Chesemore v. Fenkell, No. 15-3740 (7th Cir. 2016)Annotate this Case
Trachte, a Wisconsin manufacturer, established an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) in the mid-1980s. In the late 1990s, Fenkell and his company, Alliance, began buying ESOP-owned, closely-held companies with limited marketability. Typically, Fenkell would merge the acquired company's ESOP into Alliance’s ESOP, hold the company for a few years with its management in place, and then spin it off at a profit. Alliance acquired Trachte in 2002 for $24 million and folded its ESOP into Alliance’s ESOP. Trachte’s profits, however, were flat and its growth stalled, so Fenkell arranged a complicated leveraged buyout involving creation of a new Trachte ESOP managed by trustees beholden to Fenkell. The accounts in the Alliance ESOP were spun off to the new Trachte ESOP, which used the employees’ accounts as collateral to purchase Trachte’s equity back from Alliance, Trachte and its new ESOP paid $45 million for Trachte’s stock and incurred $36 million in debt. The purchase price was inflated; the debt load was unsustainable. By the end of 2008, Trachte’s stock was worthless. The employee participants in the new ESOP sued Alliance, Fenkell, and trustees, alleging breach of fiduciary duty in violation of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act. The district court found the defendants liable, crafted a remedial order to make the class whole, awarded attorney’s fees, and approved settlements among some of the parties. Fenkell conceded liability. The Seventh Circuit affirmed the order requiring him to indemnify his cofiduciaries.