Perez v. Vinoskey et al
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Judge Norman K. Moon on May 2, 2017. (ca)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE WESTERN DISTRICT OF VIRGINIA
EDWARD C. HUGLER,
CASE NO. 6:16-CV-00062
ADAM VINOSKEY, ET AL.,
JUDGE NORMAN K. MOON
This matter is before the Court upon Defendant Michael New’s Motion to Dismiss the
First Amended Complaint. (Dkt. 40). The First Amended Complaint alleges that Defendants, in
their various roles, facilitated the purchase of Sentry Equipment Erectors, Inc. (“Sentry”) stock
by the Sentry Equipment Erectors, Inc. Employee Stock Ownership and Savings Plan (“the
ESOP”) for an inflated price—in violation of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act
(“ERISA”). (Dkt. 29).
Michael New asks the Court to dismiss him from the case because he argues he was
merely an employee—not a fiduciary—and thus not individually liable under ERISA. Because
the First Amended Complaint’s factual allegations are taken as true at this stage and the
Secretary pled sufficient facts about New exercising discretionary authority or control over the
management of the ESOP, the Court concludes—for purposes of this motion—that he was a
fiduciary. Accordingly, New’s motion to dismiss will be DENIED.
I. LEGAL STANDARD
A motion to dismiss pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6) tests the legal sufficiency of a
complaint to determine whether the plaintiff has properly stated a claim; “it does not resolve
contests surrounding the facts, the merits of a claim, or the applicability of defenses.”
Republican Party of North Carolina v. Martin, 980 F.2d 943, 952 (4th Cir. 1992). Although a
complaint “does not need detailed factual allegations, a plaintiff’s obligation to provide the
‘grounds’ of his entitle[ment] to relief requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic
recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S.
544, 555 (2007) (citations omitted).
A court need not “accept the legal conclusions drawn from the facts” or “accept as true
unwarranted inferences, unreasonable conclusions, or arguments.” Eastern Shore Markets, Inc.
v. J.D. Assocs. Ltd. P’ship, 213 F.3d 175, 180 (4th Cir. 2000). “Factual allegations must be
enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level,” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555, with all
allegations in the complaint taken as true and all reasonable inferences drawn in the plaintiff’s
favor. Chao v. Rivendell Woods, Inc., 415 F.3d 342, 346 (4th Cir. 2005). Rule 12(b)(6) does
“not require heightened fact pleading of specifics, but only enough facts to state a claim to relief
that is plausible on its face.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570. Consequently, “only a complaint that
states a plausible claim for relief survives a motion to dismiss.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662,
II. FACTS AS ALLEGED
The facts alleged in this case concern a two-step transaction by which the ESOP
purchased 100% of Sentry stock for an inflated price. (Dkt. 29 at 4).
Sentry, founded in 1980, was initially owned entirely by Adam and Carole Vinoskey.
(Id. ¶ 10). The Vinoskeys then created the ESOP, which included both a 401(k) definedcontribution plan and an employee stock-ownership feature. (Id. ¶ 11). The ESOP was designed
to invest primarily in employer stock, which permitted the Vinoskey’s to liquidate their
ownership interest in Sentry without finding a third-party buyer. (Id.).
Under the terms of the ESOP, terminating employees, which included retirees, were
permitted to sell their shares back to the ESOP at a price approved by the ESOP fiduciaries. (Id.
¶ 13). In order to determine a fair price, Sentry hired Capital Analysts, Inc. (“CA”) to perform
appraisals. (Id.). From 2007 to 2011, the resulting stock price ranged from $241 to $285 per
In 2004, the ESOP purchased 48% of the Vinoskeys’ Sentry stock for $220 per share, for
a total price of $9 million. (Id. ¶ 12). The ESOP paid $1.5 million to the Vinoskeys, and the
remainder of the purchase price was borrowed from Sentry. (Id.). In the following years, Sentry
made contributions to the ESOP that allowed the ESOP to repay the loan it had received from
Sentry. (Id.). The ESOP’s debt was fully repaid before 2010, and the shares of Sentry stock
purchased by the ESOP were allocated to individual participant accounts as the debts were paid.
