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Sixth Circuit: ERISA Defenses for Employer Stock Fund do not Prevail in Motion to Dismiss

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit found that several common defenses to participant stock-drop lawsuits alleging fiduciary breach are not available in the motion to dismiss stage. In its opinion, the Sixth Circuit held that the Moench presumption (presumption of prudence when the plan?ÇÖs terms require a company stock fund) does not apply at the motion to dismiss stage. Plaintiffs do not have to plead enough facts to overcome the presumption in order to survive a motion to dismiss. Additionally, the Sixth Circuit held that ERISA section 404(c) is not available as an affirmative defense at the motion to dismiss stage. The court found that ERISA section 404(c) does not shield fiduciaries from liability for allowing imprudent investment choices to be offered to plan participants. The court also refused to dismiss for inadequate causation on the basis that the participants had an unrestricted right to transfer their investments out of the employer stock fund. The effect for employers defending stock-drop lawsuits in the Sixth Circuit is that early disposal of the lawsuit will likely have to wait until the motion for summary judgment. Pfeil v. State Street Bank and Trust Co., No. 10-2302 (6th Cir. Feb. 22, 2012).

The lawyers of our Employee Benefits and Executive Compensation Practice Group are readily able to assist companies on a nationwide basis with implementing sophisticated benefit plans and providing answers to their most challenging compensation issues. Additionally, our lawyers are well aware of the daily employee benefits challenges facing companies of all sizes and are capable of helping in-house lawyers and human resources personnel with the day-to-day advice and guidance necessary to properly administer employee benefits plans.

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March 2012