Wednesday, November 19, 2014
In June 2014, the Supreme Court decided Fifth Third Bancorp v. Dudenhoeffer holding that fiduciaries of a retirement plan with required company stock holdings (an ESOP) are not entitled to any prudence presumption when deciding not to dispose of the plan’s employer stock. The presumption in question was referred to as the Moench presumption and had been adopted in several circuits. You may have heard of these cases as the stock drop cases, as in the company stock price crashed and the employee/investors sue the retirement plan fiduciaries for not selling the stock. The Supreme Court opinion didn’t throw open the courthouse doors for all jilted retirement investors, and limited recovery to complaints (1) alleging that the mispricing was based on something more than publically available information, and also (2) identifying an alternative action that the fiduciary could have taken without violating insider trading laws and that a prudent fiduciary in the same circumstances would not have viewed as more likely to harm the fund than to help it.
The Supreme Court in Fifth Third recognized the required interplay between ERISA and securities laws stating:
[W]here a complaint faults fiduciaries for failing to decide, based on negative inside information, to refrain from making additional stock purchases or for failing to publicly disclose that information so that the stock would no longer be overvalued, courts should consider the extent to which imposing an ERISA-based obligation either to refrain from making a planned trade or to disclose inside information to the public could conflict with the complex insider trading and corporate disclosure requirements set forth by the federal securities laws or with the objectives of those laws.
The Ninth Circuit decided Harris v. Amgen in October based upon the Fifth Third decision. In Harris, the plaintiffs’ claim alleged a breach of fiduciary duty based on the failure to stop buying additional stock in the ESOP based on non-public information. The Ninth Circuit found that plaintiffs alleged sufficient facts to withstand a motion to dismiss that defendant fiduciaries were aware (1) of non-public information, which would have affected the market price of the company stock and (2) the stock price was inflated. These same facts supported a simultaneously-filed securities class action case.
To understand the interplay between securities laws and ERISA fiduciary rules, as established in Fifth Third, one ERISA consulting firm observed that
The Ninth Circuit appeared to reach the conclusion that, if ‘regular investors’ can bring an action under the securities laws based on the failure to disclose material information, then ‘ERISA investors’ in an ERISA-covered plan may, based on the same facts, bring an action under ERISA:
"If the alleged misrepresentations and omissions, scienter, and resulting decline in share price ... were sufficient to state a claim that defendants violated their duties under [applicable federal securities laws], the alleged misrepresentations and omissions, scienter, and resulting decline in share price in this case are sufficient to state a claim that defendants violated their more stringent duty of care under ERISA."
The Harris opinion invokes a sort of chicken and egg problem. If the plan had dumped the stock it would have signaled to the market and pushed the share prices lower. In addressing this concern, however, the Ninth Circuit stated that:
Based on the allegations in the complaint, it is at least plausible that defendants could have removed the Amgen Stock Fund from the list of investment options available to the plans without causing undue harm to plan participants.
. . . The efficient market hypothesis ordinarily applied in stock fraud cases suggests that the ultimate decline in price would have been no more than the amount by which the price was artificially inflated. Further, once the Fund was removed as an investment option, plan participants would have been protected from making additional purchases of the Fund while the price of Amgen shares remained artificially inflated. Finally, the defendants' fiduciary obligation to remove the Fund as an investment option was triggered as soon as they knew or should have known that Amgen's share price was artificially inflated. That is, defendants began violating their fiduciary duties under ERISA by continuing to authorize purchases of Amgen shares at more or less the same time some of the defendants began violating the federal securities laws.
The argument, in part, is that if Amgen had stopped the ESOP stock purchases it would have signaled to the market regarding price inflation and perhaps prevented the basis for the securities fraud violations harm alleged in the separate suit.
For those who follow securities litigation, there is a potential for investors purchasing in an ESOP to have a secondary and perhaps superior claim for fiduciary duty violations based upon the same facts giving rise to company stock mispricing arising under securities laws.
This raises the question, as one ERISA consulting firm noted,
Are an issuer/plan fiduciary's disclosure obligations to participants greater than its disclosure obligations to mere shareholders? Isn't that letting the ERISA-disclosure tail wag the securities law-disclosure dog – will it not result in the announcement of market-moving material information to plan participants first, before it is announced to securities buyers-and-sellers generally?
I have long been interested in how what happens in the defined contribution (DC) context intersects with what we think of traditional corporate law and how, as the pool of DC investors grows, there will be an ever increasing influence of the DC investor in the corporate law arena.