Deere 401(k) Fee Disclosure Case Dismissed

As expected, the 401(k) fee disclosure case against Deere & Company was the first to be decided, since the District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin has a reputation as a "rocket docket." Many people, myself included, had thought the complaints in these 401(k) fee cases contained sufficient fact allegations that courts would wait until after discovery to decide them. Unexexpectedly, the court dismissed the case based on the complaint and the plan documents. Hecker v. Deere & Co., Case No. 06-C-719-S (W.D. Wisc. June 21, 2007). The facts of the Deere plan may, however, distinguish it from most other plans and make it less significant as a precedent in the other pending 401(k) fee cases, at least at the motion to dismiss stage.

The SPD provided that:

The costs of administering the Plan are paid by the Company. Participants incur no transaction fees or sales loads on funds purchased and sold through the Plan’s standard plan options.... All fund investors indirectly pay any fund-level expenses, such as management fees, asset-based sales charges (12b-1 fees), and other fund expenses, as detailed in the fund’s prospectus....

Of the 26 funds specifically offered by the plan, 23 were Fidelity Funds. However, the plan also offered a mutual fund brokerage account through which participants could select from among 2500 other mutual funds unaffiliated with Fidelity. Fidelity received direct payment for its trust services from Deere; the plan paid no additional fees to Fidelity.

The court concluded that:

The disclosure in the reports and prospectuses accurately reflect the expenses actually paid to the fund manager for fund management as evidenced by the allegations that the same fees are charged to all retail fund customers. To the extent that the charge includes profit, it is unlikely that the fund sponsor would know or be in a position to control its redistribution among related corporations, corporations, a fact conceded in defendants’ brief. There is no evidence of intent in the statute or regulations to reach this type of detail.

The court found that the recent proposals to expand disclosure of indirect fees and provide additional disclosure supported the conclusion that such expanded disclosure is not required under current law.

There appears to have been no dispute that the Deere plan satisfied the ERISA section 404(c) requirements other than requirements related to fee disclosure. The court concluded that the existing regulations do not require disclosure of revenue sharing, only the amount of the fees which were adequately disclosed. Nor did the court feel that disclosing the revenue sharing arrangements would have enhanced the participants' investment decisions:

In assessing the likely return on an investment the fees netted against the return are certainly relevant, but knowing the subsequent distribution of those fees has
no impact on the investment’s value.

The court concluded that the participants had adequate opportunity to choose funds other than the designated Fidelity Funds because of the mutual fund brokerage window and therefore their investment in the designated funds and therefore they exercised the requesite control over the investments in selecting the Fidelity Funds to insulate the Deere fiduciaries from any liability under section 404(c)'s safe harbor even if the plaintiffs could prove that the fees in the Fidelity Funds were excessive.

Most plans don't offer a brokerage window, so the Deere case is clearly distinguishable. However, the court's conclusions about the extent of disclosure required under current law, both under the general ERISA provisions and section 404(c), would protect most plan fiduciaries if followed by other courts. Stay tuned for the rest of the story, since there are still a number of these cases pending.