July 5, 2020

Volume X, Number 187

July 03, 2020

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July 02, 2020

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U.S. Supreme Court Holds ERISA Defined Benefit Plan Participants Without Monetary Losses Lack Article III Standing to Assert Breach of Fiduciary Duty Claims

Earlier today, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed a decision by the Eighth Circuit holding that ERISA plan participants lack Article III standing to sue for breach of fiduciary duty to recover investment losses in a defined benefit fund that was not underfunded.  The Court concluded that the participants lacked a concrete stake in the dispute because they would receive the full value of their promised benefits regardless of the outcome.  In so holding, the Court rejected all four of plaintiffs’ alternative standing arguments, finding that: (i) in the defined benefit plan context, the trust law principal that an injury to the plan is an injury to the participant is inapplicable because participants’ benefits are fixed and do not depend on the value of the plan; (ii) asserting a claim on behalf of an ERISA plan under Section 502(a) does not alleviate the requirement under Article III that the named plaintiff suffer an injury-in-fact; (iii) satisfying statutory standing (i.e., being a person authorized to sue to vindicate the statute) does not mean that a plaintiff “automatically” satisfies Article III’s injury-in-fact requirement; and (iv) the question of whether there are independent means to regulate fiduciary conduct is irrelevant to the Article III standing issue and, in any event, defined benefit plans are regulated and monitored in multiple ways, including by the Department of Labor.

Justice Thomas concurred in the Court’s opinion but wrote separately to again set forth his objection to the Court’s practice of using the common law of trusts as a “starting point” for interpreting ERISA instead of the language of ERISA itself.  Justice Sotomayor authored a lengthy dissent arguing that plan participants have standing to sue for violations of ERISA fiduciary duties regardless of whether the plan’s losses reduced participant benefits.

The case is Thole v. U.S. Bank, Nat’l Ass’n, 2020 WL 2814294 (U.S. June 1, 2020).

© 2020 Proskauer Rose LLP. National Law Review, Volume X, Number 153


About this Author

Russell L Hirschhorn ERISA Litigation, employee benefits attorney, Proskauer
Senior Counsel

Russell Hirschhorn is a Senior Counsel in the Labor & Employment Law Department, where he focuses on complex ERISA litigation and advises employers, fiduciaries and trustees on ERISA benefit and fiduciary issues. 

Russell represents employers, plan sponsors, plans, trustees, directed trustees and fiduciaries in all phases of litigation, arbitration and mediation involving employee benefits, including class action and individual claims relating to ERISA’s fiduciary duty and prohibited transaction provisions, denials of claims for benefits, severance plans, ERISA Section 510,...

Tulio D. Chirinos, Labor, Employment, Attorney, Proskauer, Law firm

Tulio D. Chirinos is an Associate in the Labor & Employment Department, and a member of the Employee Benefits, Executive Compensation, and ERISA Litigation Practice Center, resident in the New Orleans office.

Tulio works on a wide variety of employment law and benefit matters, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, ERISA breach of fiduciary duty claims, and ERISA benefits claims. He is also a contributing author to Chapter 20 of the fifth edition of BNA’s ERISA Litigation treatise, which will be published in 2014. Prior to joining Proskauer, Tulio clerked for the Federal Public Defender’s office for the Middle District of Florida. Before attending law school, Tulio was an officer in the Army National Guard, where he served two tours of duty in Iraq. He is currently a Captain in the Mississippi National Guard.