US District Judge Charles R. Breyer of the Northern District of California approved a settlement in the case of Kanawi v Bechtel . The settlement, in a class action case that started back in 2006, relates to Bechtel's failure to use the magnitude of its 401(k) plan assets to get lower fees from vendors, likely in the form of institutional, as compared to retail, share classes.
For background, it is common in the defined contribution industry that recordkeepers will credit a portion of asset management revenues (particularly when the plan uses funds of the recordkeeper's asset management arm) back against fees. Oversimplifying significantly, many funds are available on both an institutional basis and on a retail basis. Retail is the basis (including fees whether embedded or explicit) on which an individual investor might invest in a mutual fund. Institutional is the more favorable basis on which, for example, a large retirement plan might invest in the same (or virtually identical) fund.
After the court failed to grant summary judgment on behalf of defendants (again oversimplifying, a court grants summary judgment on behalf of defendants when even if all of plaintiffs allegations are assumed to be true, defendants would still prevail), Bechtel took the position of looking to settle presumably to protect against an overwhelming verdict.
The settlement called for Bechtel to pay $18.5 million to a settlement fund. Of that amount, approximately $4.85 million is to be paid to the attorneys for services and an additional $1.57 million for expenses. That leaves roughly $12 million to be distributed to the accounts of current participants who were in the plan between January 1, 1992 and September 30, 2010, and in cash to participants during that period who are no longer in the plan. I looked on the Department of Labor website and found that as of the end of 2009, there were more than 19,000 participants in the plan. If I do the math, that's in the neighborhood of $650 per participant. Frankly, that's not a large sum of money. On the other hand, the attorneys made millions from this case.
So, Bechtel is a loser here, but one could certainly argue that they deserved to be a loser. The aggrieved participants were probably made partially whole as compared to where they would have been had Bechtel availed itself of the ability to use institutional funds. And, that leaves the winners. The attorneys!
I'm sorry. I have a lot of friends who are attorneys, and many of them are ERISA attorneys, but this is just wrong. ERISA is the Employee Retirement Income Security Act. Here, it didn't do too much to protect the retirement income security of the aggrieved class of participants, but it sure did wonders for their counsel.
As always, the author of this post is not an attorney and does not provide legal advice. Any efforts of his to explain legal matters while those explanations are intended to be correct should be construed as a lay person's attempt to simplify for the lay reader.