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Are Plan Committee Members Fiduciaries?

An advisor asked: “Can an individual member of a 401(k) plan committee have personal fiduciary liability?”

ERISA consultants at the Retirement Learning Center (RLC) Resource Desk regularly receive calls from financial advisors on a broad array of technical topics related to IRAs, qualified retirement plans and other types of retirement savings and income plans, including nonqualified plans, stock options, and Social Security and Medicare.  We bring Case of the Week to you to highlight the most relevant topics affecting your business.

A recent call with an advisor in Indiana is representative of a common question on plan committee members.

Highlights of the Discussion

  • A plan committee member may be a plan fiduciary and, consequently, held personally liable to the plan if he or she is granted or exercises discretion in the operation or administration of a retirement plan that is subject to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA).
  • According to the Department of Labor (DOL) Interpretive Bulletin 75-5, if the governing plan documents state the plan committee controls and manages the operation and administration of the plan and specifies who shall constitute the plan committee (either by position or by naming individuals to the committee), then such individuals are named fiduciaries of the plan pursuant to ERISA §402(a) (see page 212 of linked document).
  • A number of court cases have found that a plan committee member may be a functional fiduciary of the plan because of his or her actions and subject to personal liability if he or she exercises discretion in the administration of the plan Gaunt v. CSX Transp., Inc., 759 F. Supp. 1313 (N.D. Ind. 1991).
  • Pursuant to ERISA §409 (see page 250 of linked document):

Any person who is a fiduciary with respect to a plan who breaches any of the responsibilities, obligations, or duties imposed upon fiduciaries … shall be personally liable to make good to such plan any losses to the plan resulting from each such breach, and to restore to such plan any profits of such fiduciary which have been made through use of assets of the plan by the fiduciary, and shall be subject to such other equitable or remedial relief as the court may deem appropriate, including removal of such fiduciary.

  • Having a committee charter may help mitigate fiduciary liability for the committee members by carefully outline the members roles and responsibilities. Please see our Case of the Week 401(k) Plan Committee Charter for best practices.

Conclusion

A plan committee member may be a plan fiduciary and, consequently held personally liable to the plan for losses resulting from fiduciary breaches.  Having a committee charter may help mitigate fiduciary liability for the committee members.

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