In Thole v. U.S. Bank N.A., No. 17-1712, 2020 U.S. LEXIS 3030 (June 1, 2020), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, 5-4, that defined pension plan participants lacked constitutional standing to sue over a $750 million loss to their plan because they had not yet missed a benefit payment. Justice Kavanaugh, writing for the majority, brought a new approach.  He analyzed the dispute as if it were a simple contractual matter involving an un-breached contract– i.e., no damages at present, no case at present. This might strike some ERISA practitioners as unusual since the last three decades of ERISA jurisprudence has focused on analyzing fiduciary actions under the law of equity. Under an equitable analysis, a fiduciary would, arguably, have a duty to protect a trust fund, like a pension fund, from preventable erosion.

Justice Clarence Thomas’ Concurrence was, perhaps, the most honest assessment of the Court’s ruling where he wrote, effectively, ‘did we really want to spend so much time in the law of equity?’ Thomas has been on the Court for 30 years – about two-thirds of ERISA’s statutory existence.

Now the Court’s newest members, Justices Kavanaugh and Gorsuch, are giving ERISA a look through new legal eyes. Justice Kavanaugh wrote that a pension shortfall, alleged to be the result of fiduciary mismanagement, was not an actual case because:

“Win or lose, they would still receive the exact same monthly benefits they are already entitled to receive.”

Given the Court’s broad ruling, it may be that pension funds have to be squandered and lost before there is a “case or controversy” under Article III of the U.S. Constitution.  The opinion details several of ERISA’s regulatory protections and discusses the backup insurance provided by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Company as a potential safety net to retirees.  (Although it should be noted that the PBGC has announced it will be insolvent by 2025).

In the dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said:

“The Court holds that the Constitution prevents millions of pensioners from enforcing their rights to prudent and loyal management of their retirement trusts. Indeed, the Court determines that pensioners may not bring a federal lawsuit to stop or cure retirement-plan mismanagement until their pensions are on the verge of default. This conclusion conflicts with common sense and longstanding precedent.”

One fact that was obscured from the Court’s majority opinion, that figured prominently in the lower court decisions, was the important and operative fact that U.S. Bank transferred money into the plan to effectively overfund it during the litigation.  U.S. Bank’s self-corrective measure seemed persuasive to the judges below.  The move, which a healthy plan sponsor can pull off, may be more challenging for struggling plans. For those plans, the pensions may erode, and there is seemingly little that can be done under ERISA to remedy this after Thole.  The Court’s holding of the case is considerably broader than what was happening factually in Thole.

As the Court’s majority continues to emphasize texts, not the history behind the texts, it was not thinking about the Studebaker Automobile Company bankruptcy or other abuses that led to ERISA’s passage.  (ERISA took nearly ten years to pass after Studebaker went bankrupt and its workers lost everything in their retirement).  The Court, at least for the moment, seems content to let the federal government mop up any pension plan problems through its taxpayer supported pension insurance program.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled yesterday that, contrary to prior Circuit precedent, the presence of an arbitration provision in an employee benefits plan could compel arbitration.  See, Dorman v. Charles Schwab Corp., Case No. 18-15281 (9th Cir., Aug. 20, 2019).  The plaintiff had filed a class action suit in district court alleging that the defendants, plan fiduciaries, administrators, and employers, had improperly selected proprietary funds for inclusion within the offerings of multiple 401(k) plans, despite their poor performance, and to the detriment of the plans and individual participants.

Relying principally on the holding of American Express Co. v. Italian Colors Restaurant, 570 U.S. 228 (2013), the court ruled that Amaro v. Continental Can Co., 724 F.2d 747 (9th Cir. 1984), was no longer good law and ERISA claims could be subject to contractually-mandated arbitration.

The relevant arbitration provision, contained within the plan document itself, was wide-reaching, stating that “[a]ny claim, dispute or breach arising out of or in any way related to the Plan shall be settled by binding arbitration….”  The provision also included a waiver of class or other collective action, “even if absent the waiver [the plaintiff] could have represented the interests of other Plan participants. The arbitration provision within the second plan at issue was materially identical.

The plaintiff sought to recover under both ERISA Section 502(a)(2) and (3), “seeking plan-wide relief on behalf of a class comprising all participants in, and beneficiaries of, the Plan at any time within six years of the filing of the Complaint.” The complaint’s claims were focused on violation of ERISA’s prohibited transaction rules through demonstrated preference of inclusion of investment funds affiliated with Schwab, despite mounting evidence of poor performance across benchmarks.

The district court had previously denied the motion to compel arbitration, holding the provisions were inapplicable since enacted after the plaintiff’s participation in the plan ended and that “the claims were ‘claims for benefits’ that were expressly carved out of the arbitration agreement in the Compensation Plan.” Further, the district court ruled that even if the agreements were applicable, they were unenforceable as the plaintiff’s claims were “brought on behalf of the Plan,” not for individual relief, and an individual “cannot waive rights that belong to the Plan, such as the right to file this action in court.”

While the Dorman opinion cites Munro v. University of Southern California, No. 17-55550 (9th Cir., Jul. 24, 2018), multiple times throughout as complimentary, the outcome in Munro was, notably, the opposite of that within Dorman – the Ninth Circuit held that the Plaintiffs, who had been required to sign arbitration agreements as part of their employment contracts, were asserting claims squarely on behalf of their plans and, accordingly, arbitration clauses executed on behalf of the individuals themselves, pursuant to employment contracts, would not compel arbitration of claims clearly brought on behalf of the plans.

Under the Munro court’s holding, employees

seek[ing] financial and equitable remedies to benefit the Plans and all affected participants… including a determination as to the method of calculating losses, removal of breaching fiduciaries, a full accounting of Plan losses, reformation of the Plans, and an order regarding appropriate future investments” are clearly “bringing their claims to benefit their respective Plans across the board, not just to benefit their own accounts as in LaRue.

Munro slip op. at 12-13. The Dorman court was arguably facing a distinguishable analysis on two separate fronts – while the obvious difference is the fact the plans at issue in Dorman contained the relevant arbitration agreement (rather than individual employment agreements, as in Munro), the scope and direction of the separate plaintiffs’ claims would also seem to be critically different.  The Dorman plaintiff was seeking relief which could, conceptually at least, be segregated into an individual claim – ultimately, the recovery of losses sustained on his individual retirement account(s) owing to alleged fiduciary breach, versus the clear plan-wide relief sought in Munro.

But take for instance a hybrid-hypothetical, somewhere between both Dorman and Munro – a class of plaintiffs seeking to litigate claims clearly brought on behalf of their plan (removal of breaching fiduciaries and reformation) yet faced with an arbitration provision contained within the relevant plan itself and barring class-wide or collective arbitration.  Consistent with the Munro holding, an ERISA plaintiff seeking judicial remedy which exists for the benefit of a plan may not alone settle a claim.  Id. at 11.  If arbitration was compelled, would a plan-appointed representative step-in or is that not the position already occupied by a plaintiff bringing a derivative action? Would a split of the individual claims and the ‘clear’ plan relief-related claims be compelled, resulting in the possibility of two distinct resolutions on fact?

The Dorman court also addressed, in a separate memorandum, the effectiveness of an arbitration provision in barring class-wide arbitration of 502(a)(2) claims brought by a plaintiff.  However those claims are, as articulated in the memorandum, and under LaRue v. DeWolff, Boberg & Assocs., Inc., 552 U.S. 248 (2008), “inherently individualized when brought in the context of a defined contribution plan….”  Dorman, et al. v. The Charles Schwab Corporation, et al., No. 17-cv-00285, ECF No. 53, at 5-6 (Aug. 20, 2019).