Viewpoint: How to Minimize the Risk of Retirement Plan Litigation

Retirement plan committee best practices can discourage lawsuits

By Peter Scott, JD © Marsh & McLennan September 22, 2020
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What do Estee Lauder and Costco have in common? Both are defending themselves against lawsuits alleging mismanagement of 401(k) accounts, as retirement plan litigation under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) proliferates.

LinkedIn was added to the list in August, when a class-action lawsuit was filed alleging the firm mismanaged its 401(k) plan. And, on Sept. 18, a federal judge rejected a petition by AutoZone Inc. to dismiss allegations of ERISA violations filed by 401(k) plan participants.

In recent years, employers as different as Princeton University and WalMart have paid millions of dollars to settle lawsuits brought by employees alleging excessive fees in their retirement plans.

At the heart of many of these cases are allegations that employers' retirement plan oversight committees tolerated high fees and poor investment performance. Retirement plan committee members are fiduciaries who, under ERISA, are responsible for ensuring that the plan operates in the best interest of its participants.

Attracting Lawsuits

Companies settling ERISA lawsuits are typically accused of failing to pay adequate attention to the retirement plan, such as by failing to remove or replace poor or overly expensive investment choices and allowing vendors to charge above-market fees. The old adage that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure is relevant here.

Law firms are combing through ERISA plan annual filings to identify worthwhile 401(k) targets, looking for expensive or poorly performing investments and high recordkeeping costs. ERISA complaints now include tables and charts comparing a targeted plan's investment performance and expenses with average or best-available practices, to persuade courts that a trial is in order.

Law firms comb through ERISA plan filings to identify worthwhile targets.

Adopting Best Practices

Plan sponsors can't completely eliminate the risk that they will be sued by current or former plan participants, but companies can minimize the risk by adopting best practices—such as those listed below—for making plan investment and management decisions.

Form an active retirement plan oversight committee.

The committee should include interested employees, including representatives of HR, finance, legal and rank-and-file employees. A well-functioning committee has a range of talents and perspectives to help it make effective decisions. 

The committee should operate under a written charter, setting out the responsibilities of the committee and its procedural rules for appointing members, holding meetings, voting, and hiring advisors and experts as needed, for example. The charter need not be overly rigid or specific but should be drafted to reflect how the committee will operate.

Provide periodic fiduciary training for committee members.

ERISA is complicated, and committee decisions have direct impacts on employees' retirement income. Committee members must act solely in the interest of plan participants and make decisions as a "prudent expert." Ask vendors to have their top technical experts conduct training, and ensure that the training is tailored to plans of your size.

Write and adopt an investment policy statement.

While having an investment policy statement (IPS) is not generally a requirement for 401(k) plans, it is an important document as it may help show that the committee acted prudently and in the plan's best interests in evaluating investments. The IPS should include specific language describing the process by which investments are selected, monitored and replaced when necessary. 

It is not advisable to list the plan's current investments within the IPS, as this list may change over time and the IPS may not always be consistent with the website your participants visit to manage their accounts.

Minimize investment fund expenses.

Sponsors of 401(k) plans have spent millions of dollars settling allegations that they had overly expensive funds, in many cases retail-share classes rather than institutionally priced investments. 

The expense ratios that 401(k) plan participants incur for investing in mutual funds have declined substantially since 2000, reports the Investment Company Institute, a trade association for financial services firms. In 2000, 401(k) plan participants incurred an average expense ratio of 77 basis points (0.77 percent) for investing in equity mutual funds. By 2019, that figure had fallen to 39 basis points (0.39 percent), which is a 49 percent decline.

For plan sponsors of all sizes, it is imperative to document efforts to maintain the lowest possible investment expenses.

Compare investment performance.

How do your plan's funds compare to similar offerings? There is no shortage of high-performing, low-expense funds to choose from in each investment category. While the retirement committee can't forecast future investment performance, it can determine prudent funds based on their track record. 

If investment evaluation isn't your forte, get expert help from an investment adviser that accepts fiduciary responsibility for investment recommendations.

Drop underperforming funds.

