In these consolidated appeals, beneficiaries to a receivership complain about various aspects of the receiver's plan of distribution. The district court approved the plan of distribution, and we affirm.
Capital Consultants, LLC (CCL),
The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the United States Department of Labor (DOL) brought this suit to place CCL into receivership. These agencies claimed that CCL and its principals, Jeffrey and Barclay Grayson, had invested huge sums of client money in nearly worthless loans, and engaged in disloyal conduct and self-dealing. The briefs describe the CCL investments in private assets as "junk debt" and a Ponzi scheme.
The district court promptly placed CCL into receivership and appointed appellee Thomas Lennon as receiver, on September 21, 2000. On this date, CCL had approximately $1 billion in client funds under management. Early in the receivership, the receiver returned the publicly-held securities to each client on whose behalf CCL had purchased these securities. This action allowed the clients to see about $500 million in securities returned in relatively prompt fashion, so that the clients could manage these assets themselves or turn them over to new brokerage firms or investment managers. The receiver also returned about $20 million in cash held in clients' custodial accounts.
The assets remaining with the receiver were the bad loans and other relatively illiquid private assets CCL had purchased on behalf of various clients, and included private loans, private equities, and seven real estate assets. Unlike the public securities, the private assets of the receivership were not traced to individual clients, except that interim distributions of certain real estate parcels were distributed to specific clients. Clients who had invested in the real estate assets were given the option of receiving in-kind distributions. Four properties were distributed to clients through interim distributions.
In early 2002, the private loans and private equities were sold as a single unit to an investment bank for $60 million. The receiver also provided funds to the receivership corpus through litigation and mediation of claims against CCL, its principals,
Under the Second Amended Distribution Plan developed by the receiver and approved by the district court (the distribution plan),
The distribution plan provides for dividends to clients under a money-in-money-out or "MIMO" formula. Under this formula, the client's net loss is measured by the total amount invested in private assets (money in) minus the total amount returned to the client before the receivership (money out).
Some clients have brought suits against third parties such as trustees or professional advisors who made the decision to invest client funds with CCL. Some of these claims are covered by insurance or fidelity bonds which retirement plans or other CCL customers purchased themselves,
The receiver initially proposed that third-party recoveries should reduce a client's claim to the receivership's private assets on a dollar for dollar basis. After receiving objections to this proposal, the receiver proposed a 50 percent offset, whereby each dollar received through third-party recoveries would reduce the distribution from the receiver by fifty cents. This 50 percent offset provision (the offset provision) became a part of the final distribution plan approved by the district court.
The appellants have filed four appeals challenging the offset provision and other aspects of the distribution plan. Appellants in No. 03-35406 are the Eighth District Electrical Pension Fund and the Eighth District Electrical Benefit Fund (the Electrical Funds). Appellant in No. 03-35407 is the United Association Union Local 290 Plumber, Steamfitter & Shipfitter Industry Pension Trust (the Plumber's Trust). Appellant in No. 03-35409 is the DOL. Appellants in No. 03-35412 are the Oregon Laborers-Employers Pension Trust Fund, the Oregon Laborers-Employers Health and Welfare Trust Fund, and the Oregon Laborers-Employers Defined Contribution Trust Fund (the Oregon Laborers).
"[A] district court's power to supervise an equity receivership and to determine the appropriate action to be taken in the administration of the receivership is extremely broad." SEC v. Hardy, 803 F.2d 1034, 1037 (9th Cir.1986)."[T]he district court has broad powers and wide discretion to determine the appropriate relief in an equity receivership." SEC v. Lincoln Thrift Ass'n, 577 F.2d 600, 606 (9th Cir.1978). "The basis for this broad deference to the district court's supervisory role in equity receiverships arises out of the fact that most receiverships involve multiple parties and complex transactions." Hardy, 803 F.2d at 1037. A district court's decision concerning the supervision of an equitable receivership is reviewed for abuse of discretion. Commodity Futures Trading Comm'n v. Topworth Int'l, Ltd., 205 F.3d 1107, 1115 (9th Cir.1999).
A. The Offset Provision
All appellants except the Plumber's Trust complain about the offset provision. They advocate for the elimination entirely of an offset provision for third-party recoveries.
1. General Objections
Appellants object to the offset provision based on general principles of equity and receivership. We believe that the offset provision together with the other terms of the distribution plan represent an administratively workable and equitable method of allocating the limited assets of the receivership. The offset provision imposes a reasonable compromise that balances the goal of encouraging CCL clients to seek third-party recoveries and rewarding them for their efforts, and the goal of distributing the limited assets of the receivership in a roughly equal fashion.
