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Ellis v. Fidelity Management Trust Co.

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

February 21, 2018

JAMES ELLIS; WILLIAM PERRY, Plaintiffs, Appellants,


          Garrett W. Wotkyns, with whom Schneider Wallace Cottrell Konecky Wotkyns LLP was on brief, for appellants.

          Jonathan D. Hacker, with whom Brian D. Boyle, Gregory F. Jacob, Meaghan VerGow, Bradley N. Garcia, O'Melveny & Myers LLP, John J. Falvey, Jr., Alison V. Douglass, and Goodwin Procter LLP were on brief, for appellee.

          Before Kayatta, Circuit Judge, Souter, Associate Justice, [*] and Selya, Circuit Judge.

          KAYATTA, Circuit Judge.

         Plaintiffs James Ellis and William Perry brought this certified class action under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 ("ERISA"), alleging that Fidelity Management Trust Company, the fiduciary for a fund in which plaintiffs had invested, breached its duties of loyalty and prudence in managing the fund. Fidelity won summary judgment and plaintiffs appealed. Because the district court correctly concluded that plaintiffs failed to adduce evidence necessary to proceed to trial, we affirm.


         "On review of an order granting summary judgment, we recite the facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party" to the extent that they are supported by competent evidence. Walsh v. TelTech Sys., Inc., 821 F.3d 155, 157-58 (1st Cir. 2016) (quoting Commodity Futures Trading Comm'n v. JBW Capital, 812 F.3d 98, 101 (1st Cir. 2016)); see Burns v. State Police Ass'n of Mass., 230 F.3d 8, 9 (1st Cir. 2000) (noting that competent evidence is necessary to defeat summary judgment). We take these facts from the parties' summary judgment filings in the district court and from the record at large where appropriate. See Evergreen Partnering Grp. v. Pactiv Corp., 832 F.3d 1, 4 n.2 (1st Cir. 2016).


         Plaintiffs were participants in the Barnes & Noble 401(k) plan, which allowed participants to allocate their savings among an array of investment alternatives depending on their objectives. Department of Labor regulations encourage employers who create plans of this type to offer at least one relatively safe investment vehicle, described as an "income producing, low risk, liquid" investment. 29 C.F.R. § 2550.404c-1(b)(2)(ii)(C)(2)(ii). A stable value fund is an example of such an investment vehicle. In this instance, Barnes & Noble chose to offer its employees a stable value fund run by Fidelity and known as the Managed Income Portfolio ("MIP").

         Three typical features of stable value funds are salient here. First, a stable value fund generally consists of an underlying portfolio of high-quality, diversified, fixed-income securities. Second, a stable value fund generally utilizes a "crediting rate" that takes into account gains and losses over time and determines what amount of interest will be credited to investors, and at what intervals this will occur. Third, a stable value fund often utilizes "wrap insurance, " a form of insurance providing that, subject to exclusions, when a stable value fund is depleted such that investors cannot all recover book value, [1] the insurance provider will cover the difference. Because the entity providing the wrap insurance hopes it will not have to make good on its promise, wrap contracts will often contain investment guidelines imposing limitations on the composition of a stable value fund's portfolio. For example, a wrap provider might demand that a certain portion of a portfolio's underlying securities be treasury bonds or similar investments that sacrifice higher returns in favor of increased safety in preserving capital.

         Fidelity described to putative investors the MIP's investment objective as follows: "The primary investment objective of the Portfolio is to seek the preservation of capital as well as to provide a competitive level of income over time consistent with the preservation of capital." As a benchmark, the MIP used the Barclay's Government/Credit 1-5 A- or better index ("1-5 G/C index") throughout the relevant time period.[2] On a quarterly basis, Fidelity made available to all plans that offered the MIP fact sheets disclosing investment allocations, current crediting rate, investment durations, and the MIP's returns. More than 2, 500 employers, including several sophisticated Wall Street employers, made the MIP available to their employees throughout the class period.

         In the wake of the 2007-2008 financial crisis and the ensuing economic decline, Fidelity fund managers expressed concern about the availability of wrap insurance for Fidelity's various funds, including the MIP, going forward. For example, a 2009 PowerPoint noted a "[d]earth of new wrap capacity." During this time period, several major wrap providers for the MIP, including AIG, Rabobank, and at a later point, JP Morgan, forecasted an intention to leave the wrap market. Further illustrating Fidelity's concern is a 2011 e-mail from an attorney for Fidelity, noting that JP Morgan had been "shed[ding]" wrap capacity, that there were a "dwindl[ing]" number of new entrants into the wrap market, and that Fidelity ran the risk of being "left out in the cold" if the number of insurers of stable value funds was limited, as he expected it to be. Ultimately, Fidelity secured sufficient wrap coverage; certain providers either remained in the market or transferred their wrap business to other entities and Fidelity also obtained wrap coverage from a new source.


         During the years covered by this lawsuit, the MIP fully achieved its objective of preserving the investors' capital. The rate of return earned by investors, however, lagged behind that of many other stable value funds offered by competitors. The immediate cause of these lower returns is undisputed: Fidelity allocated MIP investments away from higher-return, but higher-risk sectors (e.g., corporate bonds, mortgage pass-throughs, and asset-backed securities) and toward treasuries and other cash-like or shorter duration instruments. While these allocations made the MIP a safer bet and thus more attractive to wrap providers, they also positioned the MIP less favorably in the event that markets improved. Markets did improve, the added safety turned out not to be required, and competitors whose investments were more aggressive achieved both asset protection and higher returns. As a result, Fidelity saw its assets under management and its market share fall until 2014. It was not until 2015 that Fidelity managed to achieve the approximate average returns realized by competitors' stable value funds.

         Of course, such is what occurs in most markets, and certainly most investment markets. Fund managers make different predictions about future market performance, and the differences ultimately generate a distribution curve of returns as some funds do better than others. Every year, by definition, one quarter of funds fall into the bottom quartile and one quarter fall in the top quartile, even if all fund managers are loyal to their investors and prudent in their decisions.

         Plaintiffs, though, say that something else was at work here. They say that the MIP's relatively low returns as compared to those of many other stable value funds were the result of disloyalty and imprudence in violation of section 404(c)(1) of ERISA. 29 U.S.C. § 1104(a)(1). While plaintiffs' precise explanations for how this is so have moved throughout this litigation like a toy mole in an arcade game, the constant and essential fact to which they point is Fidelity's conduct in procuring wrap coverage for the MIP. Specifically, plaintiffs claim that Fidelity agreed to overly conservative investment guidelines in a failed effort to lock up all wrap coverage so that its ...

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