In an intensely litigated ESOP case involving 14 counts of ERISA violations, on April 22, 2019, Judge Staton, District Judge, Central District of California, certified a class of ESOP participants. The certification came after the court denied Defendants’ motions to dismiss all 14 counts. The case, as a whole, has many interesting legal issues, however, most interesting is the continued litigation of whether indemnification agreements for breaches of fiduciary duty are void.
As background, ERISA § 410 categorically voids indemnification agreements and states, in part “any provision in an agreement…which purports to relieve a fiduciary from responsibility or liability for any responsibility, obligation, or duty…shall be void as against public policy.” However, Department of Labor regulations have interpreted this to permit employer indemnification but not plan indemnification. (29 CFR 2509.75-4). The regulations also permit indemnification agreements so long as it does not relieve a fiduciary of responsibility or liability.
In 2009, we heard the first case in the 9th circuit that interpreted ERISA § 410 and its regulations, giving some clarity on the validity of indemnification agreements. In Johnson v. Couturier, 52 F.3d 1067 (9th Cir. July 27, 2009) the ESOP participants alleged defendants breached their fiduciary duties by allowing the company to pay excessive compensation to an officer who was a fiduciary to the plan. The company in Johnson was 100% ESOP owned and was in the process of liquidation. The indemnity agreement between officer-fiduciary and plan sponsor (company) provided indemnity unless due to gross negligence or deliberate wrongful acts. Despite the indemnity being paid from corporate assets, which would typically be permitted under DOL regulations, here, because the company was liquidating, the Court held that payment of indemnification by the company would reduce, dollar-for-dollar, the liquidating distribution from the plan – essentially paid by ESOP.