ERISA: A Plan Sponsor’s liability for an underfunded plan.

The 8th Circuit recently held that a defined benefit pension plan participant’s claim against a Plan Sponsor cannot move forward if an underfunded plan becomes overfunded during the course of litigation.  In Thole v. US Bank, National Association, et el, No. 16-1928 (October 12, 2017),  the 8th Circuit held that a defined benefit pension plan participant who alleges a breach of fiduciary duty and prohibited transaction claims under ERISA is unable to assert their claims if the plan subsequently becomes overfunded, even if the overfunding occurs after litigation has been filed.  

In Thole, the Plaintiffs were retirees of U.S. Bank and participants in the U.S. Bank Pension Plan (“the Plan”).  U.S. Bancorp was the Plan’s sponsor, while U.S. Bank was the Plan’s trustee.  Pursuant to the Plan document, the Compensation Committee and Investment Committee had authority to manage the Plan’s assets. The Compensation Committee was composed of U.S. Bancorp directors and officers.  The Compensation Committee designated a subsidiary of U.S. Bank as the Investment Manager with full discretionary investment authority over the Plan’s assets.

Plaintiffs brought an action against U.S. Bank, N.A., U.S. Bancorp, and multiple U.S. Bancorp directors challenging the defendants’ management of the Plan.  The Plaintiffs alleged that the defendants violated the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) by breaching their fiduciary obligations and causing the Plan to engage in prohibited transactions.  The Plaintiffs asserted that the ERISA violations caused significant losses to the Plan’s assets in 2008 and resulted in the Plan being underfunded.  Plaintiffs challenged the management of the Plan from September 30, 2007 to December 31, 2010. 

Plaintiffs alleged that the Investment Manager had invested the entire portfolio in equities managed by the Investment Manager.   Plaintiffs further alleged that because defendants put all the Plan’s assets in a single higher-risk asset class, the Plan suffered a loss of $1.1 billion.  The status of the Plan as underfunded at the commencement of litigation was not in dispute.  

Following the commencement of litigation U.S. Bank made voluntary contributions to the Plan in the amount of $311 million dollars.  These additional voluntary contributions resulted in the Plan becoming overfunded, with more money in the plan than was needed to meet its obligations. Defendants moved to dismiss the case asserting that Plaintiffs could no longer prove they had suffered any financial loss. The District Court dismissed the action, concluding that because the Plan was now overfunded, the Plaintiffs lacked a concrete interest in any monetary relief that the court might award to the Plan if the plaintiffs prevailed on the merits. On Appeal the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court’s decision.

In addition to the monetary relief sought by Plaintiffs, the Court also determined that the Plaintiffs’ injunctive relief claim against the Investment Manager could not move forward.  While ERISA provides that a plan participant or beneficiary may bring a civil action to enjoin any act that violates any provision of the Act or terms of the plan the Court held that plaintiffs must make a showing of actual or imminent injury to the Plan itself, and because the Plaintiffs could not show injury as the plan was overfunded injunctive relief was not appropriate. 

The Court’s holding allows a Plan sponsor to make additional contributions to a Plan even after litigation has commenced, increasing the burden on a Plaintiff to prove injury in such an action.