The Latest Supreme Court Decision Hughes v. Northwestern: What Plan Sponsors Need to Know

Insight By
Mike Iley
Retirement Plans

The Supreme Court has made it clear that a prudent fiduciary process is required of all ERISA-governed retirement plans. The landmark case, Hughes v. Northwestern, addressed complicated issues surrounding how the fiduciary process is a requirement for retirement plans. The main takeaway for those that manage a retirement plan is that there are no shortcuts, and the fiduciary process is non-negotiable.

More specifically, the Supreme Court found that plan sponsors need to have in place a process to ensure that each and every investment available in a plan’s lineup is independently prudent.

Buffet of Options Doesn’t Mean Protection

A point made during oral arguments puts it into focus: it is no consolation that other food at the buffet is fine if one eats an item that causes food poisoning. In so ruling, the Supreme Court rejected the reasoning by the lower courts that having a large lineup of funds of many varieties could insulate a fiduciary from a claim of imprudence.

Litigation Watch: Is Your 401(k) Plan Next?

The Hughes decision comes at a time of greatly increased litigation around ERISA fiduciary issues related to investments, fees, and other fiduciary issues. Many in the retirement plan world were hoping for a decision that would have made it harder for plaintiffs’ lawyers to bring cases against plan sponsors.  

Unfortunately, that did not happen; instead, the unanimous decision by the eight justices who decided the case could have resulted in even more cases being filed.1 It’s possible that some plaintiffs’ firms have been holding back the filing of cases pending the decision. Now that it’s been decided, the floodgates could open even wider.  

What Should Plan Sponsors Be Doing Now? 

Re confirm a process is in place that meets the procedural prudence requirements of ERISA to ensure you are making prudent substantive choices is in the best interest of your plan participants. This makes you less of a target, and even if sued, it’s the only thing that has been demonstrated to win these cases.  

This can be a daunting undertaking if you do not have the knowledge or skill internally to address these issues. The good news is that you can outsource this task to a trusted advisor specializing in helping retirement plans.  

Contact us for a conversation and to review your plan’s prudent fiduciary process.  

1 Justice Amy Coney Barrett recused herself because she was a sitting Seventh Circuit judge which is the circuit court that the case was being appealed from.

Insight By
Mike Iley
Managing Director
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Retirement Plans
Published on

March 2, 2023

updated on

February 14, 2023


This article is for educational purposes only. The tax and legal references attached herein are designed to provide accurate and authoritative information with regard to the subject matter covered and are provided with the understanding that LoVasco Consulting Group is not engaged in rendering tax or legal services. If tax or legal advice is required, you should consult your accountant or attorney. LoVasco Consulting Group does not replace those advisors.

Securities and Investment Advisory Services offered through M Holdings Securities, Inc., a registered broker dealer and Investment Advisor, member FINRA / SIPC. LoVasco Consulting Group is independently owned and operated.

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