AARP & NELA Oppose Extreme Pleading Standard In Fifth Circuit ERISA Case

By Matthew C. Koski posted 11-20-2015 12:37 PM


On October 28, 2015, NELA joined with AARP to file an amicus brief in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit on behalf of the Plaintiff-Appellants in Whitley v. BP, P.L.C. 

Under § 1104 of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), the fiduciary of an employee benefit plan must exercise his or her duties “solely in the interest of the participants and beneficiaries” of the plan, and “with the care, skill, prudence, and diligence” of a prudent person under the then-prevailing circumstances. 

The Defendants in Whitley are a group of individuals and entities associated with BP who acted as fiduciaries for a number of benefit plans offered to BP employees.  Like many defined contribution benefit plans, the BP plan participants and beneficiaries were invested substantially in Employer Stock Option Plans (ESOPs), i.e., benefit plans invested in BP’s own stock. The Plaintiffs allege that the Defendants violated their duties of loyalty and prudence by offering, holding, and acquiring BP stock as part of those benefit plans when they knew or should have known that, during and after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill, BP stock was overvalued and not a prudent investment.

For nearly two decades, some courts presumed that it was prudent to invest a retirement plan’s assets in an ESOP.  Recently, however, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Fifth Third Bancorp v. Dudenhoeffer, 134 S. Ct. 2459 (2014), that there is no statutory basis for excluding fiduciaries of ESOPs from ERISA’s generally applicable duty of prudence.  After discarding the “presumption of prudence” for ESOPs, the Court addressed pleading standards in such cases, holding that in order to plead that a fiduciary violated his or her duty of prudence, a plaintiff must “plausibly allege[] that a prudent fiduciary in the defendant’s position could not have concluded” that stopping purchases of the employer’s stock “would do more harm than good” to the retirement fund in question.

After Dudenhoeffer was decided, the Whitley Defendants argued that the claims must be dismissed unless the Plaintiffs could plausibly allege—and subsequently prove—that no prudent fiduciary could have concluded that stopping purchases of BP stock would have caused more harm than good to the underlying fund.  In sum, the Defendants’ proposed standard would force the Plaintiffs to undertake the practically impossible task of demonstrating what every potential plan fiduciary would do in a given situation.

As NELA and our co-amici wrote, the “Defendants’ standard is too extreme.  The test to show imprudence is not whether the fiduciary was acting as would all reasonable, prudent persons.  Rather, under the statute, trust law, and Dudenhoeffer, in order to be a ‘prudent fiduciary,’ a fiduciary must act as would a reasonable, prudent person in a like capacity.  The corollary is that, in order to plead that a fiduciary was not prudent, the plaintiff must plausibly allege that the fiduciary was not acting as would a reasonable, prudent person.”  Accepting the Defendants’ conception of the appropriate pleading standard would, the brief argues, effectively replace the now-discarded “presumption of prudence” with a standard that is equally insurmountable.  Further, the Defendants’ standard is fundamentally inconsistent with the accepted function of the complaint in our system of notice pleading, and amounts to “a probability requirement,” which was rejected explicitly by the U.S. Supreme Court in Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007).

The brief was authored by NELA member Mary Ellen Signorille of AARP Foundation Litigation (Washington, D.C.), and NELA members Lynn L . Sarko, Erin M. Riley, and Matthew M. Gerend of Keller Rohrback, LLP (Seattle, WA).  The brief may be downloaded from the Amicus Library on The NELA Exchange.

#IqbalTwombly #ERISA #5thCircuit #Amicus