The Wrongful Distribution of Retirement Benefits to a Plan Fiduciary is Prohibited by ERISA Section 406(b)
Monday, January 31, 2011

Although the distribution of benefits to a plan participant is not a “transaction” as that term is used in Section 406(a), the wrongful distribution of benefits to a plan fiduciary is clearly prohibited conduct under Section 406(b). For example, in Lockheed Corp. v. Spink, 517 U.S. 882 (1996), the plaintiff brought suit against his employer (administrator of his 401(k) plan) under Section 406(a)(1)(D) because the employer wrongfully allowed some of its employees to receive early retirement benefits that the plaintiff was unable to receive. Id. at 892-93. The respondent argued that the payment of benefits is not a “transaction” under Section 406(a). Id. at 892. In its holding, the Court agreed with the respondent, but made clear that its holding was strictly limited to the language of Section 406(a). Indeed, the Court clarified that “the payment of benefits is in fact not a ‘transaction’ in the sense that Congress used that term in § 406(a).” Id. at 892 (emphasis added).

The narrow scope of Lockheed becomes clear upon a review of subsequent federal caselaw. See Armstrong, 2004 WL 1745774, at *10 (holding “payments to participants in accordance with plan terms not to be transactions within the meaning of [Section 406(a)]”); Owen v. SoundView Financial Group, Inc., 54 F.Supp.2d 305, 323 (S.D. N.Y. 1999) (holding that “ERISA's “Prohibited Transaction” rules, see 29 U.S.C. §§ 1106(a) [ERISA Section 406(a)]…are not applicable to the payment of Plan benefits to a Plan beneficiary, because the beneficiary is not a “party in interest”). The limited scope of Lockheed is confirmed by the equally limited scope of Section 406(a). For instance, Section 406(a), entitled, “Transactions between plan and party in interest,” is plainly intended to govern only those transactions in which fiduciaries cause a plan to engage. Indeed, Section 406(a)(1) begins with the following language: “A fiduciary with respect to a plan shall not cause the plan to engage in a transaction, if he knows or should know that such transaction constitutes a direct or indirect. . . .” (emphasis added). Section 406(a)(1) then lists five narrow types of transactions in which a fiduciary should not cause a plan to engage. Courts have determined that the purpose of Section 406(a) is limited to “prevent[ing] plan fiduciaries from engaging in certain transactions that benefit third parties at the expense of plan participants and beneficiaries.” Armstrong v. Amsted Industries, Inc., 2004 WL 1745774, at *10 (N.D. Ill. 2004); Marks v. Independence Blue Cross, 71 F.Supp.2d 432, 437 (E.D. Pa. 1999).

The limited holding of Lockheed (and the subsequent federal court decisions) does not, however, apply in many cases. Indeed, a plaintiff’s prohibited transactions claim against a defendant may be brought under a completely separate ERISA provision: Section 406(b). This Section, entitled “Transactions between plan and fiduciary,” may more clearly apply to a defendant’s conduct. Importantly, unlike Section 406(a), Section 406(b) does not specifically limit which types of transactions apply to the Section. As such, the “transactions” contemplated under Section 406(b) are much broader in scope than those specifically set forth in Section 406(a). Moreover, rather than aiming to prevent plan fiduciaries from engaging in transactions that benefit third parties at the expense of plan participants and beneficiaries, Section 406(b) aims to prevent—among other things—plan fiduciaries from engaging in prohibited transactions for their own account. A plan fiduciary wrongfully using his or her power to obtain a higher distribution than is warranted, for example, obviously falls under the broad conduct contemplated under Section 406(b).

Finally, Section 408(c)(1) reads as follows:

Nothing in [ERISA Section 406] shall be construed to prohibit any fiduciary from—

(1) receiving any benefit to which he may be entitled as a participant or beneficiary in the plan, so long as the benefit is computed and paid on a basis which is consistent with the terms of the plan as applied to all other participants and beneficiaries.

A plain reading of this Section establishes that Section 406 should be construed to prohibit a fiduciary from receiving a benefit that is computed and paid on a basis which is inconsistent with the terms of the plan as applied to all other participants and beneficiaries. 


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