Monday, June 1, 2020
Today the Supreme Court issued a 5-4 decision in Thole v. U.S. Bank N.A. Justice Kavanaugh’s majority opinion concludes that the plaintiffs lacked Article III standing. Some excerpts:
Plaintiffs James Thole and Sherry Smith are two retired participants in U. S. Bank’s retirement plan. Of decisive importance to this case, the plaintiffs’ retirement plan is a defined-benefit plan, not a defined-contribution plan. In a defined-benefit plan, retirees receive a fixed payment each month, and the payments do not fluctuate with the value of the plan or because of the plan fiduciaries’ good or bad investment decisions. * * *
We affirm the judgment of the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit on the ground that the plaintiffs lack Article III standing. Thole and Smith have received all of their monthly benefit payments so far, and the outcome of this suit would not affect their future benefit payments. If Thole and Smith were to lose this lawsuit, they would still receive the exact same monthly benefits that they are already slated to receive, not a penny less. If Thole and Smith were to win this lawsuit, they would still receive the exact same monthly benefits that they are already slated to receive, not a penny more. The plaintiffs therefore have no concrete stake in this lawsuit. To be sure, their attorneys have a stake in the lawsuit, but an “interest in attorney’s fees is, of course, insufficient to create an Article III case or controversy where none exists on the merits of the underlying claim.” Lewis v. Continental Bank Corp., 494 U. S. 472, 480 (1990); see Steel Co. v. Citizens for Better Environment, 523 U. S. 83, 107 (1998) (same). Because the plaintiffs themselves have no concrete stake in the lawsuit, they lack Article III standing.
Justice Kavanaugh does leave open one possible avenue for participants in a defined-benefit plan to satisfy Article III’s standing requirements:
One last wrinkle remains. According to the plaintiffs’ amici, plan participants in a defined-benefit plan have standing to sue if the mismanagement of the plan was so egregious that it substantially increased the risk that the plan and the employer would fail and be unable to pay the participants’ future pension benefits. Cf. Clapper v. Amnesty Int’l USA, 568 U. S. 398, 414, n. 5 (2013); Lee v. Verizon Communications, Inc., 837 F. 3d 523, 545–546 (CA5 2016); David v. Alphin, 704 F. 3d 327, 336–338 (CA4 2013). But the plaintiffs do not assert that theory of standing in this Court. In any event, the plaintiffs’ complaint did not plausibly and clearly claim that the alleged mismanagement of the plan substantially increased the risk that the plan and the employer would fail and be unable to pay the plaintiffs’ future pension benefits. It is true that the plaintiffs’ complaint alleged that the plan was underfunded for a period of time. But a bare allegation of plan underfunding does not itself demonstrate a substantially increased risk that the plan and the employer would both fail.
Footnote 2 adds a wrinkle to the wrinkle, however:
Even if a defined-benefit plan is mismanaged into plan termination, the federal PBGC by law acts as a backstop and covers the vested pension benefits up to a certain amount and often in full. For example, if the plan and the employer in this case were to fail, the PBGC would be required to pay these two plaintiffs all of their vested pension benefits in full. * * * Any increased-risk-of-harm theory of standing therefore might not be available for plan participants whose benefits are guaranteed in full by the PBGC. But we need not decide that question in this case.
Justice Thomas authors a concurring opinion, joined by Justice Gorsuch, arguing that in a future case the Court should reconsider its precedents suggesting a need to make “analogies to trust law” when deciding Article III standing.
Justice Sotomayor authors a dissenting opinion, joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer and Kagan. It begins:
The Court holds that the Constitution prevents millions of pensioners from enforcing their rights to prudent and loyal management of their retirement trusts. Indeed, the Court determines that pensioners may not bring a federal lawsuit to stop or cure retirement-plan mismanagement until their pensions are on the verge of default. This conclusion conflicts with common sense and longstanding precedent.