Meet the Law Firms Fighting 401(k), Health Plan Class Actions

Morgan Lewis & Bockius LLP gets a lot of business when big companies are sued for the way they manage their retirement and health plans. For the second year in a row, it’s the law firm getting the most ERISA class action business.

Major companies, including Waddell & Reed Financial Inc., Sears Holding Corp., and FMC Corp., hired the global law firm to represent them in 18 Employee Retirement Income Security Act class actions since October 2016, according to an analysis of Bloomberg Law dockets.

The law firm has 12 partners and 40 associate attorneys in its employee benefits litigation practice. And its streak of success in getting class action business is mainly based on “very hard work,” Brian T. Ortelere, a partner in the firm’s New York and Philadelphia offices, told Bloomberg Law.

The law firm, which is known for representing large employers in lawsuits that involve their multibillion-dollar retirement plans, has also started to get business from employers with smaller plans. It was recently hired to defend Gucci America in a lawsuit challenging allegedly excessive fees charged in the retailer’s $95 million 401(k) plan.

Many of the employers the firm represents have jumbo plans—retirement plans that have billions of dollars in assets. The Gucci plan doesn’t even come close to that, Ortelere said, referencing the plan’s size and the expected upcoming stream of cases targeting smaller plans.

Dorsey & Whitney LLP follows closely in number of ERISA class actions. The firm was hired by large employers in 10 such cases. In the past year, it defended Wells Fargo, scoring a rare win in this area by defeating a proposed class action. Employees claimed that the financial giant violated federal benefits law by stuffing its $35 billion 401(k) plan with expensive and poorly performing target-date funds affiliated with the company. The law firm is also defending health-care behemoths Essentia Health and United HealthCare in challenges over allegations of excessive fees in retirement plans and wrongful denial of mental health treatment.

Here’s a look at other major law firms landing ERISA class action business:

•  Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom has been hired to defend eight ERISA class actions in the past year. Some of its clients include DST Systems, Capital Group, JPMorgan Chase.

• Law firms Proskauer Rose LLP, Alston Bird, Groom Law Group Chartered, and Reed Smith LLP are defending seven class actions, respectively. Proskauer counts among its clients Charles Schwab and the trustees of Princeton University, while Alston Bird was hired by Xerox HR Solutions, Delta Air Lines, and Brown University. This year Groom Law was hired to defend Wilmington Trust NA in three separate class actions involving employee stock ownership plans, as well as by other large institutional trustees, including GreatBanc Trust and Bankers Trust of South Dakota. Reed Smith was retained by Health Care Service Corp., and Empire HealthChoice.

• Steptoe & Johnson LLP was hired to defend six ERISA class actions. The international law firm is representing CONSOL Energy in two lawsuits brought by its retirees challenging cuts to their health benefits.

• O’Melveny & Myers LLP and Sidley Austin LLP are defending four class actions each. O’Melveny was retained by financial industry titans T. Rowe Price Group and BlackRock. Sidley Austin has been retained in lawsuits involving Marathon Petroleum and the University of Chicago.

To contact the reporter on this story: Carmen Castro-Pagan in Washington at ccastro-pagan@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jo-el J. Meyer at jmeyer@bloomberglaw.com