Recently, a Federal Court in North Carolina approved a settlement for over $3 million between a Coca-Cola (Defendant) bottling plant and a class of former employees. The named Plaintiffs brought the action against the Defendant alleging that the company had violated their fiduciary duties by presenting “risky” investment options to ERISA plan holders while additionally charging excessive fees. The Court held that the amount of the settlement was “fair, reasonable and adequate, taking into account the costs, risks and delay of litigation, trial and appeal.” Pursuant to this decision, the Court also ruled that the class presented by the Plaintiffs was appropriate for certification and includes all “participants and beneficiaries” under the plan in question. This totals around 13,000 individuals, according to a motion brought by the named Plaintiffs which is now moot after the Court’s certification of the class.
The details of the settlement agreement include statements that the Defendants denies any “wrongdoing or legal liability,” as well as the Defendants’ opinion that the group of 13,000 individuals was not appropriate for class certification. The specific wrongdoing alleged by the Plaintiffs is that the Defendants could have used their large size as a corporation in order to ensure that record-keeping and management fees were low for plan participants, which the failed to do. Additionally, Plaintiffs contend that the Defendants “imprudently” chose higher cost management services, though they had been presented with lower cost alternatives. According to the Plaintiffs, these decisions made by the corporation and its plan fiduciaries caused monetary losses into the millions. Lastly, the Plaintiffs contend that coupled with the breach of fiduciary duties through the above-mentioned means, the Defendants also breached their duties through their failure to disclose information concerning the fees and “risks” of the investment options they had selected. Further, the Plaintiffs state that the Defendants did not make an effort to actively monitor those in charge of administering their ERISA plans, thus further acting imprudently and in violation of their duties to the participants.
Prior to this proceeding, the Defendants had moved to dismiss the case in early 2021, a request which was subsequently denied in March the same year. The Court ruled that the Plaintiffs had presented a case that should move past the initial pleading stage of the trial process, and thus dismissal would be inappropriate. The parties will now move forward with the settlement agreement, with the Plaintiffs now as a certified class.
This decision is one of many recent decisions mirroring the same outcome, as courts are consistently holding that plaintiffs with complaints alleging violations of fiduciary duties by their employers and ERISA plan administrators are entitled to class certification. ERISA itself lays the foundation for employees to bring suit against their employers in cases similar to that brought in North Carolina, as the law requires that fiduciaries to a plan must act, “with the care, skill, prudence, and diligence under the circumstances then prevailing that a prudent man acting in a like capacity and familiar with such matters would use in the conduct of an enterprise of a like character and with like aims.”[i] Through numerous class certifications, courts are presenting plaintiffs with the opportunity to correct wrongs brought against them by the actions of their employers and ERISA fiduciaries alike.
[i] 29 U.S.C. § 1104(a)(1)(B).