The 401(k) Dark Knight

Employer provided 401(k) plans are the backbone of American retirement. Most large companies offer them to their employees as a part of an overall compensation package, and for many individuals, it’s their only vehicle for retirement saving. So you would think that these employers would do their best to safeguard employee funds, right? Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.

In fact, Jerome Schlichter has made a name for himself by taking corporations to task for their lack of vigilance in monitoring these very 401(k) plans. And at first, the St. Louis attorney was not taken seriously, but since he has won over $330 million in settlements since 2010, he now has everyone’s attention.

Essentially, he targets companies with plans that have excessive administrative fees and expensive investments. In 2015, he won a landmark Supreme Court case (Tibble v. Edison) where the court’s opinion said that employers have a duty “to monitor trust investments and remove imprudent ones,” which has set the tone for industry standards.

Of course, his success in this type of litigation has encouraged attorneys to file claims against other companies. Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Cigna, International Paper, and many others have all recently reached settlements in 401(k) litigation, which many experts credit for the 17% decrease in plan fees between 2009 and 2014.

But these offenses even carry over to investment companies who should know better:

  • Merrill Lynch reached a $25 million settlement for not crediting a client’s plan with sales discounts to which it was entitled.
  • Wells Fargo reached an $18 million settlement for offering its own expensive mutual funds in its plan instead of cheaper alternatives.
  • And on a smaller scale, TIAA and New York Life reached settlements for similar claims in the amounts of $5 million and $3 million, respectively.

Certainly, there are many companies out there with excellent 401(k) plans that offer low fees and a multitude of quality investments. But you should know where your plan stands. It’s easy to just update your annual contribution forms without really looking at your account, but you should take time to really understand what’s going on.


Josh Norris is an Investment Advisory Representative of LeFleur Financial. Josh can be reached at