Fourteen months after the first round of 401(k) fee lawsuits was filed, five cases are awaiting trial and lawyers are laying groundwork for more suits alleging ERISA violations involving defined contribution plans.
The lawsuits put an intense spotlight on revenue-sharing practices of providers that receive money from investment managers. In the long run, they could place pressure on fees paid to managers and record keepers of 401(k) plans. The litigation has a huge potential effect on 401(k) plan executives: lawyers say plan sponsors are vulnerable to litigation if they havent exercised adequate oversight of plan fees.
Pension attorneys expect Schlichter, Bogard & Denton, St. Louis the law firm that filed the first 13 lawsuits against 401(k) plan sponsors for allegedly paying excessive fees to target service providers in its next wave of litigation. Sources said Schlichter Bogard is preparing another 15 lawsuits against plan sponsors and providers, but Jerome Schlichter, the firms founding partner, refused to confirm or deny any upcoming lawsuits.
What happens next depends on the facts of each case. We have sued service providers in some cases, but each case is unique, Mr. Schlichter said.
Rumors of another round of lawsuits come despite a significant setback in June, when a U.S. District Court judge in Madison, Wis., dismissed a class-action lawsuit against Deere & Co., Moline, Ill., and Fidelity Investments, Boston. Fidelity is trustee and record keeper for Deeres $2.5 billion 401(k) plan.
Deere employees, who are represented by Schlichter, Bogard alleged that the plan and Fidelity charged unreasonable fees to participants, but Judge John C. Shabaz ruled that Deere and Fidelity met their fiduciary obligations under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (Pensions & Investments, July 9).
The class-action lawsuits allege that plan sponsors failed to meet their fiduciary responsibilities by ignoring payments that investment managers paid to record keepers and other service providers. The suits also charge that plan executives failed to disclose these fees to participants, as required by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act.
Going forward, it will not just be plan sponsors; lawsuits will be targeting more service providers, said Michael Roche, an attorney with Winston & Strawn LLP, Chicago.
Mr. Roche said some law firms will see an opportunity to broaden their pursuit of service providers, but it will be a tough case to prove. In cases of plan sponsors, its obvious that they are fiduciaries. Its not the same game with providers.
Other law firms have recently filed suits or launched investigations into 401(k) plan fee violations.
Keller Rohrback LLP, Seattle, began probing several plan sponsors for ERISA violations in September, according to its website, www.erisafraud.com, but the firm has not yet filed any suits alleging fee-based violations. Several calls to Lynn Sarko and Derek Loeser, attorneys for Keller Rohrback, were not returned.
According to its website, the law firm is scrutinizing the $800 million 401(k) plan of Fifth Third Bancorp, Cincinnati, and the $895 million 401(k) plan sponsored by Regions Financial Corp., Birmingham, Ala. The firm also announced Nov. 8 that it is looking into fee-related issues at the $9.5 billion 401(k) plan of Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart Stores Inc. In particular, the investigation focuses on the fees and expenses pertaining to those options, Kellers website said.
Keller Rohrback filed a class-action suit in April against ING Life Insurance & Annuity Co., Hartford, Conn.; New York State United Teachers, a teachers union; and a union trust. The suit alleges that ING paid kickbacks to the trust to favor ING products in the unions $2.3 billion 403(b) plan. In 2006, ING paid $30 million and the union trust paid $100,000 to settle similar kickback allegations filed by the New York Attorney General.
In addition, Washington-based law firm McTigue & Porter, on behalf of participants in General Motors Corp.s $21.2 billion 401(k) plans, filed two suits last spring alleging excessive fee payments. GMIMCo was the sole defendant in one; GMIMCo and State Street were defendants in the second suit.
McTigue also filed a case in May against Radio Shack Corp., Fort Worth, Texas, which has focused less on the disclosure of fees and more on whether funds with high fees are the best option for employees.
Plaintiff attorneys have won few victories in their litigation to date.
Besides the Deere ruling, John W. Darrah, a U.S. District Court judge in Chicago, in June stayed a class-action lawsuit by Exelon Corp. employees that alleged the company charged excessive fees to participants in its $3 billion 401(k) plan. Exelon, Chicago, asked for the delay pending resolution of an expected appeal in the Deere case. Schlichter is the law firm representing plaintiffs in the Exelon suit.
But the news has not been all bad for plaintiffs. In August, U.S. District Court Judge Warren W. Eginton in Connecticut dismissed one claim in a 401(k) fee suit against United Technologies Corp., Hartford, Conn., but allowed the rest of the case to proceed.
Separately, federal court judges denied motions by Lockheed Martin Corp., Bechtel Corp. and Kraft Foods Inc. to dismiss fee-related cases brought against them. Representatives of the companies being sued wouldnt comment on the specific allegations.
All of the lawsuits were filed by Schlichter.
Lawyers are not surprised by the decisions upholding fee structures
Christopher Rillo, an ERISA attorney for Groom Law Group, Washington, said plaintiffs have not gotten much traction and most of the cases filed will go with the defense. Groom is co-counsel to Boeing Co., whose 401(k) is being sued by Schlichter.
Michael Melbinger, partner and chairman of the employee benefits and executive compensation practice at Winston & Strawn, said, If they get a favorable decision (in any of the cases), the floodgates will really open.