Companies that sponsor employee benefit plans that have purchased or own stock in their sponsor beware. Declines in the stock value of company stock purchased by employee stock ownership plans (ESOP) or other employee benefit plans in their plan sponsor have a growing number of plans and the plan sponsors, sponsoring company owners and management, plan trustees and other plan fiduciaries in hot water with the Department of Labor. ESOP or other employee plans that have purchased or allow investments in company stock and their sponsors, fiduciaries and advisors should carefully review for defensibility the current stock value, the purchase price and analysis supporting that purchase and other aspects of these investments of plan assets and take carefully documented action to prove the prudence and other appropriateness of the investment and continued retention of the investment in these assets.
Company Stock Investments Carry Special ERISA Risks
Purchases of company stock by an ESOP or other employee benefit plan can create a wide range of risks under the fiduciary responsibility rules of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). When making investment or other decisions under an employee benefit plan, the general fiduciary duty standards of ERISA § 404 generally require plan fiduciaries to act prudently and solely in the interest of participants and beneficiaries. Meanwhile, except in certain narrow circumstances and subject to fulfillment of ERISA § 404, the prohibited transaction rules of ERISA § 406 among other things prohibits plan fiduciaries from causing the plan to engage in a transaction, if he knows or should know that such transaction is a direct or indirect:
- Sale or exchange, or leasing, of any property between the plan and a party in interest;
- Furnishing of goods, services, or facilities between the plan and a party in interest;
- Transfer to, or use by or for the benefit of a party in interest, of any assets of the plan; or
- Acquisition, on behalf of the plan, of any employer security or employer real property in violation of section 1107 (a) of this title.
Stock Drops Create Rising Exposures For Plans Invested In Company Stock
Amid economic downturns or other situations where the stock value of company held by plans significantly lower than the price the plan paid for the stock, the Labor Department, plaintiffs in private lawsuits or both may bring “stock drop” or other lawsuits against the plan, its sponsor and its officers and board members, its fiduciaries and others for breach of fiduciary duties under these rules. See e.g., Enron v. Tittle, 463 F.3d 410 (5th Cir. 2006); In Re: BP p.l.c. ERISA Litig., No. 4:10-cv-4214 (S.D. Texas); Vivian v. Worldcom (N.D. Cal. 2002). Since the sponsoring company is a party-in-interest of the plan, using plan assets to purchase company stock or other activities resulting in the inclusion of company stock among the plan assets held by the plan creates presumptions of impropriety that impose higher than usual burdens upon the plan, its sponsor and fiduciaries to prove the appropriateness of the transaction. See e.g., Pfeil v. State Street Bank & Trust Co., 671 F.3d 585 (6th Cir. 2012).
The filing of stock drop cases tends to rise and fall in reflection to the economic times. Following the economic downturn in 2002, federal courts saw a surge in stop drop case challenges as well as Labor Department enforcement actions. The number of these cases dropped as the economy improved later in the decade only to rise again between 2010 and the present in response to the current economic crisis.
Tough Economic Times Fueled Stock Drops Creating Rising Risks & Enforcement
The latest economic downturn is fueling resurgence in these “stock drop” challenges. Fifteen stop drop lawsuits were filed during 2010 and 2011. Additional suits and Labor Department stop drop challenges have emerged this year.
In Griffin v. Flagstar Bancorp, Inc., No. 11-1497 (6th Cir. 2012), for instance, plaintiffs alleged various fiduciaries allegedly breached their duties under ERISA by allowing employer stock to be offered as a 401(k) plan investment option while the company was facing a precarious financial situation. The Griffin court overruled the lower court’s dismissal of the plaintiff’s lawsuit. The Court of Appeals held that the defendants offering of company stock to plan participants made ERISA’s “safe harbor” (Section 404(c)) provision for participant self-directed investments inapplicable. The Sixth Circuit ruled “[a]fter reviewing the factual allegations in the complaint – which go far beyond documenting a simple drop in stock price to recite announcements from Flagstar itself, statements by analysts and financial media publications, and actions taken by Flagstar suggesting a precarious financial situation– we must conclude that the complaint raises a plausible claim for breach of fiduciary duty.”
