In a case demonstrating the range of both the potential legal theories and the prospective litigants that could become involved in Madoff-related litigation, a pension fund has filed an ERISA class action against an investment advisory firm for the advisory firm’s investment of the pension fund’s assets in a Madoff "feeder fund."


On February 12, 2009, the Pension Fund for Hospital and Health Care Employees – Philadelphia and Vicinity filed an ERISA lawsuit against Austin Capital Management Ltd. in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, on its own behalf as well as on behalf of all employee benefit funds for whom Austin acted as investment manager and whose assets were invested in whole or in part by Austin in any Madoff-related investment during the period February 12, 2005 to the present.


A copy of the complaint can be found here. A copy of the plaintiffs’ lawyers February 13, 2009 press release can be found here. A February 17, 2009 article describing the lawsuit can be found here.


The complaint alleges that in June 2008, the plaintiff’s investment consultant retained Austin "for the purpose of managing a portion of the [plaintiff’s] assets, to be invested in hedge funds." At the time, Austin, which is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Cleveland-based KeyCorp, had approximately $2.3 billion of assets under management.


In July 2008, the plaintiff’s investment consultant placed $10 million of the plaintiff’s assets with Austin for investment with the Austin Capital Safe Harbor Dedicated ERISA Fund, Ltd., an exempt corporation operating under the laws of the Cayman Islands. Austin is the investment manager for Austin Safe Harbor.


The complaint alleges that Austin invested a portion of Austin Safe Harbor assets in "Madoff-related investments, specifically funds managed by Tremont Holdings." According to a February 3, 2009 Bloomberg article (here), Tremont in turn "placed money through its Rye Select Broad Market Prime Fund, L.P.," which in turn invested with Madoff’s firm.


The complaint alleges that Austin was a fiduciary to the class of benefit funds, but that Austin failed to conduct adequate due diligence prior to recommending and investing monies in Madoff-related funds. The complaint also alleges that Austin ignored "red flags."


The complaint identifies several other public pension funds for which Austin acted as investment manager. The complaint states that Austin managed $170 million for the Massachusetts Pension Reserves Investment Management Board, of which $12 million was exposed to Madoff-related investment, and also managed $170 million for the New Mexico Education Retirement Board, of which $8-10 million was in Madoff-related investments. According to news reports (here), the Massachusetts pension fund recently voted to fire Austin due to the Madoff-related losses.


There are a number of interesting things about this lawsuit. The first is that it seeks relief under ERISA. So far as I am aware, this is the first Madoff-related lawsuit asserting claims under ERISA. The interesting thing about an ERISA class action, as opposed to a securities class action, is that the ERISA action is not subject to the PSLRA’s discovery stay and other procedural requirements. So the ERISA plaintiff is free to conduct discovery even while the dismissal motion is pending.


The opportunity under ERISA to avoid some of the challenges of litigating under the federal securities laws clearly was one of the plaintiffs’ attorney’s motivations in bringing the action. The article linked above quote the attorney as saying that ERISA provides "an easier and quicker route in repairing the damage."


By was of comparison, the attorney cites as the shortcomings (from his perspective) of seeking relief under the securities laws, the "high burden of proving fraud" and the "limitations on showing third parties were at fault." The attorney said that while Madoff may have been involved in fraud, "it would be much more difficult to prove that third-party investment funds that invested with Madoff were also defrauding clients."


The other interesting thing about the fact that this lawsuit was filed under ERISA is that it at least potentially draws into the mix yet another type of insurance. Up to this point, the likeliest source of insurance funds in connection with the prior Madoff-related lawsuits has been the target defendants’ D&O insurance or errors and omissions (E&O) insurance. A claim under ERISA at least potentially triggers coverage under applicable fiduciary liability policies (if any). The spread of Madoff-related insurance exposure to include fiduciary liability coverage may not have been among the factors considered in earlier estimates about aggregate Madoff-related insurance losses.


The final interesting thing about this lawsuit is what it says about just how broad the pool of Madoff-related defendants has become. The plaintiff pension fund in this lawsuit did not invest with Madoff. It did not even invest with a Madoff feeder fund. Instead, it invested with an investment advisor that invested with a feeder fund that in turn invested with Madoff. (Got that?) The sheer span of these increasingly remote connections required to establish the Madoff-related link underscores just how widespread the Madoff litigation may yet become.


I have in any event added the new lawsuit to my running tally of all Madoff-related litigation, which can be accessed here.