These goals conflict. Eliminating the offset provision would make for a more inequitable distribution of assets by recognizing more loss than these appellants actually suffered. The Ninth Circuit has noted that equity demands equal treatment
We have also approved of offset provisions in cases involving similar equitable considerations. In our view, these cases support the district court's decision in the pending case, despite some factual distinctions. In In re Cement and Concrete Antitrust Litigation, 817 F.2d 1435 (9th Cir.1987), rev'd on other grounds, 490 U.S. 93, 109 S.Ct. 1661, 104 L.Ed.2d 86 (1989), we approved of an offset provision in a antitrust class action settlement. The class action alleged a conspiracy to fix prices for cement. The district court approved a plan providing that amounts recovered by any class member from nonsettling defendants would offset that class member's share of the settlement fund. We noted that without such an offset there would exist "the possibility that class members with claims against nonsettling defendants could secure double recovery: collect from the settlement fund for purchases made from settling defendants, and also collect against the nonsettling defendants under another settlement or a judgment." Id. at 1439. We held that "in adopting the offset provision, the district judge forged an equitable solution and did not abuse his discretion," id. at 1440, and that the offset provision "in effect applies an equitable weighting to claims," id. at 1439.
In re Equity Funding Corp. of America Securities Litigation, 603 F.2d 1353 (9th Cir.1979), also involved a class action settlement fund. The suit arose out of the securities fraud perpetrated by Equity Funding Corporation of America (EFCA) and its related companies. EFCA filed for bankruptcy in a separate proceeding, and the class action suit proceeded against accountants and other defendants. The district court approved a settlement plan under which members of the plaintiff classes would "`share and share alike'" in the settlement based on their "`net adjusted losses.'" Id. at 1357. The plan provided for an offset which reduced the amount of the class member's net losses by the value of cash and stock received under the EFCA bankruptcy reorganization plan. The district court and the Ninth Circuit approved of the offset provision. While the offset provision was adopted in part to address a peculiar issue concerning the appropriate recovery of one group of class members,
We note that Equity Funding and Cement and Concrete involved 100 percent offset provisions, while the pending case only involves a 50 percent offset provision. So any arguments that the offset provision in the pending case would improperly penalize those clients who made efforts to pursue claims in other proceedings would have applied with even greater force in Equity Funding and Cement and Concrete, yet we approved the 100 percent offset provisions in those cases.
The parties make no persuasive argument that some CCL clients are less deserving of compensation under the distribution plan because they were more sophisticated than other clients, deliberately made riskier investments, have unclean hands, or other reasons. According to the DOL, "which client ultimately invested in which investment and who was left in the lurch when CCL was shut down was more a product of luck and timing than any exercise of discretion or informed investment decision." All the clients are innocent victims. Eliminating the offset provision could mean a double recovery for some clients, although the parties seem to agree that the chances of a double recovery are small at best, and the offset provision does not eliminate all possibility of a double recovery anyway.
Appellants variously argue that the offset provision creates a free rider problem, in that it penalizes the CCL client who went to the expense of purchasing insurance or who successfully pursues third-party claims, and correspondingly increases the recovery of those clients who did not purchase insurance or who do not successfully pursue third-party claims. They argue that the offset provision creates a disincentive to pursue third-party claims. We do not find these arguments so compelling that we are persuaded to hold that the district court abused its discretion in approving a distribution plan which includes the offset provision.
First, as discussed above, the offset provision allows for more equal compensation to innocent CCL clients, and equal treatment is a legitimate goal in itself, even if it to some extent conflicts with other legitimate goals. Second, clients still have an incentive to pursue third-party claims, and are still rewarded for their efforts, or their decision to purchase insurance, since only half of any third-party recovery is deducted from the client's net loss claim. Third, to the extent that a client incurs expenses in pursuing a third-party claim, these expenses are offset against the amount of the third-party recovery as measured by the receiver.
2. ERISA Objections
Appellants argue that the offset provision violates ERISA. They contend, and the receiver does not dispute, that as to those receivership claimants who are ERISA plans, the receiver is an ERISA fiduciary, defined to include a person who, with respect to a plan, "exercises any discretionary authority or discretionary control respecting management of such plan or exercises any authority or control regarding management or disposition of its assets...." 29 U.S.C. § 1002(21)(A).
Assuming without deciding that the receiver is an ERISA fiduciary, we find nothing in the ERISA statute which prohibits the offset provision. Appellants cite general ERISA provisions requiring a fiduciary to act with prudence and undivided loyalty, and stating that the fiduciary must use plan assets for the exclusive benefit of plan beneficiaries. E.g., 29 U.S.C. §§ 1103(c)(1), 1104(a)(1)(A) & (B). They also cite a provision prohibiting the transfer of plan benefits to persons other than plan beneficiaries. 29 U.S.C. § 1056(d)(1)("Each pension plan shall provide that benefits provided under the plan may not be assigned or alienated."). Appellants do not persuade us that the offset provision violates those provisions.
