Defense counsel frequently lament the difficulties of defending 401(k) investment and recordkeeping fee litigation when different judges render conflicting rulings on motions to dismiss seemingly indistinguishable complaints.  Even when the judges purport to apply the same legal standards, the outcomes can differ.  For that reason, we thought it would be interesting to track the decisions

The decision in Bolton v. Inland Fresh Seafood Corp. of America Inc., No. 22-cv-4602 (N.D. Ga. Dec. 5, 2023)should serve as a reminder to all ERISA practitioners that, if litigating in courts of the Eleventh Circuit, participants must exhaust a plan’s claims procedures before commencing a lawsuit—regardless of the type of ERISA claim asserted.

We have previously blogged on the flurry of class action lawsuits challenging 401(k) plan investments in the BlackRock LifePath Index Target Date Funds. District courts around the country—seven of them in total—have granted motions to dismiss claims by 401(k) plan participants because their copy-cat allegations of underperformance were insufficient to raise a plausible inference of imprudence. That is, until now. Last week, a federal district court judge in the Eastern District of Virginia became the first to conclude that the participants’ allegations of imprudence related to the BlackRock Funds were plausible. Trauernicht v. Genworth, No. 22-cv-532, 2023 WL 5961651 (E.D. Va. Sept. 13, 2023).

A recent Ninth Circuit decision has generated considerable controversy amongst employee benefits practitioners by holding that plan fiduciaries engaged in prohibited transactions when they amended the plan’s existing recordkeeping contract to add brokerage and investment advisory services. In so ruling, the Court remanded the case to the district court to consider whether the transactions fell within the exemption for reasonable service agreements and, independently, whether it was imprudent for plan fiduciaries not to consider third-party compensation earned by the plan’s recordkeeper. The case is Bugielski v. AT&T Services, Inc., 76 F. 4th 894 (9th Cir. 2023).

Participants in AT&T’s 401(k) plan sued the plan administrator and the plan’s investment committee, alleging that defendants engaged in prohibited transactions and breached their duty of prudence by failing to investigate and evaluate all compensation earned by the plan’s longtime recordkeeper. The claims apparently were prompted by amendments to AT&T’s contract with its recordkeeper, which gave plan participants access to the recordkeeper’s brokerage account platform and to investment advisory services through a third-party advisor. Under these arrangements, the recordkeeper received revenue-sharing fees from the mutual funds available to participants via the brokerage account platform; and, through its own agreement with the investment advisor, the recordkeeper received a portion of the fees that the investment advisor earned from managing participant accounts.

In a case of first impression in the Tenth Circuit, the Court recently joined the chorus of circuit courts in holding that a 401(k) plan participant alleging excessive investment management or recordkeeping fees must assert a “meaningful benchmark” in order to survive a motion to dismiss.  In addition to rejecting commonly pleaded “benchmarks” because they were not meaningful, the Court’s ruling is of particular significance because, unlike some other courts, it dismissed the participants’ “share-class claim”—ruling on a motion to dismiss that their allegation that cheaper share classes of the same mutual fund were available to the plan was demonstrably false.  The case is Matney v. Barrick Gold, No. 22-4045, 2023 WL 5731996 (10th Cir. Sept. 6, 2023).

Two District Courts have reached conflicting decisions on the same day when ruling on substantially similar allegations that plan fiduciaries violated ERISA by paying too much for recordkeeping services, with one court dismissing the claims and the other court allowing the claims to move forward into the (often expensive) discovery phase of litigation.  The cases

A third district court has dismissed with prejudice a complaint alleging that defendants breached their fiduciary duties under ERISA by offering 401(k) plan participants the option to invest in BlackRock LifePath Index Target Date Funds (the “Funds”).  Beldock v. Microsoft, Case No. 22-cv-1082 (W.D. Wash. Apr. 24, 2023).  Although the outcome of the court’s ruling here is consistent with earlier decisions, the rationale underlying the Beldock decision arguably goes further than in prior rulings, thus providing additional food for thought.

On remand from the U.S. Supreme Court, the Seventh Circuit issued its opinion in Hughes v. Northwestern University, concluding that participants in two Northwestern 403(b) plans plausibly pled fiduciary-breach claims based on allegations of excessive recordkeeping and investment management fees, but dismissed their claim that too many investment options caused them “decision paralysis.”  In

A district court in the Southern District of Ohio and one in the Western District of Wisconsin reached opposite conclusions on motions to dismiss claims for fiduciary breach based on allegations that recordkeeping fees were unreasonably high.  Dismissal was granted in Sigetich v. The Kroger Co., No. 21-cv-697, 2023 WL 2431667 (S.D. Oh. Mar.