Justia Summary

Northwestern’s defined contribution retirement plans, governed by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), 29 U.S.C. 1001, allowed participants to choose an individual investment mix from a menu of options selected by plan administrators. Participants claimed those administrators violated their duty of prudence by offering needlessly expensive investment options and paying excessive record-keeping fees. The Seventh Circuit affirmed the dismissal of those claims, finding that the plaintiffs’ preferred type of low-cost investments were available as plan options.

The Supreme Court vacated. A categorical rule is inconsistent with the context-specific inquiry that ERISA requires and fails to take into account the duty of plan fiduciaries to monitor all plan investments and remove any imprudent ones. The Seventh Circuit erroneously focused on another component of the duty of prudence: the obligation to assemble a diverse menu of options. Provision of an adequate array of investment choices, including the lower cost investments plaintiffs wanted, does not excuse the allegedly imprudent decisions. Even if participants choose their investments, plan fiduciaries must conduct their own independent evaluation to determine which investments may be prudently included in the plan’s menu of options. If the fiduciaries fail to remove an imprudent investment from the plan within a reasonable time, they breach their duty. The Court remanded, “so that the Seventh Circuit may reevaluate the allegations as a whole, considering whether petitioners have plausibly alleged a violation of the duty of prudence,” which turns on the circumstances prevailing when the fiduciary acts.