In this case, any distribution scheme necessarily requires the receiver to divide up assets of the receivership which are inadequate to cover all the net losses of all the CCL clients. A change in the distribution formula that increases the distributions to some clients and reduces the distributions to others does not alone imply a breach of fiduciary duty by the receiver. By this reasoning, eliminating the offset clause would violate ERISA since it would favor some ERISA plans over others.
To the extent appellants argue that some non-ERISA plans would see increased distributions at the expense of ERISA plans, they cite no authority persuading us that the receiver was legally obligated to favor ERISA plans over non-ERISA plans. The DOL appears to concede that no such higher duty to ERISA clients exists.
Further, appellants do not explain, with appropriate citation to proof in the record, what effect the elimination of the offset provision would have on the overall split of receivership assets between ERISA and non-ERISA claimants. The receiver claims that many ERISA plans are not expected to obtain third-party recoveries. If the receiver is correct, these ERISA plans will actually be worse off if the offset provision is eliminated.
The DOL argues that it is improper "to require ERISA plans to effectively transfer 50% of recoveries that are uniquely available to them to other CCL investors before the plans have been made whole for their own losses." The Electrical Funds and the Oregon Laborers similarly argue that under ERISA and receivership law the receiver and the district court had no power or "jurisdiction" over their third-party claims, and that ERISA prohibits their "dominion" over such claims. The receiver is not in our view illegally transferring from one ERISA plan to another CCL client an asset belonging to the ERISA plan. The ERISA plan is free to pursue third-party claims as it wishes. The receiver is adjusting the claim of the ERISA plan to the assets of the receivership, to reflect monies received from third-party claims. Ultimately, this argument is simply another way of arguing that the offset rule creates a free rider problem, and we find no provision in the ERISA statute that compels us to alter our analysis or our conclusion that the district court did not abuse its discretion.
The district court and the receiver were not attempting to exercise "jurisdiction" over third-party actions. A judge is allowed to reduce a judgment in his own court to reflect the amount a plaintiff has already received from another party or in another proceeding. See, e.g., Vesey v. United States, 626 F.2d 627, 633 (9th Cir.1980); Layne v. United States, 460 F.2d 409, 411 (9th Cir.1972). The court in the pending case was simply fashioning equitable
3. Collateral Source Rule
The Electrical Funds and the Oregon Laborers argue that the offset provision violates the collateral source rule under Oregon law. The DOL makes the same argument, citing the Restatement (Second) of Torts § 920A(2) and comment b. Appellants cite no authority as to why Oregon law or any state's common law should govern this question, and inconsistently argue that ERISA, a statute known for its complete preemption of state law, should govern. Regardless, the collateral source rule strikes us as inapplicable to the circumstances presented.
Generally, "[u]nder the collateral source rule, the tortfeasor is not entitled to be relieved of the consequences of its tort by some third party's compensation to the victim." Ishikawa v. Delta Airlines, Inc., 343 F.3d 1129, 1134 (9th Cir.2003). In the pending case, the alleged tortfeasors, including CCL and the Graysons, were not relieved of the consequences of their conduct by the offset provision. The offset provision only affected the distribution of limited receivership funds, obtained through litigation and other means, to the various innocent CCL clients. "The primary justifications for the collateral source rule are that the defendant should not get a windfall for collateral benefits received by the plaintiff and that the defendant should not profit from benefits that the plaintiff has paid for himself." McLean v. Runyon, 222 F.3d 1150, 1156 (9th Cir.2000). Again, the alleged wrongdoers pursued by the receiver — the Graysons, CCL, and others — did not receive a windfall from the offset provision. The offset provision only affects how the assets recovered by the receiver are distributed among the innocent claimants. We similarly noted in Equity Funding that the offset rule was not applied in that case "to benefit any joint tortfeasor. Rather, the use of the offset was for the purpose of allocating the available settlement funds among the various claimants." 603 F.2d at 1364.
B. Treatment of Interim Real Estate Distributions
The Oregon Laborers and the Plumber's Trust complain about the way interim real estate distributions were treated by the receiver. As discussed above, publicly-traded equities were traced and returned to each client. The value of the public equities did not affect the distribution of pooled private assets under the receiver's distribution plan. Instead, each client's claim to the pooled private assets was a pro rata share of that client's net loss in the private investments only.
The receiver later allowed CCL clients to take interim distributions of real estate assets. The Oregon Laborers and six other clients took an interim distribution of a building known as the AT & T building, and the Plumber's Trust took distributions of three properties known as Crimson Corners, One Tech, and Two Tech. Unlike the public securities, the value of an interim real estate distribution was deducted from
1. Oregon Laborers
The Oregon Laborers complain that the receiver should not have given different treatment to the public equities and the real estate parcels traced and distributed to particular CCL clients via interim distributions. They argue that either (1) the receiver should have included the public equities in the pooled assets, presumably using a net gain or loss calculation similar to that used for private investments; or (2) the receiver should not have deducted the value of interim real estate distributions from clients' claims to the receivership's pooled private asset fund.
