U.S. District Judge Thelton E. Henderson of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California ruled that a representative of Delta Star Inc.’s ESOP intentionally connected its statements about the company’s financial health to statements it made about the future of benefits, so its intended communication about the security of benefits could be considered materially misleading.
The defendants argued that John Balsley’s claims of two material omissions in the information presented to him are not actionable because the omitted information relates only to the operations of the company in which the plan invests and are therefore not “with respect to a plan,” as required by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA).
“When the allegations are viewed in a light most
favorable to Balsley, as required at this stage of the proceedings, they
suggest that Balsley was encouraged to accept the lump-sum distribution based
on the December 31, 2006 stock valuation in part because Delta Star had a questionable
financial future that might or would preclude a future lump-sum offer,”
Henderson wrote. He noted that Balsley’s allegations sufficiently state a basis
for the defendants’ knowledge of the information allegedly omitted.
In addition, the court determined that the alleged
misrepresentation that the plan would not offer a lump-sum option in the future
is also actionable since the terms of the plan allow the trustees to determine
each year whether to allow lump sums. However, Henderson ruled that the
statement that cash may not be available in the future for a lump sum is not
actionable, saying increased sales and revenue do not necessarily translate
into increased liquid assets, so it is not plausible that the defendants would have
known with certainty that cash would be available to offer a lump-sum
distribution in the future.
The court did agree with Delta Star that Balsley lacks
standing to pursue a claim under ERISA 502(a)(2), which “does not provide a
remedy for individual injuries distinct from plan injuries, so those claims
According to the court opinion, a plan representative contacted
Balsley on two occasions in October 2007 to offer a lump-sum buyback of the
stock in Balsley’s plan account based on the December 31, 2006 stock valuation
of $22.38. The representative indicated that cash may not be available in the
future to buy back Balsley’s shares, and that the lump-sum offer would not
remain open, so on November 26, 2007, Balsley received a $1,318,422.15
distribution from the plan.
As of December 31, 2007, each share was valued over six
times higher, at $142.45, which would have made Balsley’s distribution worth