In December 2010, Defendant Adam Vinoskey and/or Defendant Adam Vinoskey Trust
(“the Trust”), sold the remaining 52% of Sentry stock to the ESOP at a price of $406 per share
and a total sale price of $20.7 million. (Id. ¶ 14). This price greatly exceeded the price offered
to terminating participants who sold their shares back to the ESOP before December 2010—
which ranged from $241 to $285 per share—and the price offered to participants dropped below
$285 per share after the sale at $406 per share. (Id.).
The $406-per-share price was based on a special appraisal conducted by CA in
November 2010 in preparation for this transaction. (Id. ¶ 15). The CA valuation erroneously
overvalued Sentry’s fair market value for numerous reasons, such as: (1) CA used only a threeyear loopback period, which failed to capture the peaks and valleys of Sentry’s business cycle;
and (2) CA used a projected-future-earnings discount rate of only 12.2% in its November 2010
appraisal, despite using a 16.2% rate in 2009 and an 18% discount rate in December 2010. (Id.
Evolve Bank and Trust (“Evolve”) was hired as an independent transaction trustee for the
2010 stock purchase and as such was a named trustee to the ESOP. (Id. ¶ 8). Evolve was a
“party in interest” and a fiduciary with respect to the plan pursuant to ERISA §§ 3(21)(A),
3(14)(A)–(B). (Id.). Defendant Michael New was a lawyer employed by Evolve as its Senior
Trust Officer and the head of Evolve’s ESOP division. (Id. ¶ 9). New performed the duties of
the independent transaction trustee and as such was a fiduciary with respect to the ESOP
pursuant to ERISA § 3(21)(A) and a “party in interest” under ERISA §§ 3(14)(A)–(B). (Id.).
New exercised discretionary authority or control over the management of the ESOP and its
As a fiduciary, New approved the $406 share price on behalf of Evolve as being fair to
the ESOP and its participants. (Id. ¶ 17). New possessed discretion and was not required to
obtain approval from Evolve’s Trust Committee before approving the price on behalf of Evolve,
the independent transaction trustee.
(Id. ¶ 9).
New relied on CA’s appraisal, information
provided by Sentry in response to a “due diligence checklist,” and an on-site visit to Sentry’s
plant. (Id.). Vinoskey and/or the Trust then accepted the $406 per share price and sold their
stock. (Id. ¶ 17). Due to the obvious errors in the appraisal, New, Evolve, and Vinoskey all
knew the price was excessive and unfair to the ESOP. (Id.).
The ESOP paid for the Sentry shares with $8,500,016 in cash, $1,900,080 borrowed from
Sentry, and a $10,305,904 note at 4% interest. (Id. ¶ 18). These debts harmed—and ultimately
devalued—Sentry because it assumed the obligation to make contributions to the ESOP to repay
the loan. (Id. ¶ 19). This, in turn, reduced the fair market value of the shares allocated to the
ESOP and its participants after the initial 2004 stock purchase. (Id. ¶ 20). The drop in value
occurred without any protections to shield the ESOP participants. (Id. ¶ 21).
A breach of fiduciary duty claim under ERISA requires Plaintiff to establish three
elements: (1) the defendants are fiduciaries; (2) the defendants violated their fiduciary duties;
and (3) the plan suffered a loss due to the breach. See Smith v. Sydnor, 184 F.3d 356, 363 (4th
Cir. 1999). New argues that the First Amended Complaint fails to satisfy the first element
because he was merely an Employee of Evolve and not a fiduciary.
A. Defining a Fiduciary
ERISA defines a fiduciary as a person who “exercises any discretionary authority or
discretionary control respecting management of such plan or exercises any authority or control
respecting management or disposition of its assets.”