This argument is not wholly without merit. While some CCL clients had agreements restricting investments in public securities, these requirements were not always followed, and in the end the mix of private and public investments for any particular client was a matter of chance. As the receiver concedes in his brief, "clients were frequently swapped in and out of particular investments in order to meet funding requirements and client requests to liquidate investments. In the end, by the time the receivership was initiated, a particular client's portfolio mix was, to a large degree, a result of fortuity."
However, we cannot agree that failing to treat the public and private equities in an identical fashion was an abuse of discretion. The receiver's prompt distribution of public equities (along with cash) allowed the receiver to return a large portion of CCL assets under management to the CCL clients or new investment managers, rather than tying these assets up for years in this receivership litigation. In an affidavit, the receiver justified this treatment of public equities on "their relatively liquid nature, volatility in price, and the lack of competent CCL staff to manage the public equity portfolios on a daily basis." This justification strikes us as entirely sound. The receiver was not in a position to actively manage portfolios of publicly-traded securities for clients in addition to his other difficult duties. There was no need to pool the public equities to facilitate their liquidation. The distribution was made promptly, before the receiver had time to conduct litigation and mediation regarding the private assets, and otherwise attempt to marshal the private assets and the proceeds from the management and bulk sale of these assets. As far as we can tell from the record, no CCL client preferred that the public equities remain under the control of the receiver or objected to the early distribution of these assets out of the receivership.
Looking at the treatment of interim distributions of real estate, the receiver was entirely justified in deducting the value of a distribution to a particular client from that client's claim to the remaining pooled private assets of the receivership. There is simply no sound reason to do otherwise, if the distribution of private assets is considered by itself, without regard to the earlier distribution of public equities. A party should have his claim to the pooled fund reduced by the value of the property he received, since such a distribution is a valuable dividend just like any other dividend of assets from the receivership.
Failing to deduct the value of the interim distribution of the AT & T building would be particularly unfair, since the Oregon Laborers chose to take an interim distribution of that property, which is worth more than they paid for it, but chose to leave in the common pool of private assets two other properties which are worth less than they paid for them. In
Our only difficulty is deciding whether, assuming that the early distribution of public equities was warranted, the value of the public equities should have been carried in the receiver's books and considered when calculating the net loss of each client, for purposes of deciding each client's pro rata share of the private assets pooled in the receivership. In theory, the receiver could have calculated each client's net loss based on client funds invested in both public and private assets. To the extent the Oregon Laborers make this argument, we find it a close one.
We conclude, however, that the district court did not abuse its discretion in overruling this objection. First, requiring the calculation of public equity gains and losses would impose a massive new administrative burden on the receiver, one he describes as Herculean. The receiver was not previously required to calculate gains and losses in the public securities because they were simply returned to individual clients or designated agents.
Second, there is some inconsistency in the Oregon Laborers' position. Like other appellants, they argue that their third party recoveries should not in effect be pooled through the offset provision, because these recoveries are separate assets belonging to each CCL client, but they take issue with the receiver's failure to pool all the public assets held by CCL clients. Clever lawyers can no doubt explain away this apparent inconsistency, but the truth is that all appellants (except the DOL) make elaborate and less than compelling arguments for redistributing the assets of the receivership in ways that will benefit them at the expense of other CCL clients or even each other.
Third, the receiver points out that recalculating gains and losses at this late stage based on a unified approach that considers the gains and losses in both public and private assets would require some innocent clients to disgorge the value of distributions of public equities received years ago. Such a result strikes us as unnecessary and undesirable.
An analogous line of authority holds, in the bankruptcy context, that a reorganization plan should not be "undone" if it has been substantially implemented and it would be inequitable for the court to consider the merits of an appeal due to a "comprehensive change of circumstances." In re Roberts Farms, Inc., 652 F.2d 793, 798 (9th Cir.1981). The courts sometimes refer to this doctrine as the "equitable mootness" doctrine. The doctrine turns in part on whether the appellant moved for a stay in the district court. Id. The Oregon Laborers did not move to stay the distribution of public equities.
Even where the appellate court does not find the equitable mootness doctrine applicable, we have held, in a case where we refused to order a disgorgement of fees and expenses, that "a court may still hold that the equities weigh in favor of dismissing the appeal." In re S.S. Retail Stores Corp., 216 F.3d 882, 885 (9th Cir.2000).
The pending case is not a bankruptcy case that falls squarely within the equitable mootness doctrine, but the circumstances are sufficiently analogous for us to conclude that the district court did not abuse its discretion in rejecting the Oregon Laborer's request for identical treatment of public equities and interim real estate distributions.
Three real estate parcels known as One Tech, Two Tech, and Crimson Corners were returned to the Plumber's Trust via interim distributions. The Plumber's Trust complains that the receiver effectively "took" or "seized" these properties and improperly gave them to others. They argue that the properties should be excluded from the receivership estate. We reject this argument.
