Monday, June 1, 2020
A sharply divided Supreme Court ruled today in Thole v. U.S. Bank that retirement-plan participants can't sue their former employer for mismanagement of the plan, because they hadn't demonstrated sufficient direct and concrete harm.
The ruling deals a sharp blow to defined-benefit plan participants who seek to sue for plan mismanagement. Under the ruling, those participants have to wait until their actual benefits drop, or close to it. And even so, the Court's ruling may give employers an out. At the same time, the ruling shields employers from liability unless and until their mismanagement is so bad that it actually or imminently results in lowered benefits.
While the plaintiffs sued under the individual cause of action in ERISA, the Court's ruling is based on Article III standing. This means that Congress can't change the law to create more permissive standing.
The case arose when two retirees of U.S. Bank sued that Bank and others for mismanaging their retirement-plan assets. The plaintiffs sued under ERISA's individual cause of action.
The Court ruled that the plaintiffs lacked Article III standing because, in short, they didn't suffer a harm. Justice Kavanaugh wrote for the five conservatives that the plaintiffs' monthly defined benefits didn't drop, or wouldn't imminently drop, based on the mismanagement, and any court ruling wouldn't affect their monthly benefits under the plan.
The Court also noted that the plaintiffs' benefits wouldn't drop even if the retirement plan failed, because the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation backstops failed retirement plans. This raises the question whether the plaintiffs would have standing even if the plan's failing led to a reduction in the benefits that the plan pays out (because the plaintiffs, after all, would theoretically continue to receive the full measure of their defined-benefit plan, even if from the PBGC, and not the plan).
The ruling means that the plaintiffs have to wait to sue until the plan's failure actually or imminently results in a reduction in their own benefits. And even then, the Court might've written in an out for the employer by noting that the PBGC backstops failing plans.
Justice Sotomayor, joined by the three other progressives, dissented. She argued that the plaintiffs have an interest in their plan's integrity, just as private trust beneficiaries have an interest in protecting their trust; that breach of a fiduciary duty is a cognizable injury, even if it doesn't result in financial harm or increased risk of nonpayment; and that the plaintiffs have associational standing to sue on behalf of the plan.
It is hard to overstate the harmful consequences of the Court's conclusion. . . . After today's decision, about 35 million people with defined-benefits plans will be vulnerable to fiduciary misconduct. The Court's reasoning allows fiduciaries to misuse pension funds so long as the employer has a strong enough balance sheet during (or, as alleged here, because of) the misbehavior. Indeed, the Court holds that the Constitution forbids retirees to remedy or prevent fiduciary breaches in federal court until their retirement plan or employer is on the brink of financial ruin. This is a remarkable result, and not only because this case is bookended by two financial crises.