While many workers in this time of economic instability and rampant layoffs are afraid to rock the boat by questioning their employers' decisions, recent lawsuits over high 401(k) fees have empowered some workers to ask their employers to offer lower-cost choices.

Most notably, lawsuits against Caterpillar and Hartford Life over excessive 401(k) fees were recently settled in investors’ favor, for $16.5 million and $13.8 million, respectively. In addition, another influential case, against Wal-Mart’s $11 billion plan, is pending.

As Towson, Md., investment adviser Joshua P. Itzoe told The Wall Street Journal, “A reasonable approach would be, if you have billions of dollars at your disposal to negotiate with mutual fund companies, that you’d do a better job of reducing fees significantly.”

Furthermore, recent court rulings seem to suggest that plans will have to make fees more transparent and break them out by costs for administration, transactions, revenue sharing and other items, noted Barry Barbash, a former director of the division of investment management at the Securities and Exchange Commission.

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