All of the assets held by CCL and later by the receiver were held in trust for CCL's clients. The three parcels at issue were returned to the Plumber's Trust. As with other interim real estate distributions, the value of these assets were deducted from the Plumber's Trust's claim to the pooled private assets held by the receiver and distributed pro rata to CCL clients. We endorse the fairness of this approach for the reasons discussed above. The Plumber's Trust give no persuasive reasons that their properties were entitled to different treatment.
To the extent that the Plumber's Trust complains that the parcels "belonged" exclusively to them, and must be returned to them under ERISA or principles of receivership or property law, these properties were returned to them. To the extent that it argues that it "owned" the properties or had "title," "legal title," or "sole legal title" to them, we fail to grasp the significance of such ownership with respect to the equitable distribution of CCL's assets under management. The receiver did not sell the properties and thereby divest the Plumber's Trust of its legal title to them. Equitable, if not legal, title to all assets under the management and control of CCL was held by CCL clients. This is
Whether or not legal documents identified the Plumber's Trust or CCL as the title holders of the properties strikes us as irrelevant to the receiver's task of equitably distributing the private assets CCL invested in and controlled for the benefit of its clients, once one accepts that the pooling of such assets and a pro rata distribution was an appropriate method of equitably distributing the private assets. We agree with the district court that a pooling and pro rata distribution, as opposed to the tracing of assets, was appropriate. See Real Property, 89 F.3d at 553.
We do not understand the Plumber's Trust to argue that pooling should be abandoned entirely. Indeed, the Plumber's Trust does not object to other properties in which it has partial ownership interests being left in the receivership for pooling and pro rata distribution. Like the Oregon Laborers, the Plumber's Trust wishes to engage in cherry picking, taking for itself those properties in which it has a gain and leaving in the shared pool of assets the properties in which it has huge losses.
The only colorable argument the Plumber's Trust appears to make is that the three parcels at issue were never under the control and management of CCL, and therefore did not devolve to the receiver for distribution in any manner. Stated another way, the Plumber's Trust argues that the receiver's interim distribution of the properties was a non-event, in that the properties were never part of the receivership estate, and should not have been considered when calculating the Plumber's Trust's pro rata claim to the remaining pooled private assets of the receivership. We reject this argument.
The order appointing the receiver granted him "full powers of an equity receiver, including ... full power over all funds, assets, collateral, premises (whether owned, leased, occupied, or otherwise controlled), ...
The documentation in the record, whose authenticity is not disputed, indicates that CCL had significant if not absolute management and control authority over the three properties. Under investment advisory agreements between CCL and the Plumber's Trust, CCL had broad authority to manage and control assets for the Plumber's Trust.
CCL's authority is apparent from the management history of the individual properties. The Crimson Corners property was a shopping center originally built with a loan from another CCL client. The client decided to terminate its relationship with CCL, so CCL substituted Plumber's Trust on this loan through a document styled an assignment of trust deed. The borrower later defaulted on this loan and a deed in lieu of foreclosure was prepared naming the Plumber's Trust as the title holder of this property. We agree with the receiver that it was fortuitous that the default and the decision of another client to terminate its relationship with CCL resulted in the Plumber's Trust being named in a deed as fee title owner to this property. The Plumber's Trust played no role in selecting this property as a part of its asset portfolio.
The One Tech and Two Tech properties were adjacent properties conveyed to general partnerships in 1984 and 1985, respectively. Plumber's Trust board meeting minutes indicate that the initial Plumber's Trust investment in One Tech was proposed by CCL, with a view toward keeping the assets of the trust diversified.
In 1999, CCL's Linda Lucas, on behalf of the Plumber's Trust, conveyed One Tech and Two Tech to limited liability companies in which the Plumber's Trust was the sole member. Under Operating Agreements also signed by Lucas, CCL was named as the sole manager of these companies, with the "sole and exclusive right to manage the business of the Company," including the right and power to control and manage the properties, although it appears that the approval of the Plumber's Trust was required before CCL could sell the properties in their entirety.
The Plumber's Trust offered an affidavit from a title company officer opining that CCL lacked the authority to transfer "insurable title" to the three properties, but the investment advisory agreements, operating agreements, and related documents gave CCL authority to control and manage these properties at the very least. Whether a title company would be willing to issue title insurance does not decide the question of whether these properties were under the control and management of CCL in like manner with other private assets of CCL clients for purposes of deciding whether to treat these properties as part of the receivership. To the extent that the Plumber's Trust relies on its expert's opinion to argue the extent of CCL's authority under the agreements between these parties, the interpretation of these agreements and their legal effect is an issue of law for the court. Experts may interpret and analyze factual evidence but may not testify about the law.
