On June 1, 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Thole v. U.S. Bank, N.A., that defined benefit plan participants lack standing under Article III to pursue claims of fiduciary breach when the plan is fully funded.

Background

Plaintiffs were fully vested retired participants in U.S. Bank’s defined benefit retirement plan and filed suit against the bank and other plan fiduciaries for allegedly mismanaging plan assets and breaching their fiduciary duties of care and prudence under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA).

A district court dismissed the suit, which was appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. The Eighth Circuit affirmed the district court ruling, finding that the plaintiffs lacked statutory standing under ERISA since the plaintiffs did not suffer any actual losses.

High Court Decision

Under ERISA, a plan participant must establish both statutory and constitutional standing as a condition of filing suit. The Supreme Court stated that in order to establish constitutional standing, a plan participant must show that:

  • He or she suffered an actual or imminent concrete injury;
  • The defendant caused the injury; and
  • The injury could be cured by judicial relief.

The fact that the plan at issue was a defined benefit plan rather than a defined contribution plan was “of decisive importance” to the Court. Under a defined benefit plan, participants receive a fixed monthly payment that is not tied to a plan’s financial performance or investment decisions.

Since the plaintiffs continued to receive their full plan benefits, the Court found that they did not suffer any concrete injury from the alleged breach of fiduciary duty and therefore lacked constitutional standing to bring a claim.

Writing for the majority, Justice Kavanaugh noted, “If [petitioners] were to win this lawsuit, they would still receive the exact same monthly benefits that they are already slated to receive, not a penny more. The [petitioners] therefore have no concrete stake in this lawsuit.”