29 U.S.C. § 1002(21)(A)(i).
Department of Labor has provided additional guidance, stating that “[s]ome offices or positions
of an employee benefit plan by their very nature require persons who hold them to perform one
or more of the functions described in section 3(21)(A) of the Act.” 29 C.F.R. § 2509.75-8 at D3. “Other offices and positions should be examined to determine whether they involve the
performance of any of the functions [of a fiduciary].” Id. Further, an ERISA fiduciary “is
broader than the common law concept of a trustee;” the term includes not only those named as
fiduciaries in the plan instrument, “but any individual who de facto performs specified
discretionary functions with respect to the management, assets, or administration of a plan.”
Custer v. Sweeney, 89 F.3d 1156, 1161 (4th Cir. 1996).
The parties agree—for the purposes of this motion—that Evolve, as the independent
trustee, was an ERISA fiduciary. Evolve was a named trustee to the ESOP for the 2010 stock sale.
(Dkt. 29 ¶ 8; dkt. 41 at 8). The key point of contention, however, is whether New, through his role
as the Senior Trust Officer, acted as a de facto fiduciary.
Courts have struggled to develop a clear test for determining whether an employee of a
named fiduciary is also himself a de facto fiduciary, and the parties have failed to identify clear
precedent on the issue in the Fourth Circuit. New asks the Court to adopt the Second Circuit’s test
from Lowen v. Tower Asset Management, Inc., 829 F.2d 1209 (2d Cir. 1987), which he argues
requires the Secretary to pierce the corporate veil in order to find an employee to be a fiduciary.
Not only is Tower Asset not binding on this Court, but also it is not clear that the case establishes a
precedent requiring veil piercing. 1 Although the court in Tower Asset pierced the corporate veil in
order to hold shareholders liable, it did not state (or even imply) that veil piercing is a prerequisite
to finding that an individual employee is a fiduciary. In fact, the court stated that “parties who
knowingly participate in fiduciary breaches may be liable under ERISA to the same extent as
fiduciaries.” Tower Asset, 829 F.2d at 1220.
Rather than strict adherence to a veil-piercing requirement, the Court looks instead to
whether New had sufficient individual discretion in order to be considered a de facto fiduciary. As
the Fourth Circuit has stated, a de facto fiduciary is “any individual who . . . performs specified
discretionary functions with respect to the management, assets, or administration of a plan.”
Custer, 89 F.3d at 1161. The Secretary is required to plead “more than the mere recitation of
statutory language” and must provide “specific allegations” of discretion—as opposed to
“perform[ing] ministerial functions for the plan.” In re Mut. Fund Inv. Litig., 403 F. Supp. 2d 434,
446 (D. Md. 2005) (citing Custer, 89 F.3d at 1163). Ultimately, the Secretary must alleged facts
sufficient to demonstrate that New had an “individual discretionary role.” Id. at 447 (citing
Confer v. Custom Eng’g Co., 952 F.2d 34, 37 (3d Cir. 1991)).
Turning to the facts alleged in the First Amended Complaint, 2 the Court finds that the
The Court also notes that piercing the corporate veil is not particularly relevant in this
case. Veil piercing refers to when individual or corporate shareholders of a corporation are
exposed to liability; holding individual employees liable is a separate matter, distinct from veil
piercing. Stephen B. Presser, Piercing the Corp. Veil § 1:1 (“The ‘veil’ of the ‘corporate fiction,’
or the ‘artificial personality’ of the corporation, is ‘pierced,’ and the individual or corporate
shareholder exposed to personal or corporate liability . . . .” (emphasis added)).
Defendant asks the Court to consider several additional documents attached to his
motion. However, for the reasons discussed below in Section III.C, some of these documents
Secretary has pled facts sufficient to establish New as a de facto fiduciary. As discussed above,
the crucial inquiry is whether the Secretary has pled “specific allegations” of an “individual
discretionary role,” as opposed to a “mere recitation of statutory language.” In re Mut. Fund
Inv. Litig., 403 F. Supp. 2d at 446 (citing Custer, 89 F.3d at 1163). Furthermore, the Secretary’s
allegations, taken as true, must demonstrate that New performed more than “only ministerial
functions.” Custer, 89 F.3d at 1163.
