A New York federal appeals court once again rejected a breach of fiduciary duty claim against the now bankrupt Lehman Brothers brought by its employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) participants. In In Re: Lehman Bros. Sec. and ERISA Litig., No. 15-2229 (2d Cir. 2016), the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit on March 18 ruled that participants “failed to allege sufficiently” that plan fiduciaries violated their duties under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). The appeals court upheld an earlier July 15, 2015 decision by a US district court in New York to dismiss the complaint.
Soon after Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy in September 2008, the ESOP participants sued, claiming that ESOP fiduciaries breached their fiduciary duties under ERISA “by continuing to permit investment in Lehman stock in the face of circumstances arguably foreshadowing its eventual demise,” the Second Circuit said. The New York district court dismissed the complaint for the first time in 2011, and the Second Circuit court upheld the dismissal in 2013. Both courts cited a long-held legal principle applicable to ESOPs—the presumption of prudence—to support the defendants’ request for dismissal.
However, in June 2014, the US Supreme Court nullified this long-standing presumption of prudence principle in a unanimous decision in Fifth Third Bancorp, et. al. v Dudenhoeffer, et. al. According to the Supreme Court in the Dudenhoeffer decision, fiduciaries that evaluate an investment in employer stock may rely on its market price unless there are “special circumstances.” Specifically, the court held that “where a stock is publicly traded, allegations that a fiduciary should have recognized, from publicly available information alone, that the market was over or undervaluing the stock are implausible as a general rule, at least in the absence of special circumstances.” This means that the stock market price is the best estimate of employee stock value. But the Supreme Court did not address what it means by “special circumstances,” so, as a result, lower courts will need to determine when a plan fiduciary should have considered the market price as questionable.
Following Dudenhoeffer, the Lehman employees tried to establish special circumstances by pointing to orders issued by the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in summer 2008 that prohibited the short-selling of Lehman securities. They argued both that the orders described market conditions that constituted special circumstances and that the orders themselves qualified as special circumstances. The Second Circuit rejected this argument, explaining that the SEC orders “speak only conditionally” about the market effects of short sales.
This Second Circuit ruling marks the first time that a circuit court has applied the Supreme Court’s recent decision reaffirming the high hurdle facing employees who challenge company stock losses under ERISA (See Amgen Inc. v. Harris 136 S. Ct. 758 (US 2016)). This special circumstances requirement has derailed several lawsuits in the last two years, with courts dismissing claims involving the company stock plans of various major companies.