for this exciting October 24-25, 2013 New York City event. Designed for and by attorneys, the American Conference Institute's 6th National Forum on ERISA Litigation will include comments from renowned judges, in-house counsel, insurance experts, economic consultants and practicing litigators in the ERISA arena. According to the conference flyer, attendees will learn about the following:

  • Emerging trends in multiple facets of ERISA litigation;
  • Understanding new theories of liability arising from investment decisions, including alternative investments and the trend towards de-risking;
  • 401(k) fee case considerations and a discussion about evolving defense strategies, the issue of service providers and the viability of float claims;
  • ESOP litigation to include an overview of DOL investigations and settlements;
  • Benefits claims litigation
  • ERISA fiduciary litigation and ways to minimize liability exposure:
  • Class action update; and
  • Ethical issues that arise in ERISA litigation.

Having spoken and attended prior ERISA litigation conferences sponsored by the American Conference Institute, I always learned a lot. In particular, the discussions among jurists, the plaintiffs' bar and defense counsel makes for a collection of timely and lively debates. I hope you will be similarly satisfied if you decide to attend.

As a courtesy to readers of this blog, the American Conference Institute has activated a discount code of $200 for anyone who registers for the conference. Simply type "PRM200" when prompted. Click here to register. Click to download the agenda.

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 Pensiongovernance.com 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!