The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has issued an opinion in Santomenno v. Transamerica LLC, clarifying the circumstances under which a retirement plan investment service provider breaches (and does not breach) its fiduciary duties when negotiating its fees and when collecting the agreed fees from plan accounts.

The Case

The trial court in this case held that the plan investment service provider breached its fiduciary duties to plan beneficiaries first when negotiating with the employer about providing services to the plan and later when withdrawing predetermined fees from plan funds.

The 9th Circuit held that a plan administrator is not an ERISA fiduciary when negotiating its compensation with a prospective customer. The employer/plan sponsor doing the hiring is acting under a fiduciary duty when it negotiates these fees. Therefore, the prospective service provider did not breach its duties in negotiating for the fees it wanted to receive.

The Court also held that the service provider was not a fiduciary with respect to its receipt of revenue sharing payments from investment managers after it became a service provider to the Plan because the payments were fully disclosed before the provider agreements were signed and did not come from plan assets.

Finally, and most significantly, the Court held that the service provider also did not breach its fiduciary duty with respect to its withdrawal of the preset fees from plan funds. The Court concluded that when a service provider’s definitively calculable and nondiscretionary compensation is clearly set forth in a contract with the fiduciary-employer, collection of those fees out of plan funds in strict adherence to that contractual term is not a breach of the provider’s fiduciary duty. The withdrawal of its fees in such circumstances is a ministerial act that does not give rise to fiduciary liability.

The Take-Aways

This case highlights the importance of the fiduciary role played by the plan sponsor and administrator when hiring service providers to the Plan. Hiring and retention decisions are fiduciary acts on the part of the employer/plan sponsor, but are not fiduciary acts on the part of the service provider being hired.

In addition, while this case illustrates that it is not always a fiduciary act for a service provider to withdraw its fees directly from plan assets, that is not true in every case. For example, if the Plan sponsor or administrator disputed a charge before the service provider withdrew its fees, or if the fees withdrawn by the service provider were based on hours worked or some other non-ministerial measure of the service provided, the withdrawal may not be ministerial. This case therefore does not give service providers free reign to withdraw fees from plan assets without consideration of their fiduciary duties.