If the menu needs to be revamped, just do it. The small inconvenience of explaining to employees why changes are being made is better than responding to document requests arising from litigation for failing to let go of underperforming funds.

Monitor revenue-sharing.

Many mutual funds share a small portion of their expense ratio fees with plan administrative firms, which may reduce the costs that plan sponsors pay administrative firms for services such as recordkeeping of participants' investments, providing statements and distributing literature. Fund share classes with no revenue-sharing, however, have lower expense ratios and slightly better investment performance.

If revenue-sharing is in place for any fund being offered through the plan, audit it periodically—at least annually—and ensure that it is reducing plan expenses that might otherwise be paid by participants.

Pay vendors with flat-dollar fees.

All plans should grill their recordkeepers and other vendors on whether they charge the very lowest administrative fees available. When plan sponsors don't pay administrative fees themselves, a best practice is to charge participants a flat recordkeeping fee (perhaps subsidizing small balances) rather than using revenue-sharing funds to pay the recordkeeper a fee based on the percentage of assets in plan accounts.

If plan sponsors engage an investment adviser, it's also preferable to pay them a flat-dollar fee rather than a fee that fluctuates based on plan assets. Advisers should not be thinking about how recommended changes in a fund lineup will affect their pay. 

In all circumstances, evaluating fees on a flat-dollar amount or dollars per participant will provide useful comparisons to fees based on a percentage of assets under management in the plan.

Maintain constant vigilance on administrative fees.

Recordkeepers and other vendors negotiate best when they perceive that they may lose you as a customer. As a fiduciary, you and your team need to play hardball at times. Don't worry about hurting the feelings of the vendor's personnel—you're the fiduciary with potential liability, they're not. Benchmark your administrative fees and consider issuing a request for proposal (RFP) for administrative services every few years.

Even though plans may not have changed much, vendors have, and they should be able to lower costs or provide additional services.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Designing and Administering Defined Contribution Retirement Plans]

Document your decisions, but be smart about it.

Maintaining good records is a must but understand that any and all plan-related documents can wind up in the hands of class-action attorneys. Meeting minutes and e-mails should be carefully written and demonstrate a prudent process, to avoid casting the plan or committee in a bad light.

Get it in writing.

Vendor contracts should be negotiated, not rubber-stamped. Keep track of promises made in RFP responses and finalist presentations. A vendor's oral promises should be documented within their service agreement. Insist on performance guarantees so your plan will be compensated for any service lapses.

Don't accept forced arbitration with any vendors.

Fiduciaries should not sign away their option to use federal courts to resolve conflicts with vendors. Plan sponsors can always choose to arbitrate a dispute, as vendors prefer this. Just don't sign any contracts agreeing to compulsory arbitration of any and all disputes.

Protect against identity theft.

Ensure that hackers don't steal your employees' account balances. Ask recordkeepers about their security practices, experiences in defeating hackers, and resources committed to maintaining strong cybersecurity. 

Obtain a written commitment in the service agreement that the vendor will reimburse participants who followed account security guidelines and, through no fault of their own, had their accounts depleted.

Summing Up

There are several things a company can do to protect against 401(k) litigation. Have the retirement plan run by a committee of dedicated, knowledgeable employees. Hire independent expert advisers to help with investments, vendor oversight and training. Make sure that all fees are competitive, using benchmarking and RFPs as needed. Use an objective fund scoring methodology and replace underperforming investments. Document decisions and pay attention to process.

Peter Scott, JD, is an ERISA expert and senior fiduciary consultant at Marsh & McLennan Retirement Services. He has served as in-house ERISA counsel to financial services companies and worked directly with federal tax, labor and securities regulators. © 2020 Marsh & McLennan Agency LLC. All rights reserved. Published with permission.

Firms seeking assistance in fulfilling fiduciary responsibilities should seek the advice of counsel.

Related SHRM Articles:

Shore up Benefits Cybersecurity During Open Enrollment, SHRM Online, September 2020

401(k) Sponsors Focus on Benchmarking—and Lowering—Fees, SHRM Online, February 2018

Keep Your 401(k) Plan Out of Fiduciary Hot Water, SHRM Online, June 2016

[Need help with legal questions? Check out the new SHRM LegalNetwork.]


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