With regard to the three properties, the district court was faced with a novel and arcane dispute. "As we have recognized, case law involving district court administration of an equity receivership ... is sparse and is usually limited to the facts of the particular case." Hardy, 803 F.2d at 1037. The district court carefully analyzed the history of the three parcels in a separate opinion. It concluded, "[b]ased on CCL's control of the three pieces of real property ... that all three should be included in the receivership estate and distribution plan." We agree with this conclusion. During the relevant period the three properties were always a part of the portfolio of assets under the management of CCL for the benefit of the Plumber's Trust or another client. The Plumber's Trust offers no legal or equitable reasons compelling us to hold that the district court abused its discretion in allowing the receiver to deduct from the Plumber's Trust's pro rata distribution claim the value of the three parcels it had already received via interim real estate distributions. Given that "a district court's power to supervise an equity receivership and to determine the appropriate action to be taken in the administration of the receivership is extremely broad," Hardy, 803 F.2d at 1037, and that "the district court has broad powers and wide discretion to determine the appropriate relief in an equity receivership," Lincoln Thrift, 577 F.2d at 606, the district court was not required to do otherwise.
WILLIAM A. FLETCHER, Circuit Judge, concurring and dissenting:
All members of the panel agree that the Receiver has done an excellent job in this difficult and complex case, and I agree with the majority's opinion in all respects but one. Unlike the majority, I would hold that the district court erred in approving the 50% offset for damages recovered by ERISA plans from third parties.
The United States Secretary of Labor ("the Secretary") has the statutory responsibility to administer ERISA. See, e.g., 29 U.S.C. §§ 1031(c) and 1135 (authority to issue regulations); id. § 1132(a)(2) (authority to bring civil enforcement actions); id. § 1134 (investigative authority); id. § 1137 (administrative procedure); id. § 1138(appropriations to carry out "functions and duties" under ERISA). The Secretary contends that the 50% offset for third-party recoveries violates ERISA. I agree with the Secretary.
The Secretary was the first to file suit contending that Capital Consultants, LLC ("CCL") had violated ERISA and seeking a receivership. After the Secretary filed suit, plan trustees filed suit under ERISA; non-ERISA investors filed suit under federal and state laws; and the Securities and Exchange Commission filed suit under the federal securities laws. Over the course of several years, the Receiver marshaled the assets of CCL, made some distributions to claimants, and recommended a final plan of distribution that was approved by the district court.
The parties and the district court agree that the Receiver is a fiduciary of the ERISA plans that are claimants in the receivership. The majority opinion merely assumes without deciding that the Receiver is an ERISA fiduciary, Maj. Op. at 741, but in my view the point is beyond debate. Under ERISA, a person "is a fiduciary with respect to a plan to the extent ... he exercises any discretionary authority or discretionary control respecting management of such plan or exercises any authority or control respecting management or disposition of its assets." 29 U.S.C.
As an ERISA fiduciary, the Receiver must comply with ERISA's fiduciary duties of loyalty. ERISA requires that
29 U.S.C. § 1104(a)(1) (emphasis added). ERISA fiduciary duties are "the highest known to the law." Howard v. Shay, 100 F.3d 1484, 1488 (9th Cir.1996) (quoting Donovan v. Bierwirth, 680 F.2d 263, 272 n. 8 (2d Cir.1982)). As a result, an ERISA fiduciary must have "`an eye single' toward beneficiaries' interests." Pegram v. Herdrich, 530 U.S. 211, 235, 120 S.Ct. 2143, 147 L.Ed.2d 164 (2000) (quoting Donovan, 680 F.2d at 271).
The majority holds that the Receiver acted within his discretion when he required that any claim by an ERISA plan would be offset by 50% of any recovery from third parties by that plan. Although the majority does not say it in so many words, it holds that the Receiver's fiduciary obligation under ERISA was overridden by some general interest in fairness, as the Receiver understood fairness, to other receivership claimants. However, the majority points to no provision in ERISA itself, or in the federal common law of ERISA, that would permit such a result.
In interpreting ERISA's fiduciary provisions, we draw on the common law of trusts unless it is inconsistent with the statute's language, structure, or purposes. See Harris Trust & Sav. Bank v. Salomon Smith Barney Inc., 530 U.S. 238, 250, 120 S.Ct. 2180, 147 L.Ed.2d 187 (2000); Waller v. Blue Cross of Calif., 32 F.3d 1337, 1344 (9th Cir.1994). Trustees of ERISA plans (and, by extension, fiduciaries occupying positions analogous to trustees) have an obligation to preserve all assets of the plan. As the Supreme Court wrote in Central States Pension Fund v. Central Transport, Inc., 472 U.S. 559, 105 S.Ct. 2833, 86 L.Ed.2d 447 (1985), "One of the fundamental common-law duties of a trustee is to preserve and maintain trust assets[.]" Id. at 572, 105 S.Ct. 2833; see also Collins v. Pension and Ins. Comm., 144 F.3d 1279, 1283 (9th Cir.1998) ("Plan trustees have a general duty to ensure a plan receives all funds to which it is entitled, so that those funds can be used on behalf of participants and beneficiaries.").
