Thursday, January 20, 2011

Can a 401(k) plan member recover damages to his individual account caused by a Plan Administrator’s breach of fiduciary duty?

An ERISA Plaintiff cannot seek individual monetary damages for a Plan Administrator’s breach of fiduciary duty to the plan. Importantly, however, seeking damages on behalf of the 401(k) Plan as a result of a Plaintiff’s losses in his individual account is explicitly permitted under LaRue v. DeWolff, Boberg & Associates, Inc., 552 U.S. 248 (2008), which held that ERISA Section 502(a)(2) authorizes recovery by a plan participant for fiduciary breaches “that impair the value of plan assets in a participant's individual account.” 522 U.S. at 256. The Supreme Court in LaRue made clear its reasoning for this holding:

Whether a fiduciary breach diminishes plan assets payable to all participants and beneficiaries, or only to persons tied to particular individual accounts, it creates the kind of harms that concerned the draftsmen of § 409.

Id. at 256.

For instance, a Plaintiff may rely upon ERISA Section 502(a)(1)(B) for a Defendant’s failure to provide the Plaintiff with the full 401(k) benefits owed to him under the 401(k) Plan at issue. And the Plaintiff may also rely upon ERISA Section 502(a)(2) for a Defendant’s breaches of fiduciary duties. A plain reading of Sections 502(a)(1)(B) and 502(a)(2) establishes that the two sections provide for different relief. Indeed, as the 9th Circuit explicitly noted in Harris v. Amgen, Inc.:

Section 502(a)(1)(B) allows a plan participant “to recover benefits due to him under the terms of his plan.” By contrast, Section 502(a)(2) encompasses claims based on breach of fiduciary duty and allows for the more expansive recovery of “appropriate relief,” including disgorgement of profits and equitable remedies.

573 F.3d 728, 734, n. 4 (9th Cir. 2009) (citations omitted).

Regardless, some defendants incorrectly assert that “the Eighth Circuit and other courts alike have repeatedly held that participants cannot state claims for breach of fiduciary duty under ERISA Section 502(a) when they are also seeking to recover the same benefits under ERISA Section 502(a)(1)(B).” The falsity of this assertion is clear upon a review of the federal caselaw. Indeed, the cases usually cited are inapplicable in that each is either irrelevant or is limited in scope to claims brought under ERISA Sections 502(a)(1)(B) and 502(a)(3), not Sections 502(a)(1)(B) and 502(a)(2). See Geissal ex rel. Estate of Geissal v. Moore Medical Corp., 338 F.3d 926, 933 (8th Cir. 2003) (narrowly holding that a beneficiary cannot bring a claim for benefits under Section 502(a)(1)(B) and Section 502(a)(3)(B)); Conley v. Pitney Bowes, 176 F.3d 1044, 1047 (8th Cir. 1999) (citing Wald v. Southwestern Bell Corporation Customcare Medical Plan, 83 F.3d 1002, 1006 (8th Cir. 1996) in holding that “where a plaintiff is ‘provided adequate relief by [the] right to bring a claim for benefits under [Section 502(a)(1)(B)],’ the plaintiff does not have a cause of action to seek the same remedy under [Section 502(a)(3)(B)]”). Some defendants also cite Coyne & Delaney Co. v. BCBS of Va., Inc., 102 F.3d 712 (4th Cir. 1996). However, Coyne is not relevant in that it analyses whether a plan fiduciary can bring a claim for benefits under ERISA Section 502(a)(3). 102 F.3d at 713.

Some plan defendants also rely upon the U.S. Supreme Court’s holding in LaRue v. DeWolff, Boberg & Assoc., Inc., 552 U.S. 248 (2008) for the proposition that duplicative claims under ERISA Section 502(a)(1)(B) and 502(a)(2) are inappropriate. Specifically, defendants may rely upon commentary by Chief Justice Roberts in that case, without revealing that Justice Roberts wrote the concurring opinion rather than the opinion of the Court. Accordingly, his analysis is not binding. Id. at 249. In fact, at the conclusion of his concurring opinion, Justice Roberts acknowledged that his analysis is not binding on the issue: “In any event, other courts in other cases remain free to consider what we have not—what effect the availability of relief under § 502(a)(1)(B) may have on a plan participant's ability to proceed under § 502(a)(2).” Id. at 260.

Indeed, in Crider v. Life Ins. Co. of N. Am., 2008 WL 2782871 (W.D. Ky. 2008), the Western District of Kentucky acknowledged that Justice Roberts’ analysis in LaRue is not binding, and therefore noted that in deciding whether to allow a claim under both ERISA Section 502(a)(1)(B) and Section 502(a)(2), the question for the court is whether the facts the plaintiff alleges “state a claim for breach of fiduciary duty under Section 502(a)(2) which is separate from her claim for benefits under Section 502(a)(1)(B).” Id. at *2. The court further noted that in deciding this question, the Sixth Circuit has on at least three occasions “allowed plaintiffs to pursue both a claim for benefits under Section 502(a)(1) and also to attempt to hold a plan responsible for breaches of fiduciary duty under a separate Section 502(a) action.” Id. Finally, In Hill v. Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Mich., the Sixth Circuit observed that plan-wide claims are distinct from claims seeking to correct the denial of individual benefits. 409 F.3d 710, 718 (6th Cir. 2005).

Finally, it is well-established that “[i]n ruling on a motion to dismiss, a court must view the allegations of the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.” Guarantee Co. of North America, USA v. Middleton Bros., Inc., 2010 WL 2553693, at *2 (E.D. Mo. June 23, 2010). To survive a motion to dismiss, a claim need only be facially plausible, “meaning that the factual content…allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. (quoting Cole v. Homier Dist. Co., Inc., 599 F.3d 856, 861 (8th Cir. 2010)).

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