401(k) investors sue Enron
Employees who lost their retirement funds on company's shares fight back.
HOUSTON (Reuters) - After climbing utility poles in all kinds of weather for 35 years, Roy Rinard was hoping to retire in a few years. But that was before the collapse of|
Enron Corp.'s stock price devoured his retirement savings.
"I'm basically wiped out," said Rinard, 54, who works for Portland General Electric, an Oregon utility company acquired by the Houston-based energy trading firm in 1997.
"I'm right back to ground zero and I'll have to go on working as long as I can," said Rinard, who suffers from arthritis and a lung condition that leaves him short of breath.
Encouraged by Enron's then-strong performance and the company's bullish view of its future prospects, Rinard moved all of the money invested in his 401(k) retirement account into Enron stock earlier this year.
But it proved to be a costly decision as the value of his account fell from $470,000 a year ago to around $40,000 today.
Rinard now hopes a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Houston will recover at least some of his money.
The suit, filed on behalf of Enron (ENE: down $0.66 to $4.05, Research, Estimates) employees by Seattle-based law firm Hagens Berman, alleges that Enron breached its fiduciary duty by encouraging its employees to invest heavily in Enron stock without warning them of the risks in doing so.
It is the third lawsuit filed on behalf of Enron employees, who have lost an estimated $850 million on Enron stock held in their 401(k) retirement accounts. The suits allege the company breached its fiduciary duty to employees by encouraging them to invest in its stock at artificially inflated prices. All three suits see class-action status.
Enron's stock, which peaked at $90 in August 2000, closed at $4.74 Friday, after falling sharply in recent weeks amid a series of damaging financial disclosures.
A broadly similar suit filed by the Keller Rohrback law firm, also of Seattle, alleges that another Enron employee, Pamela Tittle, lost $140,000 on Enron stock held in her retirement account.
According to that suit, the Enron retirement savings plan had assets worth $2.1 billion at the end of last year, including $1.3 billion, or 62 percent of the total, in Enron stock.
Doubts about Dynegy deal
Enron, once a Wall Street favorite, agreed to be bought earlier this month by smaller energy trading rival Dynegy Inc. (DYN: down $1.04 to $39.36, Research, Estimates), but continuing problems at Enron have caused some analysts to question whether the deal will be completed.
Doubts also have been expressed about a planned sale of Portland General to Northwest Natural Gas (NWN: down $0.46 to $24.53, Research, Estimates) .
Hagens Berman plans to seek class-action status for its suit and says 21,000 Enron employees could be eligible to join it.
The suit alleges that Enron "locked down" 401(k) retirement accounts on Oct. 17, preventing employees from changing the investments they held in their accounts until Nov. 19.
During that period Enron reported its first quarterly loss in four years and took a charge of $1.2 billion against stockholders' equity as a result of off-balance-sheet deals that later came under investigation by U.S. regulators.
In that time, Enron shares fell from $30.72 at the close of trading Oct. 16 to $11.69 Nov. 19.
Enron spokeswoman Karen Denne said employees' access to the accounts was blocked as part of a previously planned change in the administration of the retirement plan and that the measure was in effect from Oct. 26. to Nov. 19.
Steve Lacey, a 45-year-old emergency repair dispatcher who has worked for Portland General Electric for 21 years, said the measure came at a time when bad news about Enron was flying thick and fast, driving the stock price down at a dizzying pace.
"We couldn't take our money out of Enron stock into another portfolio. Basically they had us locked down to where we had no say over our own future," he said.
Lacey declined to quantify his own losses but said he and many of his colleagues had invested most of their retirement funds in Enron stock because it had performed better in the past than the other investments available under the Enron plan.
Denne said Enron employees normally were able to choose among 18 different investment options, but Enron's matching contributions were always made in the form of its own stock.
Lacey said he felt sorry for older colleagues at Portland General who had suffered a heavy financial blow just before they were due to retire, adding that he was only beginning to realize how serious the consequences could be for himself.
"My goal was to have an extremely comfortable retirement, and that may be a little clouded now," he said.
Meanwhile, on Monday, a Washington, D.C., lawyer who filed one of the lawsuits said he hopes heavy losses suffered by Enron employees will spur Congress to limit employee investments in their employers' stock through 401 (k) retirement plans.
"How many workers have to lose both their jobs and their retirement savings before Congress steps in and puts a stop to this by placing a cap on the amount of company stock that can be in a 401 (k) plan?" lawyer Eli Gottesdiener asked.
Like many other companies, Enron makes matching contributions to its employees' 401 (k) retirement accounts in its own stock. It also requires them to hold the stock they receive in matching contributions until they turn 50.
Enron employees also were prevented from selling Enron stock held in retirement accounts for several weeks from mid-October due to a change in the retirement plan's administrator.
Gottesdiener said investment advisors recommend investing no more than 15 percent of a portfolio in a single stock, but that participants in 401(k) plans offering employer stock as a choice typically hold 33 percent of their portfolio in that stock.
"Congress sensibly placed a 10 percent limit on company stock in traditional defined benefit plans back in 1974, but at the behest of the corporate lobby, it placed no such cap on defined contribution plans," he said.
The absence of such a cap in defined-contribution 401(k) plans was "completely indefensible," he said.
Gottesdiener's suit alleges that Enron violated federal securities law by offering and selling Enron stock to employees without issuing a prospectus. If proven, this would give workers the right to reverse their purchases, he said.