In addition to private class action lawsuits like Griffin, plans holding company stock, their sponsors, owners, management and fiduciaries also need to be ready to defend against investigations and enforcement by the Labor Department, which often zealously investigates and takes enforcement action against plans, their fiduciaries, sponsors, company boards and management and others for losses to plan asset values resulting due to the investment or retention of investments by their plans in company stock. See also Labor Department Backs M&I Employees In Stock-Plan Suit.
Labor Department Suits Show Particular Risks For ESOPs
Over the past year, the Labor Department has been particularly aggressive in taking action when the value of company stock purchased or held by employee stock purchase plans or “ESOPS” drops significantly.
For instance, the purchase by the Rembar Inc. Employee Stock Ownership Plan (“Rembar Plan”) of all the stock of its sponsor, Rembar Inc. has landed the trust company that served as the Plan’s independent fiduciary and Rembar Inc.’s owner and Chief Executive Officer in hot water.
The Labor Department is suing Rembar Inc.’s Chief Executive Officer and owner, Frank Firor, First Bankers Trust Services Inc. and the Rembar Plan to recover losses that the Labor Department charges Rembar Plan participants suffered because the Rembar Plan paid too much when it purchased all of the stock of Rembar Inc.
Rembar Inc. manufactures and distributes precision parts made from refractory metals. The Labor Department lawsuit alleges that, in June 2005, First Bankers Trust Services allowed the Rembar Plan to purchase 100 percent of the company’s stock from Firor and Firor’s relatives for $15.5 million. A Labor Department investigation found that First Bankers Trust Services failed to comply with its duty to understand the valuation report that set the purchase price, identify and question assumptions in the report, and verify that the conclusions in the report were consistent with the company’s financial data. As a result of First Bankers Trust Services’ failure to comply with its fiduciary duties, the Labor Department claims the Rembar Plan overpaid for the stock and suffered losses. The suit seeks, among other things, to recover jointly from First Bankers Trust Services and Firor all losses suffered by the Rembar Plan.
Similarly, the Labor Department also has filed an ERISA stock drop lawsuit against the Maran Inc. Employee Stock Ownership Plan (Maran Plan), First Bankers Trust Services Inc. and others to recover losses suffered by participants.
According to the pleadings, First Bankers Trust Services was hired as an independent fiduciary and trustee in connection with the company’s ESOP to decide whether, and at what price, to purchase shares of Maran Inc. from majority shareholders. The suit charges First Bankers Trust Services violated ERISA in 2006 when it approved the ESOP’s purchase of 49 percent of the outstanding stock of Maran Inc. for about $71 million, which was more than the fair market value. The Labor Department claims that as a result of the purchase of overvalued stock, the Maran Plan participants suffered significant losses. The suit seeks to recover all losses and have First Bankers Trust Services enjoined from serving as a fiduciary to ESOP plans.
Likewise, the Labor Department in April sued in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California seeking to recover losses suffered by participants in the Parrot Cellular Employee Stock Ownership Plan (Parrot Plan).
The suit names as a defendant Dennis Webb, the principal owner of Entrepreneurial Ventures Inc. (EVI), which operates Parrot Cellular telephone retail stores in northern and central California, and is the sponsor of the Parrot Plan; EVI executives Matthew Fidiam and J. Robert Gallucci; Consulting Fiduciaries Inc., an Illinois company that served as the independent fiduciary and investment manager for the Parrot Plan in 2002 when the Parrot Plan bought 90 percent of EVI stock.
According to the pleadings, the Parrot Plan paid for more than $28 million to buy approximately 90 percent of EVI’s stock in 2002. Around the same time as the stock purchase, EVI also set aside $4 million pursuant to a deferred compensation agreement with Webb and entered into a second executive compensation agreement with Webb for $12 million.
The Labor Department charges defendants allegedly violated ERISA by rejecting their fiduciary duties of loyalty and prudence to the plan, engaging in self-dealing, permitting or engaging in prohibited transactions, and failing to monitor the performance of the plan’s appraiser when they caused or permitted the Parrot Plan to purchase EVI stock for more than fair market value. The suit also charges that Webb enriched himself by millions of dollars at the expense of the plan and its participants because a reasonable value for the company as of November 2002 was far less than the amounts the Parrot Plan paid for the stock and the total deferred compensation agreements entered into with Webb.
In addition to seeking the recovery of all losses to the Parrot Plan resulting from the above violations, the Labor Department’s suit seeks the disgorgement of unjust profits from Webb that he received from the two deferred compensation agreements and from his sale of EVI stock to the Parrot Plan.
