A Recent Stock Drop Case Reminds Plan Sponsors That Clear Plan Language Is The Primary Defense To Benefit Plan Litigation

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Recently, a federal district court in Georgia, on remand from an appellate court, dismissed a suit brought by participants of the SunTrust Bank 401(k) savings plan alleging fiduciary breaches based on defendants’ decision to continue permitting investment in SunTrust stock during a period of high volatility and risk during which the value of the stock declined significantly.  In its decision to remand the case back to the district court, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals instructed the district court to determine whether the fiduciary abused its discretion by following the directions of the plan, but not in a manner that the fiduciary could have reasonably believed that SunTrust Bank (the plan sponsor and settlor) would have intended under the circumstances.  Applying this standard, the district court reviewed various plan provisions, the summary plan description (SPD) and the plan’s investment policy and concluded among other things that: (i) the plan documents adequately warned participants of investing in employer stock and advised participants to diversify their portfolio, (ii) that SunTrust Bank intended for the fiduciaries to wait until the company was "on the brink of financial collapse” before taking action; and (iii) when at “the brink,” the fiduciaries were required to first seek outside counsel for advice, before selling the SunTrust stock.  The district court ruled that SunTrust's clear instructions during a period of volatility - which were followed by the fiduciaries - precluded the plan participants' breach of fiduciary claims.  This case illustrates how the careful drafting of a plan document, SPD or other plan materials – and compliance with those terms - can save a plan sponsor substantial resources and litigation expenses.

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