COVID-19: Retraite Québec’s temporary easing measures and the fiduciary duties of pension plan administrators
So much has been written about COVID-19 in recent months. However, a decision by the Superior Court of Quebec on the scope of Retraite Québec’s easing measures has caught our attention. These measures, issued at the start of the crisis, concern the fiduciary duties of a pension plan administrator.
In the case of Bernard c. Association de bienfaisance et de retraite des policiers et policières de la Ville de Montréal¹, the value of a former employee’s (the “Plaintiff”) pension plan benefits dwindled due to the temporary easing measures issued by Retraite Québec on April 16, 2020 in reaction to the pandemic regarding the rules of payment of benefits (“easing measures”). The Plaintiff’s request to the plan administrator (the “Administrator”) for a refund of his benefits without any such reduction was refused.
The Plaintiff petitioned the Superior Court, requesting it to force the Administrator to refund his benefits without taking the easing measures into account. To support his claim, the Plaintiff alleges that the easing measures do not apply to him as his entitlements had already been crystallised at the time when such measures were issued. In any event, even if these measures did apply to him, they are not legally binding and could not have a retroactive impact on his entitlements. The Administrator’s position is that the easing measures apply to the payment of the Plaintiff’s benefits. Additionally, as a plan administrator, it must comply with the Supplemental Pension Plans Act, which confers to Retraite Québec the power to provide information in the form of general or specific instructions regarding the administration of the Act².
As this is an application for an interim injunction, the Superior Court first had to determine if the Plaintiff’s claims met all the criteria required to issue such an injunction, that is:
- the existence of a serious issue to be tried;
- the possibility of irreparable harm to the plaintiff if the injunction is not granted;
- the balance of inconvenience is in favour of the plaintiff; and
After review, the Court concluded that the criteria were not met.
In our view, the main interest of this decision lies in the Court’s analysis as to the existence of a serious issue to be tried, as it relates to the Administrator’s conduct regarding the easing measures. The Superior Court notes that even if the final judgment does not find the easing measures to be legally binding, it would be “reckless” for the Administrator to ignore them. To support this, the Court points out that as plan fiduciary, the Administrator must safeguard the fundamental interests of all members and exercise the prudence, diligence and skill that a reasonable individual would exercise in similar circumstances.
While only at the interim stage, this decision is of particular interest for plan administrators as to their fiduciary duty as regards directives issued by supervisory authorities, even assuming that such directives are not legally binding. The decision highlights the relevance, if not the importance, of the compliance with such directives when determining the fiduciary’s duty to act with prudence, diligence and skill.
¹ Bernard c. Association de bienfaisance et de retraite des policiers et policières de la Ville de Montréal, 2020 QCCS 1816 (CanLII), http://canlii.ca/t/j88wn (in French only).
² S. 246 (2) of the Supplemental Pension Plans Act.
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