U.S. Supreme Court Rules on Defined Benefit Plan Litigation in Thole Case

“Courts sometimes make standing law more complicated than it needs to be,” writes Associate Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh in the Supreme Court’s June 1, 2020 decision on Thole et. al. v. U.S. Bank N.A. et. al.

The plaintiffs in Thole claimed that the plan sponsor mismanaged the defined benefit plan when it lost $1.1 billion in 2008 during the time of the Great Recession. Specifically, the plaintiffs claimed that the plan sponsor violated its duties of loyalty and prudence based on a poor return on investment for plan assets. The suit was brought under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA).

Among other items, the plaintiffs demanded that the defendant repay approximately $750 million in plan losses as well as replacement of the plan fiduciary. Additionally, they sought $31 million in attorney’s fees.

Plaintiffs James Thole and Sherry Smith are retired participants in a defined benefit retirement plan sponsored by U.S. Bank. Mr. Thole receives $2,198.38 in monthly benefits and Ms. Smith receives $42.26 per month. Both participants have received all their benefits to date and are entitled to receive those benefits every month for the remainder of their lifetime.

Participants in a defined benefit plan receive a specific monetary benefit on a monthly or similar payment schedule, based on employment factors such as their salary history and years of service. A defined contribution plan like a 401(k) is an alternate form of pension plan where the participant receives a payment that will vary based on the amount they contribute to the plan, their investment choices, and how the funds performed.

The original case was dismissed by the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit upheld the lower court’s ruling on the grounds that the plaintiffs lacked statutory standing, meaning that they were not eligible to have the court decide the merits of the dispute.

At the time the original case was filed in 2013, the plan was underfunded. However, the plan sponsor made additional contributions that resulted in an overfunded status by 2014. At that point the element of mootness also was a consideration.

The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, also on the grounds that the plaintiffs lack standing. The Supreme Court ruled that a plaintiff must demonstrate three conditions in order to establish standing under Article III of the Constitution:
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