Reading the Tea Leaves: The Supreme Court Seems Likely to Eliminate the ERISA Presumption of Prudence

By Stephen A. Fogdall

The U.S. Supreme Court heard argument this week in Fifth Third Bancorp v. Dudenhoeffer, the case that will decide whether fiduciaries of employee stock option plans (ESOPs) are presumed to comply with their ERISA duties by continuing to invest in the employer’s stock despite allegations that they know or should know that the stock is overvalued.  Although such a presumption has enjoyed wide acceptance in the federal Courts of Appeals, its days may be numbered.

Fifth Third’s lawyer argued that without the presumption, an ESOP fiduciary would be put in a position either of having to “outsmart the market” by guessing correctly that the stock is overvalued, or, even worse, violating the federal securities laws by divesting the stock on the basis of inside information about the employer.

Several of the Justices responded skeptically. Justice Scalia argued, “You have the same problems” with other types of retirement plans, so “we don’t have to adopt a special law for this.” Justice Sotomayor asked, “What’s wrong with following the law and disclosing that material information to the public and stopping the employees from losing more money in worthless stock?” Justice Kagan argued, “It just sort of defies language to say that a prudent person would retain” an investment in “overvalued stock.” Justice Kennedy suggested that a presumption of prudence would create “sort of a coach class trustee.” Justice Ginsberg was even more direct, stating, “I don’t know where this presumption comes from,” because “there is no presumption written into this statute.”

A few of the Justices seemed more receptive to the presumption of prudence. Chief Justice Roberts noted that “every Court of Appeals has recognized” that “by definition” an ESOP fiduciary acts prudently by investing in the employer’s stock unless “everything is going south and the company’s collapsing.” Then, even more emphatically, he stated, “I don’t understand how you . . . can say that [an ESOP fiduciary] has breached a fiduciary duty of prudence when the people investing in this ought to know what they’re going to get is the company’s stock.” Justice Alito observed that if “stopping purchases in company stock would be a signal that would potentially trigger bankruptcy and liquidation of the company,” that might be in the best interests of ESOP participants “if these participants were simply investors,” but “it might be very much not in their best interests as employees.” In addition, Justice Breyer suggested, “there is no rule of trust or ERISA law that you can breach a duty to a beneficiary by failing to use inside information, period.”

Notwithstanding these sympathetic statements from a minority of Justices, a majority of the Supreme Court (Justices Kennedy, Scalia, Ginsberg, Sotomayor and Kagan) seem prepared to hold that an ESOP fiduciary is not entitled to any presumption of prudence and may even be obligated to depart from the plan’s terms and cease purchasing employer stock, or divest the plan’s holdings in employer stock, if the fiduciary knows or should know, based on insider information, that the stock is overvalued. The Court should issue its decision before the end of the current term in June. We will continue to monitor the case closely.

In a TCPA case, Eleventh Circuit addresses who may give consent, how consent may be revoked and whether a charge is required

By Stephen J. Shapiro

The Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) provides, in relevant part, that “[i]t shall be unlawful for any person . . . to make any call (other than a call made . . . with the prior express consent of the called party) using any automatic telephone dialing system . . . to any telephone number assigned to a . . . cellular telephone service . . . or any service for which the called party is charged for the call.”

In a recent decision, the Eleventh Circuit held that:  (i) the “called party” who must give consent is the current subscriber of the cellular phone line; (ii) a person who shares a cellular phone plan with the subscriber may or may not, depending on the circumstances, have authority to give the consent envisioned by the TCPA; (iii) a “called party” may revoke consent orally; and (iv) a “called party” need not prove that he or she was charged for the calls at issue in order to prevail on a claim under the TCPA.

In Osorio v. State Farm Bank, F.S.B., Clara Betancourt provided the cellular phone number of her partner, Fredy Osorio, on a credit card application. When Betancourt later became delinquent on her credit card payments, a debt collector hired by the defendant creditor made more than 300 autodialed calls to Osorio. Osorio sued the creditor under the TCPA, alleging that he had not provided consent for the creditor to call his cellular phone and, even if he had, he later orally revoked that consent during telephone calls with the debt collector. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the creditor, holding that Betancourt had consented to the calls when she provided the telephone number on her application and that Osorio’s alleged revocation was not effective as a matter of law because it was not in writing.

On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit reversed. On the issue of consent, because the TCPA permits calls to cellular telephone numbers “with the prior express consent of the called party,” the Court first addressed who qualifies as the “called party.” The Court held that the phrase “called party” means the current subscriber of the cellular phone line. Therefore, the Court concluded, the creditor had to establish that Osorio consented to the calls in order to avail itself of the TCPA’s consent exception. Because the parties had presented conflicting evidence as to whether Betancourt was authorized to consent to the calls on behalf of Osorio and, if so, whether she had in fact done so, the Court held that the issue of consent had to be resolved by a jury and that summary judgment was not appropriate. In so ruling, the Court rejected the creditor’s argument that Betancourt, as a matter of law, had authority to consent to calls to the cellular phone of anyone in her household.

On the issue of whether revocation of consent may be communicated orally or only in writing, the Court noted that, although the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) requires a debtor who no longer wishes to be contacted by a debt collector to notify the debt collector in writing, the TCPA does not contain equivalent language. The Court “presume[d] from the TCPA’s silence regarding the means of providing consent that Congress sought to incorporate ‘the common law concept of consent.’” Explaining that the common law concept of consent “generally allow[s] oral revocation,” the Court held that a “called party” may orally revoke consent for purposes of the TCPA. Since the parties disputed whether Osorio orally revoked any consent Betancourt may have given to call the cellular phone, the Court held that summary judgment on the issue of revocation of consent was not appropriate.

Finally, the creditor argued that, because the TCPA prohibits calls “to any telephone number assigned to a paging service, cellular telephone service, specialized mobile radio service, or other radio common carrier service, or any service for which the called party is charged for the call,” a plaintiff must prove that he was charged for the calls at issue in order to prevail under the TCPA. The Court rejected this argument, holding that, as a matter of statutory construction, “the phrase ‘for which the called party is charged for the call’ modifies only ‘any service’ and not the other terms” in the provision such as “cellular telephone service.”

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