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Coca-Cola Bottling Company Can’t Shake Lawsuit Over Mismanaged Retirement Plans

On March 31, 2021, a district judge for the United States District Court for the Western District of North Carolina determined that a class action lawsuit against Coca-Cola Consolidated, Inc., and its Corporate Benefits Committee (collectively, “Coke Bottling,” the “Company,” or “Defendants”), was fit to proceed, denying the Company’s attempt to dismiss the legal action. The lawsuit stems from allegations that the Company mismanaged its defined contribution retirement plan (the “Plan”).

Coke Bottling is the largest bottler of Coca-Cola drinks in the United States. Like many employers, the Company offers a 401(k) retirement plan, which allows eligible employees to set aside a certain percentage of their income to be invested for retirement. Importantly, the employer provides a menu of investments from which employees can select based on their personal retirement goals and risk preferences. Employees then pay account maintenance fees, also known as recordkeeping fees, and investment management fees, which vary depending on the chosen investments.

Defined contribution plans, such as 401(k) plans, are governed by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”), a federal statute establishing standards for plan administrators to ensure that investments offered to employees are prudently selected and monitored. ERISA Section 502(a)(2), 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(2), authorizes any participant, fiduciary, or the Secretary of Labor to bring suit as a representative of a plan to recover any damage done thereto.

Plaintiffs, represented by Miller Shah LLP, allege that Coke Bottling violated ERISA by: (1) failing to fully disclose the expenses and risk of the Plan’s investment options to participants; (2) allowing unreasonable expenses to be charged to participants; and (3) selecting and retaining high cost and poorly-performing investments, even when other, more prudent and better performing investments were readily available.

Plaintiffs specifically argue that the actively managed Fidelity Freedom Funds, the Carillon Eagle Small Cap Growth Fund Class R5, and the T. Rowe Price Mid-Cap Value Fund were (and continue to be) imprudent investments that should not have been offered to Plan participants.

On January 14, 2021, Coke Bottling filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that Plaintiffs failed to adequately allege any concrete injuries and, therefore, did not have standing to bring the lawsuit. The Company also maintained that ERISA allows employers to select a broad range of investments, including those challenged, and that the allegations were mostly based on “cherry-picked” hindsight data.

The District Court announced its decision on March 31, 2021.

In its Order denying Defendants’ motion, the Court found Plaintiffs’ excessive fee allegations to be well-pled, explaining that the Company’s actions with respect to the Plan could have plausibly damaged participants in the form of reduced investment income. Relying on precedent established in similar ERISA cases, the Court held that Plaintiffs’ allegations regarding the Company’s failure to monitor the Plan administrators were likewise sufficient.

An update to this lawsuit can be found here. A class has not yet been certified in this action. The case caption is Jones et al v. Coca-Cola Consolidated, Inc. et al., No. 3:20-cv-00654-FDW-DSC, filed in the Western District of North Carolina.

The legal team at Miller Shah LLP has significant experience representing ERISA matters. If you have any questions regarding this subject or this post, please contact Alec Berin (ajberin@millershah.com) or Jonathan Dilger (jadilger@millershah.com). The firm can also be reached toll-free at (866) 540-5505.

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