As stated previously, you can access the Opinion and Order entered in the In Re WorldCom, Inc. ERISA Litigation case (Southern District of New York) here. (via WorldComErisaLawsuit.com) You can also access the pleadings in the case at WorldComErisaLawsuit.com as well. The action is being brought by participants in the WorldCom 401(k) Salary Savings Plan (the “Plan”).
The facts as alleged: The Plan provided a number of different funds, among which was a fund invested in WorldCom stock. WorldCom was the sponsor of the Plan, the named fiduciary of the Plan, the Plan Administrator, as well as the Investment Fiduciary. The Plan authorized WorldCom to appoint others to act as Administrator or Investment Fiduciary for the Plan, but WorldCom did not do so. A very key provision of the Plan was Section 14.02 which provided that “any WorldCom officer had authority to perform WorldCom’s functions as Plan Administrator and Investment Fiduciary.” However, if WorldCom did not appoint individuals to carry out the duties, then “any officer” of WorldCom had “the authority to carry out” on behalf of WorldCom, the “duties of the Administrator and the Investment Fiduciary.”
Here is a rundown of the complaints which did or did not survive the Motions to Dismiss:
- ERISA complaints against Officers: Motions to Dismiss were granted for two corporate officers and WorldCom’s Senior Vice President of Human Resources, but were denied for CEO, Bernard Ebbers, and CFO, Scott Sullivan.
- ERISA complaints against WorldCom Employees: Motions to Dismiss were granted for WorldCom’s Employee Benefits Manager, Director of Taxation and Cash Management, and Manager of Taxation and Cash Management. However, the complaint against WorldCom’s Employee Benefits Director, Donna Miller, was held to survive.
- ERISA complaints against WorldCom Directors were dismissed.
- An ERISA complaint against Merrill Lynch, the directed Trustee for the Plan, was held to survive the motion to dismiss.
- Complaints against auditor ArthurAndersen were dismissed.
Key Points of the Case:
1) The court held that plaintiffs stated a claim for breach of ERISA fiduciary duty “by alleging that Ebbers, Miller and Merrill Lynch were obligated to but failed to act with prudence regarding the Plan’s continued offer of WorldCom stock as a Plan investment.” The court went on to say: “WorldCom stock could have been removed as one of the investments offered under the Plan without amending the Plan and plaintiffs have adequately alleged that these fiduciaries should have, but failed, to consider or recommend doing so.”
2) The court also held a claim was sufficient that alleged Ebbers failed to disclose “material facts he knew or should have known about the financial condition of WorldCom.” Ebbers had argued that the duty to disclose arose under the federal securities laws and not under ERISA. The court stated that “Ebbers’s potential liability to employees who invested in WorldCom stock through the Plan for violations of the federal securities laws cannot shield him from suit over his alleged failure to perform his quite separate and independent ERISA obligations.” The court also stated: “When a corporate insider puts on his ERISA hat, he is not assumed to have forgotten adverse information he may have acquired while acting in his corporate capacity.”
3) Plaintiffs’ third claim alleged that Ebbers and Miller (Employee Benefits Director) breached their fiduciary duties by making material misrepresentations about the soundness of WorldCom stock and the prudence of an investment in WorldCom stock, and by transmitting materials containing the misrepresentations to Plan participants. The misrepresentations were alleged to have been contained in WorldCom’s SEC filings.
Ebbers and Miller argued that this claim imposed “a continuous duty of disclosure on ERISA fiduciaries that overwhelms the federal securities law disclosure requirements and compels fiduciaries to violate the prohibitions against insider trading.” The court noted that the defendants were trying to describe a “tension between the federal securities laws and ERISA that would require the dismissal” of the claim, but ruled against the defendants, stating that “[t]hose who are ERISA fiduciaries . . cannot in violation of their fiduciary obligations desseminate false information to plan participants, including false information contained in SEC filings.” The court acknowledged the “difficulties that exist in the analysis of this claim” due to the fact that Ebbers was both a corporate insider and an ERISA fiduciary, but stated:
“While there may be some case in which there will be a conflict between the two statutory schemes, it is not so evident that a conflict exists here. The Complaint alleges that WorldCom’s SEC filings contained material misrepresentations regarding WorldCom’s financial condition. Having spoken in its periodic SEC filings about the company’s financial condition, WorldCom had a duty under the federal securities laws to correct any prior material misrepresentation when it became aware of the falsity.”