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Major companies settle lawsuits over 401k plans

More than 70 million workers and retirees have money in 401(k) plans, but in the last few years, several lawsuits have been filed against company plans by employees.

International Paper Co. recently settled for $30 million with 10 current and former employees over the compnay's 401(k) plans.  The suit claimed that the 401(k) plan offered violated federal law by charging high fees, among other issues. In a statement released to Marketplace, the company said, "The case in question was filed seven years ago and we are pleased to be able to put this behind us. This settlement agreement is not an admission of liability on behalf of the company."

Lawsuits against unfair fees and other practices in 401Ks have been a long time coming, according to St. Louis-based lawyer Jerry Schlichter. He represented workers from International Paper, among others.

This particular lawsuit started about seven years ago, when more and more clients came to Schlichter with questions about their complicated 401(k) plans. For attorneys, cases over retirement plans can be risky and expensive. And clients couldn't really figure out if there was a problem at all, because of how complicated their plans were.

After spending nearly two years digging through all the documents, Schlichter realized there was a case against International Paper. 

"[The 401 (k) system] puts the employee or retiree in the in the risk position," says Schlichter. "With little information, and little ability to appreciate what the information means."

"It starts with looking at the statements," he says. "Try to look at the expenses. Also, look at the comparison that most statements have to whatever the benchmark is that's comparing investment performance."

He goes on to explain, "If you have questions, you've got a right to go to your employer, whoever the 401(k) representative is, and ask those questions, 'What are the fees I'm paying? What is the benchmark used? Are you getting anything out of it?'"

Schlichter has brought similar lawsuits against other companies.  He says it is important for workers to understand their rights -- and their retirement accounts. 

About the author

Lizzie O'Leary is the new host of Marketplace Weekend.

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