Ream v. Frey (1997)

US Equity & Trusts

Ream v Frey
‘The Banker’s Table’ by William M Harnett

The essence of fiduciary duties run counter to the arms-length relationships navigated by contracting parties, and so on this occasion, the relinquishing of trustee duties by a regulated bank proved a reversal of fortune for an innocent employee.

While operating his construction company, the sole owner established a Profit Sharing 401(k) Plan for the benefit of his numerous employees. Almost six years later, the company filed for bankruptcy under Ch. 7 of the Bankruptcy Code, after which one of its employees requested payment for the money he had invested during the life of the plan.

With an estimated $14,000 owed, the employer agreed to settle the matter with a payment of $21,000 to cover court fees incurred while pursuing the debt on grounds of a fiduciary breach. Unfortunately, the employer paid only $18,500, after which he escaped jurisdiction and was never seen again. This left the employee with no option other than to claim the remaining $3,000 from the now appellant bank, who in accordance with the terms of the plan, was an acting trustee under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA).

At the point of litigation, it became clear that while serving as a trustee, the bank was under duty to inform where possible, all plan beneficiaries of its decision to rescind its appointment, as expressed under art. 15.6 of the plan, which allowed the bank to resign by written notice, after which any outstanding funds would be transferred to a successor trustee; however should one not be available, the administrator of the plan would automatically occupy that position.

Unbeknown to the employee, the bank had been struggling to communicate with the employer for a number of months, and after resigning as trustees with the knowledge that the trustee-administrator relationship had broken down, and that the company was now also in financial trouble, the bank had handed $53,000 of plan funds to the employer without notifying the beneficiaries of their decision. It was at this point that the employer converted the assets for his own personal use, sometime before part-settling with the employee and disappearing.

When heard in the district court, the judge awarded in favour of the claimant employee, whereupon the bank appealed to the court of appeals, who investigated further, the nature of the plan and associated case precedents. Here it was agreed that under § 106 of the Restatement (Second) of Trusts, a trustee was able to resign in accordance with a trust with express permission of the beneficiaries or consent of the court, yet at no point had the bank alerted the employee(s) of either the decision to resign, or the uncertain future of the employer.

It was also noted that under s. 11.4 of the plan, that the bank could be could liable:

“[T]o the extent it is judicially determined that the Trustee/Custodian has failed to exercise the care, skill, prudence and diligence under the circumstances then prevailing that a prudent person acting in a like capacity and familiar with such matters would use in the conduct of an enterprise of a like character with like aims.”

While the bank argued that under such circumstances, legal remedy would be sustainable only as a class action involving all the beneficiaries, the court held that in Varity Corp. v. Howe, individual remedy was viable under ERISA § 502(a)(3), which provides that equitable relief is granted to individuals in order to “redress any act or practice which violates any provision of this title”. The court also noted that § 173 of the Restatement (Second) of Trusts provides that:

“[The Trustee] is under a duty to communicate to the beneficiary material facts affecting the interest of the beneficiary which he knows the beneficiary does not know and which the beneficiary needs to know for his protection in dealing with a third person.”

It was for these salient reasons that the appeal court supported the district court ruling and awarded in favour of the employee for the remaining balance of the plan monies, while adding that had the bank been in a position to hand over money of its own to the employer, things may have taken quite a different turn, especially when considering the vulnerability of the beneficiaries.

Milroy v Lord (1862)

English Equity & Trusts

Milroy v Lord
‘Louisiana Bayou’ by Joseph Rusling Meeker

When a man of standing sought to create a trust for the purposes of a relative’s benefit, he was careful enough to provide specific instructions to his trustee, but unfortunately erred in putting them into action.

A number of years after his death, the beneficiary challenged the assigned executor on grounds that his written desire for her to gain lawful receipt was sufficient enough to constitute an enforceable covenant and that the courts were inter alia wrong to deny it.

In 1852 the settlor drafted a deed-poll that enabled fifty shares of his stock held in the Louisiana Bank to be transferred to his associate (who had become his appointed trustee) on the proviso that under a number of specific conditions he was to hold the shares upon trust for the benefit of his beloved niece.

He also stipulated that during the time between his grant and the date of her marriage or his death, the trustee was to manage the trust and pay any profits arising from the dividend interest to the beneficiary.

During this period the settlor also granted the trustee power of attorney over all of his financial matters, and so while it was possible for the trustee to complete the request, he never managed to fully execute transferral under the banking practice policy, which required the participation of either the settlor himself or a qualified solicitor, and where neither was found, that the power of attorney rested not with the trustee but the bank.

In the first instance the presiding judge awarded that by virtue of the deed construction, a valid trust had existed, and that the fifty shares were to be reissued by the executor to the existing trustee, where they would be again held upon trust for the niece (as had been the case before the settlor’s death).

However under appeal the Court took the equitable view that a legally incomplete gesture cannot be enforced (equity will not perfect an imperfect gift), and so held that it was impossible for the settlor to become a self-appointed trustee for the shares discussed.

Rather it was declared that the funds were to be held upon trust by the executor until amendments could be made to the deed that provided for redistribution in the manner first intended, or until the trustee and beneficiary chose to take individual action against him, while the court reminded both parties that:

“[I]n order to render a voluntary settlement valid and effectual, the settler must have done everything which, according to the nature of the property comprised in the settlement, was necessary to be done in order to transfer the property and render the settlement binding upon him.”