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Health Crisis Fuels Fight Over Columbia Retirement Plan Trial

May 4, 2020, 2:33 PM

A class action over Columbia University’s retirement plans spawned a side battle over when to schedule an upcoming trial, with the school telling a federal judge in Manhattan that university employees may be trying to use the ongoing Covid-19 health crisis to their strategic advantage.

The Columbia employees want the trial to get underway as early as October, telling Judge George B. Daniels of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York that exchanging exhibit and witness lists and drafting pretrial orders and motions won’t require in-person interactions that could threaten public health. The Columbia trustees shot back in a May 1 letter, saying there’s no reason to rush a trial during a pandemic that’s “disrupted every facet of American life.”

“Plaintiffs may perceive a strategic benefit to forging ahead, given that Columbia’s outside counsel cannot presently meet with its witnesses or Columbia’s inside counsel,” the trustees said. “This is, to be clear, not a matter of hairsplitting between in-person and technology-facilitated meetings: the individuals who are critical to Columbia’s defense are the same individuals who are coordinating the response of the University (and its medical school) to this crisis.”

The employees say the case “has been pending since August 2016, is ready for trial, and should proceed forward as swiftly as possible in the current environment.”

The dispute comes one month after Daniels allowed the employees to go to trial in their lawsuit accusing school trustees of mismanaging their retirement plans. The case, which covers a class of 28,000 plan participants, claims workers lost retirement savings because the trustees failed to remove underperforming investments and failed to monitor administrative fees or consolidate the number of companies providing administrative services to the plans.

Columbia is one of 21 prominent colleges to face lawsuits alleging retirement plan mismanagement since 2016. The cases have spawned one trial, nearly $70 million in settlements, and mixed results in the federal appeals courts. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled for employees of the University of Pennsylvania in 2019, and the Seventh Circuit sided with Northwestern University in March.

Mayer Brown LLP represents the Columbia trustees. Schlichter Bogard & Denton LLP represents the employees.

For additional legal resources, visit Bloomberg Law In Focus: Coronavirus (Bloomberg Law Subscription).

The case is Cates v. Trs. of Columbia Univ., S.D.N.Y., No. 1:16-cv-06524, letter to court 5/1/20.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jacklyn Wille in Washington at jwille@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rob Tricchinelli at rtricchinelli@bloomberglaw.com; Patrick L. Gregory at pgregory@bloomberglaw.com