The First Amended Complaint alleges that New was a lawyer employed by Evolve as the
Senior Trust Officer and the head of the ESOP division, in which he performed the duties of an
independent transaction trustee. (Dkt. 29 ¶ 9). This job, by “[its] very nature,” may have required
New to “perform one or more of the functions” of a fiduciary. 29 C.F.R. § 2509.75-8 at D-3.
Nevertheless, the Secretary provides additional details and “specific allegations” that New
performed “discretionary functions.” Custer, 89 F.3d at 1161. Most notably, New (1) selected the
$406 share price; (2) signed a document dated December 20, 2010, 3 stating that the $406 stock
price was in the ESOP’s best interest; and (3) was not required to obtain approval from Evolve’s
Trust Committee before approving the sale. (Dkt. 29 ¶ 9).
These allegations, accepted as true at this stage, establish that New was a de facto fiduciary.
Although he was not named as an independent trustee, he exercised individual discretion over the
transaction in question by selecting and approving the price on his own. New was not merely
signing forms on behalf of Evolve or performing only ministerial functions. The Complaint has
alleged that he exercised individual discretion over the transaction in question.
employee of an independent transaction trustee becomes a de facto trustee simply by working on a
cannot be properly considered at the Rule 12(b)(6) stage, while others simply do not bear on the
The First Amended Complaint erroneously states that the document was dated
“December 10, 2015,” but the parties appear to agree that this was simply a typographical error.
(See Dkt. 43 at 3 n.6, dkt. 41-2).
transaction such as this, but when an employee exercises individual discretion—such as acting
alone to select and approve the transaction price—that employee can be considered a fiduciary.
C. Attached Exhibits & Factual Disputes
As a final matter, the Court will explain why it did not consider the following
documents—which were attached to New’s motion to dismiss—as part of its analysis: (1) the
Minutes of the Meeting of the ESOP Administration Committee; (2) the Stock Purchase
Agreement; and (3) banking regulations from Arkansas. Each document will be considered in
First, the Court must decide whether to admit the Minutes of the Meeting of the ESOP
Administration Committee, which New attached in support of his motion to dismiss. (Dkt. 413).
New argues this document refutes the Secretary’s allegation that New exercised
“discretionary authority or control over the management of the ESOP.” (Dkt 29 ¶ 9). The Court
declines to consider this attachment at this time.
Generally “a court is not to consider matters outside the pleadings or resolve factual
disputes when ruling on a motion to dismiss.” Bosiger v. U.S. Airways, 510 F.3d 442, 450 (4th
Cir. 2007) (citing Edwards v. City of Goldsboro, 178 F.3d 231, 243–44 (4th Cir. 1999)).
Nevertheless, courts may consider matters of the public record and documents attached to the
complaint and motion to dismiss, “so long as they are integral to the complaint and authentic.”
Philips v. Pitt Cty. Mem’l Hosp., 572 F.3d 176, 180 (4th Cir. 2009) (emphasis added). The
consideration of other documents can have the effect of converting a Rule 12(b)(6) motion into
dismiss into a Rule 56 motion for summary judgment. Bosiger, 510 F.3d at 450.
At this stage in the litigation, it would be imprudent to consider New’s first attachment,
the meeting minutes. The document is neither part of the public record nor integral to the First
Amended Complaint—seeing as neither this committee nor this meeting are mentioned in the
First Amended Complaint. Phillips, 572 F.3d at 180; see also Am. Chiropractic Ass’n v. Trigon
Healthcare, Inc., 367 F.3d 212, 234 (4th Cir. 2004) (considering a document attached to a
motion to dismiss if it is “integral to and explicitly relied on in the complaint” (emphasis
Rather, the attachment is a record from a meeting, which purports to contradict the
allegations in the First Amended Complaint. 4 Such factual disputes are improper at the 12(b)(6)
stage because the Court is instructed to “accept all well-pleaded allegations in the plaintiff’s
complaint as true.” Chao, 415 F.3d at 346. Consideration of New’s attachment would run the
risk of converting the present motion into a Rule 56 summary judgment motion—which is
imprudent at this time because the parties have not have had “ample opportunity to present
material.” Bosiger, 510 F.3d at 450. Accordingly, the Court will disregard New’s attachment.
