For over two decades, federal courts have embraced the so-called Moench presumption of prudence in ERISA stock-drop cases. Pursuant to that presumption, courts have routinely dismissed such claims absent allegations in a complaint that a company’s situation was dire, or that the company was on the brink of collapse. On June 25,2014, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in the highly anticipated case, Fifth Third Bancorp v. Dudenhoeffer, wherein it concluded by unanimous decision that the presumption of prudence could not be supported by the text of ERISA. As discussed below, that may be at most only mixed victory for the plaintiffs’ bar.
Participants in Fifth Third Bancorp’s (Fifth Third’s) defined contribution retirement plan (Plan) brought a putative class action against the Plan’s fiduciary committee, among others, alleging that defendants breached their fiduciary duties in violation of ERISA.
Under the Plan, participants made contributions into an individual account and directed the Plan to invest those contributions in a menu of options pre-selected by Fifth Third. Of the twenty options available to participants during the relevant period, one was the Fifth Third stock fund, which had been designated an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP). Fifth Third matched the first 4% of a participant’s contributions with company stock, after which participants could move such contributions to any other investment option.
Plaintiffs’ complaint alleged that Fifth Third shifted from a conservative to a subprime lender and, consequently, Fifth Third’s loan portfolio became increasingly exposed to defaults. It further alleged that Fifth Third either failed to disclose the resulting damage to the company and its stock or provided misleading disclosures. During the relevant period, Fifth Third’s stock price declined 74%, resulting in the ESOP losing tens of millions of dollars.
Plaintiffs commenced a putative class action lawsuit, alleging, among other things, that defendants breached their fiduciary duties under ERISA by: (i) imprudently maintaining significant investment in Fifth Third stock and continuing to offer it as an authorized investment option; and (ii) by failing to provide Plan participants with accurate and complete information about Fifth Third and the risks of investment in Fifth Third stock.