Plans, Sponsors and Fiduciaries Must Act Continously To Manage Risks
These and other actions send a stong message for ESOP and other employee benefit plans, their fiduciaries and sponsors about the need to continuously and prudently evaluate and monitor the investment of plan assets in company stock,the analysis and decisions about whether to continue to keep and offer this stock under the plan, as well as the qualifications, credentials and conduct of the fiduciaries and others empowered to influence these decisions. The Labor Department’s statement in announcing the Parrot litigation sums up the messages from these cases. “Plan officials are required by law to manage the ESOP in a careful, prudent manner and to act solely to benefit the plan’s participants,” said Jean Ackerman, director of EBSA’s San Francisco Regional Office, which conducted the investigation. “This action underscores the department’s commitment to protect the benefits that employers promise to their employees.” Plan fiduciaries, sponsors and their management, service providers and consultants participating in these activities need to both act with care and carefully document their actions to position to defend potential challenges.
Plans, their sponsors and fiduciaries also should ensure that appropriate steps are taken in selecting the fiduciaries, management and service providers responsible for administering or overseeing the administration of their plans, the selection of vendors, and other critical details. Appropriate background checks and other credentialing should be done both at commencement and periodically. Bonding and fiduciary liability insurance should be arranged and reviewed periodically along with their activities. Documentation of these and other steps should be carefully created and preserved.
When and if a change in stock value or other event that could compromise the investment occurs, consideration should be given as to the responsibilities that such events create under ERISA. As company leaders often have dual responsibilities to both the company and the plan, it is important that the company sponsoring the plan, its management and owners learn in advance how these responsibilities impact each other so that they are aware of the issues and have a good understanding of responsibilities and options as situations evolve.
For Help or More Information
If you need help reviewing and updating, administering or defending your employee benefit, human resources, insurance, health care matters or related documents or practices to monitor or respond to evolving laws and regulations, drafting or administering programs, resolving or defending audits, investigations or disputes or other employee benefit, human resources, safety, compliance or risk management concerns, please contact the author of this update, Cynthia Marcotte Stamer.
About Ms. Stamer
A Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Council, immediate past Chair of the American Bar Association (ABA) RPTE Employee Benefits & Other Compensation Group and current Co-Chair of its Welfare Benefit Committee, Vice-Chair of the ABA TIPS Employee Benefits Committee, a council member of the ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits, and past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group, Ms. Stamer is recognized, internationally, nationally and locally for her more than 24 years of work, advocacy, education and publications on cutting edge health and managed care, employee benefit, human resources and related workforce, insurance and financial services, and health care matters.
A board certified labor and employment attorney widely known for her extensive and creative knowledge and experienced with these and other employment, employee benefit and compensation matters, Ms. Stamer continuously advises and assists employers, employee benefit plans, their sponsoring employers, fiduciaries, insurers, administrators, service providers, insurers and others to monitor and respond to evolving legal and operational requirements and to design, administer, document and defend medical and other welfare benefit, qualified and non-qualified deferred compensation and retirement, severance and other employee benefit, compensation, and human resources, management and other programs and practices tailored to the client’s human resources, employee benefits or other management goals. A primary drafter of the Bolivian Social Security pension privatization law, Ms. Stamer also works extensively with management, service provider and other clients to monitor legislative and regulatory developments and to deal with Congressional and state legislators, regulators, and enforcement officials about regulatory, investigatory or enforcement concerns.
Recognized in Who’s Who In American Professionals and both an American Bar Association (ABA) and a State Bar of Texas Fellow, Ms. Stamer serves on the Editorial Advisory Board of Employee Benefits News, the editor and publisher of Solutions Law Press HR & Benefits Update and other Solutions Law Press Publications, and active in a multitude of other employee benefits, human resources and other professional and civic organizations. She also is a widely published author and highly regarded speaker on these matters. Her insights on these and other matters appear in the Bureau of National Affairs, Spencer Publications, the Wall Street Journal, the Dallas Business Journal, the Houston Business Journal, Modern and many other national and local publications. You can learn more about Ms. Stamer and her experience, review some of her other training, speaking, publications and other resources, and register to receive future updates about developments on these and other concerns see here or contact Ms. Stamer via telephone at 469.767.8872 or via e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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