Wednesday, February 20, 2008
Petitioner, a participant in a defined contribution pension plan, alleged that the plan administrator's failure to follow petitioner's investment directions "depleted" his interest in the plan by approximately $150,000 and amounted to a breach of fiduciary duty under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA). The District Court granted respondents judgment on the pleadings, and the Fourth Circuit affirmed. Relying on Massachusetts Mutual Life Ins. Co. v. Russell, 473 U. S. 134 , the Circuit held that ERISA §502(a)(2) provides remedies only for entire plans, not for individuals.
Held: Although §502(a)(2) does not provide a remedy for individual injuries distinct from plan injuries, it does authorize recovery for fiduciary breaches that impair the value of plan assets in a participant's individual account. Section 502(a)(2) provides for suits to enforce the liability-creating provisions of §409, concerning breaches of fiduciary duties that harm plans. The principal statutory duties imposed by §409 relate to the proper management, administration, and investment of plan assets, with an eye toward ensuring that the benefits authorized by the plan are ultimately paid to plan participants. The misconduct that petitioner alleges falls squarely within that category, unlike the misconduct in Russell. There, the plaintiff received all of the benefits to which she was contractually entitled, but sought consequential damages arising from a delay in the processing of her claim. Russell's emphasis on protecting the "entire plan" reflects the fact that the disability plan in Russell, as well as the typical pension plan at that time, promised participants a fixed benefit. Misconduct by such a plan's administrators will not affect an individual's entitlement to a defined benefit unless it creates or enhances the risk of default by the entire plan. For defined contribution plans, however, fiduciary misconduct need not threaten the entire plan's solvency to reduce benefits below the amount that participants would otherwise receive. Whether a fiduciary breach diminishes plan assets payable to all participants or only to particular individuals, it creates the kind of harms that concerned §409's draftsmen. Thus, Russell's "entire plan" references, which accurately reflect §409's operation in the defined benefit context, are beside the point in the defined contribution context.
Justice Stevens wrote the majority opinion (which was interestingly joined by Justice Alito). Two other concurring opinions also issue (one by Roberts which Kennedy joined and one by Thomas which Scalia joined), but a unanimous court agrees with the result of allowing these type of 502(a)(2) suits going forward.
I will have further commentary once I digest the decision. But clearly as one of the law professors who filed an amicus on behalf of LaRue to fight off a motion to dismiss, I couldn't be more happy with the result. I had predicted 6-3 for LaRue, but did get that there would be three opinions, including one from Roberts and one from the Scalia/Thomas duo.
Also major kudos to Peter Stris of Whittier Law who did not an outstanding job arguing this case for LaRue at the Supreme Court.