In this case, a number of ERISA plans have brought successful third-party suits arising out of the CCL debacle. Many, though not all, of those suits were brought against ERISA plan trustees for insufficient supervision of the plans' investments with CCL. See 29 U.S.C. § 1104(a)(setting forth standard of care). Recoveries have come not only from the trustees and their insurers, but also from insurance policies purchased by the ERISA plans to cover shortfalls in recoveries from trustees. See id. § 1110(b)(1) and (b)(2)(permitting both trustees and plans to purchase insurance for losses arising from fiduciary breach). No one disputes that, absent the receivership, all of the third-party recoveries
I accept as fully applicable to this case the equal treatment principle of receivership law. Equality is, indeed, equity. See, e.g., Cunningham v. Brown, 265 U.S. 1, 13, 44 S.Ct. 424, 68 L.Ed. 873 (1924) (in distributing assets of estate in bankruptcy, "equality is equity"); United States v. 13328 & 13324 State Highway 75 North, 89 F.3d 551, 553-54 (9th Cir.1996) (disallowing tracing claim in equity receivership when assets of all defrauded creditors had been commingled; quoting the "equality is equity" phrase from Cunningham). But the "equality is equity" principle does not mean necessarily, or even usually, that all claimants must receive equal percentage payouts on their claims. For example, equality of treatment of secured creditors and unsecured creditors in bankruptcy does not mean that both receive equal percentage payouts. Rather, secured creditors receive all they are owed, up to the value of their security. Or, to take an even more obvious example, equality of treatment in bankruptcy does not mean that claimants get more or less from the bankruptcy estate depending on what other assets they have.
In this case, the ERISA plans are comparable to bankruptcy creditors who have assets outside the bankruptcy estate. The plans are claimants in the receivership, and they have assets — in the form of recoveries from third parties — that, absent the receivership, are their sole and undisputed property. The right to these assets was purchased by the plans prior to and independently of the receivership. The third-party suits, and the resulting plan assets, effectuate Congress's desire in ERISA to provide special protection to participants and beneficiaries of ERISA plans. See 29 U.S.C. § 1001(b).
All investors in CCL were free to purchase insurance, or otherwise to pay to protect themselves against malfeasance. If they did not, that was their choice. The choice not to purchase insurance or other protection was not irrational, for it produced an obvious potential benefit: If CCL had performed as promised, such investors would have earned a higher rate of return on their investment as a result of not having paid that money. Yet the Receiver and the panel majority have approved a distribution plan that takes away 50% of the third-party recoveries of the ERISA plans, for which those plans have paid and for which other claimants have not.
The majority's decision is purportedly in the service of the "equality is equity" principle. But the Receiver (and the majority) cannot justify the offset based on that principle, for if the Receiver really believed the principle required negating the plans' third-party recoveries, he would not have required merely a 50% offset. He would have required a 100% offset. Far from producing equality of treatment, the 50% offset makes the inequality more obvious. The Receiver (and the majority) are in the uncomfortable position of recognizing that the equal treatment principle does not dictate the 50% offset, but nonetheless requiring that the ERISA plans submit to it. The principle now appears to be that the non-ERISA claimants are entitled to some of the ERISA plans' money, but just not all of it.
The majority makes a number of arguments in favor of the 50% offset. First, it relies on two supposedly comparable cases in which offsets were allowed in receivership cases. In In re Cement and Concrete Antitrust Litigation, 817 F.2d 1435 (9th
In re Equity Funding Corp. of America Securities Litigation, 603 F.2d 1353 (9th Cir.1979), was a securities class action arising out of the fraud perpetrated by Equity Funding. The suit was brought by investors against accountants, rather than against Equity Funding itself. Equity Funding filed for bankruptcy in a separate proceeding. A distribution was made in the bankruptcy proceeding to debenture holders and equity owners. In the suit against the accountants, a settlement fund was established. Distribution from the fund was made to all claimants, but with a dollar-for-dollar offset for the debenture holders and equity owners based on their earlier distributions from the bankruptcy proceeding. The debenture holders complained that the dollar- for-dollar offset was unfair to them, as compared to the equity owners. They argued that because they had received a much larger percentage of their claims than the equity owners in the bankruptcy proceeding, the offset therefore had a disproportionately adverse affect on them. We sustained the dollar-for-dollar offset for both the debenture holders and the equity owners, based in substantial part on the rationale that the merits of the debenture holders' claims against the accountants were weaker than the merits of the equity owners' claims. Thus, the disproportionate adverse effect of the offset on the debenture holders was fair, given the disproportionate weakness of their claims on the merits.
