Earlier this month, the U. S. Supreme Court decided that it will review a case relating to retirement plan fees. Although it is a case about fees, the issue before the Supreme Court is really about ERISA’s six-year statute of limitations.
Background about the case. Plan participant Glenn Tibble brought a lawsuit against his employer, Edison International, and the company’s benefits and investment committees as fiduciaries and administrators of his defined contribution (DC) plan. Tibble claims the plan fiduciaries managed the plan imprudently by selecting retail mutual funds as retirement plan investments when institutional shares were available at a much lower cost to participants.
The lower courts found that the fiduciaries were imprudent in selecting retail-class shares and failing to investigate alternative institutional-class mutual funds.
The problem for Tibble is that some of the retail-class funds were added to the retirement plan more than six years before Tibble filed the lawsuit.
The courts have held that although the fiduciaries were imprudent with the selection of the retail-class shares, Tibble’s claim with respect to funds selected more than six years before the lawsuit is barred by ERISA’s six-year statute of limitations.
Current issue for the Supreme Court review. Now the Supreme Court has agreed to review the statute of limitations issue.
Tibble’s argument, which is supported by the U.S. Department of Labor, is that there is a continuing duty to monitor the plan investments. As a result, Tibble thinks his claim should not be time-barred under the theory that there is a restart of the six-year period with the ongoing failure to monitor the plan’s investments. This is a frightening thought for employers!
Prior court decisions have sided with the fiduciaries and found that the six-year period runs from the initial selection of the investment. While there is a duty to monitor the plan’s investments, the courts have been reluctant to permit a new limitations period for a continuing violation. The Ninth Circuit said it would lead to an “unworkable result” where present fiduciaries could be liable for decisions made by their predecessors decades before.
So what are the takeaways for plan fiduciaries? On the fee issues, if you are selecting retail type mutual funds, you need to consider alternative institutional-class mutual funds and document your decision.
With respect to the statute of limitations, we should have the Supreme Court decision by the end of June 2015. For plan fiduciaries, the decision will be an important ruling on the meaning of ERISA’s six-year statute of limitations and the future liability for plan sponsors.