Fifth Third Bancorp v. Dudenhoeffer

Fifth Third maintains a defined-contribution retirement savings plan for its employees. Participants may direct their contributions into any of several investment options, including an “employee stock ownership plan” (ESOP), which invests primarily in Fifth Third stock. Former participants sued, alleging breach of the fiduciary duty of prudence imposed by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), 29 U.S.C. 1104(a)(1)(B) in that the defendants should have known—on the basis of both public information and inside information available to Fifth Third officers—that the stock was overpriced and risky. The price of Fifth Third stock fell, reducing plaintiffs’ retirement savings. The district court dismissed; the Sixth Circuit reversed. A unanimous Supreme Court vacated. ESOP fiduciaries are not entitled to any special presumption of prudence, but are subject to the same duty that applies to ERISA fiduciaries in general, except that they need not diversify the fund’s assets. There is no requirement that plaintiffs allege that the employer was, for example, on the “brink of collapse.” Where a stock is publicly traded, allegations that a fiduciary should have recognized, on the basis of publicly available information, that the market was over- or under-valuing the stock are generally implausible and insufficient to state a claim. To state a claim, a complaint must plausibly allege an alternative action that could have been taken, that would have been legal, and that a prudent fiduciary in the same circumstances would not have viewed as more likely to harm the fund than to help it. ERISA’s duty of prudence never requires a fiduciary to break the law, so a fiduciary cannot be imprudent for failing to buy or sell in violation of insider trading laws. An allegation that fiduciaries failed to decide, based on negative inside information, to refrain from making additional stock purchases or failed to publicly disclose that information so that the stock would no longer be overvalued, requires courts to consider possible conflicts with complex insider trading and corporate disclosure laws. Courts confronted with such claims must also consider whether the complaint has plausibly alleged that a prudent fiduciary in the same position could not have concluded that stopping purchases or publicly disclosing negative information would do more harm than good to the fund. View "Fifth Third Bancorp v. Dudenhoeffer" on Justia Law