The “Fiduciary Prudence Trinity”: ERISA Fiduciary Law After the Hughes/Northwestern Decision

SCOTUS recently announced its much anticipated decision in the case of Hughes v. Northwestern University.1The significance of the decision cannot be overstated, as it dramatically changes the “rules of the game” for 401(k) and 403(b) retirement plans,

Hughes was the last piece of what I am referring to as the “Fiduciary Responsibility Trinity.” The trinity is composed of three key ERISA related decisions-Tibble v. Edison International2, Brotherston v. Putnam Investments, LLC3, and Hughes. Given the heavy reliance that the Supreme Court and the First Circuit Court of Appeals, as well as the Solicitor General, placed on the common law of trusts, an argument can be made that the logic set out in the trinity decisions is equally applicable to all investment fiduciaries.

So why are the trinity so important? Here are key quotes from each decision.

Tibble:

We have often noted that an ERISA fiduciary’s duty is ‘derived from the common law of trusts.’ In determining the contours of an ERISA fiduciary’s duty, courts often must look to the law of trusts.4

The Restatement (Third) of Trusts is a restatement of the common law of trusts. So, the Court is recognizing the Restatement as a legitimate resource in addressing fiduciary questions.

Under trust law, a trustee has a continuing duty to monitor trust investments and remove imprudent ones. This continuing duty exists separate and apart from the trustee’s duty to exercise prudence in selecting investments at the outset…. Rather, the trustee must ‘systematic[ally] conside[r] all the investments of the trust at regular intervals’ to ensure that they are appropriate….In short, under trust law, a fiduciary normally has a continuing duty of some kind to monitor investments and
remove imprudent ones.5

Brotherston:

Congress sought to offer beneficiaries, not fiduciaries, more protection than they had at common law.6

[A]ny fiduciary of a plan such as the Plan in this case can easily insulate itself by selecting well-established, low-fee and diversified market index funds. And any fiduciary that decides it can find funds that beat the market will be immune to liability unless a district court finds it imprudent in its method of selecting such funds, and finds that a loss occurred as a result. In short, these are not matters concerning which ERISA fiduciaries need cry “wolf.”7

[T]he Restatement specifically identifies as an appropriate comparator for loss calculation purposes ‘return rates of one or more. . . suitable index mutual funds or market indexes (with such adjustments as may be appropriate).’8

In Brotherston, the lower court had ruled that the plan participants’ expert could not calculate alleged damages by comparing actively managed funds within the plan with comparable index funds, the copurt ruling that that would constitute comparing “apples to oranges.” The First Circuit’s decision effectively discredits the “apples to oranges” argument.

Hughes:

The Seventh Circuit erred in relying on the participants’ ultimate choice over their investments to excuse allegedly imprudent decisions by respondents. In Tibble, this Court explained that, even in a defined-contribution plan where participants choose their investments, plan fiduciaries are required to conduct their own independent evaluation to determine which investments may be prudently included in the plan’s menu of options…. If the fiduciaries fail to remove an imprudent investment from the plan within a reasonable time, they breach their duty.9

The Seventh Circuit had dismissed the plan participants’ case on the basis of the “menu of options” argument, which said a mixture of both prudent and imprudent investment options within a plans was permissible, as it provided plan participants with more choices. SCOTUS effectively discredited the “menu of options” defens

Going Forward
Bottom line, the combined impact of the trinity decisions is that cases will now be decided based on their merits, not on legal fictions such as the “apples and oranges” and “menu of options” defenses. This should result in more protection for plan participants in the form of fewer dismissals of 401(k)/403(b) …as long as the attorneys for plan participants properly plead such cases to meet SCOTUS’ plausibility standard for pleading.

Notes
1. Hughes v. Northwestern University, 19-1401 (2022).
2. Tibble v. Edison International, 135 S. Ct. 1823 (2015).
3. Brotherston v. Putnam Investments, LLC, 907 F.3d 17 (2018).
4. Tibble, 1828.
5. Tibble, 1828-29.
6. Brotherston, 37.
7. Brotherston, 39.
8. Brotherston, 31.
9. Hughes, Ibid.

James W. Watkins, III, is a licensed attorney (41 years), specializing in securities and ERISA law, a Certified Financial Planner™ professional (32 years) and an Accredited Wealth Management Advisor. He has extensive experience in evaluating the legal prudence of various types of investments, including mutual funds, and advising 401(k)/403(b) pension plans on both designing and monitoring plans to ensure legal compliance.  

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s