The U.S. Supreme Court has determined that ERISA negated in its sphere of pre-emption a traditional protection afforded property rights incident to the trust relationship

Charles E. Rounds, Jr.
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The U.S. Supreme Court in Thole v. U.S. Bank, 140 S. Ct. 1615 (2020), determined that when it comes to the beneficiaries of a trust that is associated with an adequately-funded defined-benefit plan, as opposed to a defined-contribution plan, the rights of the beneficiaries are more contractual in nature than equitable. (But see §9.9.1 of Loring and Rounds: A Trustee’s Handbook (a trust is not a contract)). Thus, the beneficiaries lack the requisite standing to bring an action in the federal courts against the trustee for mismanaging the trust’s portfolio. And this is the situation even in the face of serious allegations of unauthorized fiduciary self-dealing. The common law as enhanced by equity does not subscribe to such an absence of nexus between the beneficiary of a trust and its corpus. The dissent endeavored to bring to the Court’s attention that when it comes to applicable trust doctrine, ERISA’s purpose is to reinforce the fiduciary principle, not to water it down. Under general principles of equity a trust beneficiary’s suffering of measurable economic harm at the hands of the trustee is not a sine qua non of the beneficiary being granted standing to seek judicial remedies for breaches of trust. The subject of trustee liability in the absence of economic injury to the beneficiary is taken up in in §7.2.8 of Loring and Rounds: A Trustee’s handbook, which sub-section is reproduced below in the appendix hereto.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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