Neither In re Cement nor In re Equity Funding is easily comparable to this case. In In re Cement, claimants who had already received compensation for the harm they had suffered were required to take an offset when they claimed compensation from the settlement fund for that same harm. Here, by contrast, some ERISA plans have suffered distinct and separately compensable harms arising from the acts or omissions of plan fiduciaries. In In re Equity Funding, the debenture holders complained only that their offset was disproportionate to the offset for the equity owners; they did not argue that they should be free from any offset. More important, in neither case was there a claim of fiduciary duty under ERISA or a comparable statute.
Second, the majority contends that not requiring an offset for the ERISA plans' recoveries from third parties "could mean a double recovery for some clients." Maj. Op. at 740. The majority refers to the possibility that an ERISA plan might recover more than its actual loss if its third-party recovery is added to its distribution from the receivership without offset. The majority's concern is a strawman. There is no showing on the record before us that any "double recovery" would occur. The majority itself concedes that "the parties seem to agree that the chances of a double recovery are small at best." Maj. Op. at 740. The Eighth District Electrical Pension Fund, one of the ERISA plan plaintiffs, asserts that a "double recovery" will not result from insurance recoveries: "No ERISA plan will obtain a double recovery, or windfall, by pursing claims under its own fiduciary liability insurance or bonds. The fundamental purpose of fiduciary liability is to make the trust whole, not provide a double recovery." For her part, the
Third, the majority contends that "the offset provision allows for more equal compensation to innocent CCL clients[.]" Maj. Op. at 741. "More equal compensation" is precisely what the offset provision does not allow, if equality means equal treatment to equally situated parties. For example, the offset disregards the difference between ERISA plans that purchased insurance and claimants that did not, giving both purchasers and non-purchasers a claim to the insurance proceeds. Under the majority's rationale, in the case of a common catastrophe, a family whose now-deceased breadwinner did not purchase life insurance should have a claim on the life insurance proceeds of the family next door whose now deceased breadwinner did purchase such insurance.
Fourth, the majority contends that ERISA would be violated if there were no offset provision:
Maj. Op. at 741 (emphasis in original). The majority appears to think that the Receiver's fiduciary duty requires him to even out recoveries from third parties among all ERISA plans, regardless of whether a particular ERISA plan has obtained a third-party recovery. But this is demonstrably not true. There are substantial variations among the ERISA plans in the receivership. Some ERISA plans do not have any third-party recoveries at all. These plans' trustees may have been careful but nonetheless duped by CCL, or these plans may have delayed seeking any third-party recoveries. Other ERISA plans have already recovered against their trustees. Among those who have recovered against their trustees, some have recovered additional amounts based on insurance policies protecting against shortfalls in compensation in suits against trustees.
An ERISA fiduciary, including a Receiver, may not take assets belonging to one ERISA plan and simply distribute those assets to another ERISA plan of which it is also a fiduciary. Far from being required to equalize distribution to all ERISA plans, the Receiver is forbidden to equalize distributions if such equalization requires taking assets of one plan and giving them to another.
Fifth, the majority contends that the Secretary appears to have conceded that the offset is proper:
Maj. Op. at 1359 (first bracket added). The majority has misread the Secretary's brief. The paragraph from which the sentence in the majority's footnote 10 was taken carries precisely the opposite meaning. The Secretary first describes the
(Emphasis indicates language quoted by the majority.)
Finally, the majority contends that the 50% offset does not actually take third-party recoveries from the ERISA plans: "The receiver is not in our view illegally transferring from one ERISA plan to another CCL client an asset belonging to the ERISA plan." Maj. Op. at 742. Of course, the majority is right in saying that it is not transferring ERISA plan assets in the sense of seizing assets from a plan and conveying those assets to another CCL client. But that is a distinction without a difference. The offset has precisely the same consequence as seizing 50% of a plan's third-party recoveries, for the plan is denied money that it would otherwise receive from the receivership, solely because of its third-party recovery. The Receiver's duty of loyalty to the ERISA plans for which he is a fiduciary is a real duty, not a technicality, and cannot be avoided by a lawyerly sleight of hand.
I would hold that the Receiver is a fiduciary of the ERISA plans that are claimants in the receivership; that the third-party recoveries are plan assets for which the ERISA plans have paid; that the Receiver has a duty to protect those assets on behalf of the plans; that the 50% offset effectively requires the plans to donate half of their third-party recoveries to the common pool of the receivership; and that the offset requirement violates ERISA.
I recognize that many of my arguments apply to the non-ERISA receivership claimants who have recovered from third parties, and I regard it as a close question whether the Receiver abused his discretion in providing a 50% offset as to those third-party recoveries. However, the Receiver is not an ERISA fiduciary as to these claimants. Because ERISA is the determining factor in my conclusion that the offset is improper as to the ERISA plans, I would not reverse the 50% offset for third-party recoveries by non-ERISA claimants. I would nevertheless remand to the district court to allow the Receiver to determine, within his discretion, whether he wishes to retain the 50% offset for non-ERISA claimants if the offset is improper for ERISA claimants.