In a much-anticipated decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit joined five other circuits in ruling that employer stock in a 401(k) plan is subject to a "presumption of prudence" that a plaintiff alleging fiduciary breach can overcome only upon a showing that the employer was facing a "dire situation" that was objectively unforeseeable by the plan sponsor. In re Citigroup ERISA Litigation, No. 09-3804, 2011 WL 4950368 (2d Cir. Oct. 19, 2011). The appellate court found the plaintiffs had not rebutted the presumption of prudence and so upheld the dismissal of their "stock drop" claims.
The Citigroup plaintiffs were participants in two 401(k) plans that specifically required the offering of Citigroup stock as an investment option. The plaintiffs alleged that Citigroup's large subprime mortgage exposure caused the share price of Citigroup stock to decline sharply between January 2007 and January 2008, and that plan fiduciaries breached their duties of prudence and loyalty by not divesting the plans of the stock in the face of the declines. The plaintiffs further alleged that the defendants breached their duty of disclosure by not providing complete and accurate information to plan participants regarding the risks associated with investing in Citigroup stock in light of the company's exposure to the subprime market. On a motion to dismiss, the district court found no fiduciary breach because the defendants had "no discretion whatsoever" to eliminate Citigroup stock as an investment option (sometimes referred to as "hardwiring"). Alternatively, the lower court ruled that Citigroup stock was a presumptively prudent investment and the plaintiffs had not alleged sufficient facts to overcome the presumption.
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