If he so chooses, New can submit this (and other) evidence that purports to refute the allegations
of the First Amended Complaint in a subsequent summary judgment motion.
Second, New has attached the Stock Purchase Agreement, (dkt. 41-2), which—in his
view—demonstrates that New merely signed the agreement “in his capacity as a Senior Trust
Officer of Evolve.” (Dkt. 41 at 4). Notwithstanding the question of whether the Court can
properly consider this document, New exaggerates the document’s value at this stage in the
litigation. The Secretary has never argued—nor does the law require a plaintiff to show—that
New was acting in his personal capacity, ultra vires, or separate and apart from Evolve. Rather,
the Secretary simply needs to demonstrate that New exercised individual discretionary functions
Additionally, it is not clear that the meeting minutes alone—even if considered by the
Court—would be enough to effectively rebut the Secretary’s claim that New was a fiduciary.
The minutes do not definitely establish that New lacked discretionary authority or was
performing “only ministerial functions.” Custer, 89 F.3d at 1163. On the contrary, the minutes
merely note that New was authorized to “negotiate and accept the transactional trustee
appointment” without additional details about the extent of New’s negotiating authority. (Dkt.
41-3 at 1). The act of negotiating and accepting a deal could be construed as a discretionary,
rather than ministerial, act—depending on the circumstances.
in approving the stock price. Custer, 89 F.3d at 1161. Signing as “Sr. Trust Officer” merely
demonstrates that he was acting on behalf of Evolve, (dkt. 41-2 at 9), it does not refute the
allegation that he possessed the individual discretionary authority to select the share price and
execute the transaction.
Finally, New attempts to refute the allegation that he was a fiduciary because “Arkansas
banking regulations require that the administration of fiduciary powers be directed by the board, or
a fiduciary committee properly delegated authority by the Board.” (Dkt. 41 at 9). Because the
Court can take judicial notice of the law, United States v. O’Neal, 168 F.3d 484 (4th Cir. 1999),
this argument warrants consideration. However, this assertion can be easily dispensed, as New
mischaracterizes the law at issue. The Arkansas Administrative Code states, “[T]he board of
directors may assign . . . the administration of such of the bank’s fiduciary powers as it may
consider proper to assign to such directors, officers, employees or committees as it may designate.”
Code Ark. R. 210.00.7-47-701.9(c)(1)(A) (emphasis added). The plain language of this passage
demonstrates that, although the board may delegate its authority to a committee, it may also
delegate its authority to individual officers or employees. Accordingly, the Court will disregard
this argument and accept the Secretary’s factual allegations as true for the purpose of this motion.
Defendant New comes before the Court asking that he be dismissed from the case
because he claims that he was not a fiduciary under ERISA with respect to the transaction in
question. In support of his argument, New relies on a misreading of the statutory provisions and
case law defining an ERISA fiduciary, and he provides documentary evidence that is not proper
for a Rule 12(b)(6) motion. Such factual disputes are not appropriate at this stage. Taking all
allegations in the First Amended Complaint as true, the Court holds that the Secretary has pled
facts sufficient to establish New as a de facto fiduciary beyond the “speculative level.” Twombly,
550 U.S. at 570. Accordingly, Defendant New’s motion to dismiss will be DENIED.
The Clerk of the Court is hereby directed to send a certified copy of this Memorandum
Opinion to Plaintiff, Defendants, and all counsel of record. An appropriate Order will issue.
Entered this _____ day of May, 2017.
Disclaimer: Justia Dockets & Filings provides public litigation records from the federal appellate and district courts. These filings and docket sheets should not be considered findings of fact or liability, nor do they necessarily reflect the view of Justia.
Why Is My Information Online?