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Disability Plan Can Disclose Disputed Substance Abuse Problem to Employer Without Violating ERISA

A former employee alleged that Aetna, as administrator of FedEx’s short-term disability plan, breached its fiduciary duty under ERISA when Aetna reported to FedEx that the employee filed a disability claim for substance abuse and Aetna later failed to correct this report. FedEx’s drug policy stated that the disability vendor (Aetna) would notify FedEx when an employee sought benefits for substance abuse. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit found that compliance with FedEx’s policy could not constitute a breach of fiduciary duty and Aetna had not provided inaccurate information to FedEx and thus the appeals court upheld the district court’s summary judgment on the claim. Williams v. FedEx Corp. Services and Aetna Life Ins. Co., No 16-4032 (10th Cir. Feb. 24, 2017)

DOL Delays New Fiduciary Duty Rule

In proposed regulations recently released, the DOL delayed the effective date of its new fiduciary duty rule and related exemptions by 60 days, from April 10, 2017 to June 9, 2017. The DOL’s announcement follows a presidential memorandum issued on February 3, 2017, directing the DOL to reconsider the new fiduciary duty rule to determine whether it may adversely affect the ability of individuals to gain access to retirement information and financial advice. The 60-day extension is intended to give the DOL time to collect information and to consider comments it receives related to issues raised in the presidential memorandum before the rule and exemptions become effective. For additional information on the fiduciary duty rule in its current form, please see our blog post. View the proposed regulations.

En Banc Ninth Circuit Applies Ongoing Duty to Monitor Investments Standard in Tibble

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, sitting en banc, recently held that plaintiffs’ breach of fiduciary duty claims were not barred by ERISA’s six year limitations period, even when the retirement plan investments in question were selected by the plan’s fiduciary more than six years prior to plaintiffs’ suit. The Ninth Circuit applied the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in this case, which confirmed that fiduciaries have an ongoing fiduciary duty to monitor investments in retirement plans and to remove imprudent ones. (For additional information on the Supreme Court’s decision, please see our prior post.) The Ninth Circuit distinguished between a fiduciary’s duty to prudently select investment alternatives from the fiduciary’s duty to prudently monitor them. Consequently, a fiduciary’s ongoing duty to monitor plan investments could result in a series of breaches as an investment alternative is retained over time. The Ninth Circuit remanded the case back… Continue Reading

Federal District Court Orders Owner to Disgorge His Cars

A recent federal district court case demonstrates the risk to an ERISA fiduciary’s personal assets when he commits a fiduciary breach. The court previously held that the former owner of a privately-held company engaged in a prohibited transaction and breached his fiduciary duties when he sold shares of company stock to his company’s leveraged ESOP at prices in excess of its fair market value. The district court required the owner to provide assets, including several cars, as security in conjunction with his motion to stay enforcement of the judgment pending appeal, stipulating that if the judgment were upheld, the security would be transferred to the plaintiffs. When the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit upheld the judgment, the owner refused to turn over the assets. The district court is now ordering the owner to turn over the assets despite any hardship that it may cause the owner. Perez… Continue Reading

Safeguards to Defend Against Conflict of Interest Allegations in the Administration of ERISA Welfare Benefit Claims

In cross-motions for summary judgment in Geiger v. Aetna Life Insurance Company, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit considered whether Aetna, the designated claims fiduciary and insurer of disability benefits provided under an employer-sponsored ERISA welfare benefit plan, abused its discretion when it terminated the plaintiff’s disability benefits.  The plaintiff was a former employee of the employer-plan sponsor.  The terms of the plan specifically granted discretionary authority to Aetna with respect to determining benefits and construing the terms of the plan. However, the plaintiff alleged that Aetna had operated under a conflict of interest, as the party that both determined eligibility for and paid plan benefits, and thus abused its discretion in denying her claim.  In deciding that Aetna did not abuse its discretion, the Court considered the following four safeguards that Aetna had undertaken to minimize any conflict of interest: (i) Aetna obtained numerous independent physician… Continue Reading

DOL Provides Updated Guidance on Proxy Voting by Employee Benefit Plans

On December 28, 2016, the DOL released Interpretive Bulletin 2016-01 (the “Bulletin“), which provides updated guidance for ERISA plan fiduciaries with respect to the voting of proxies on individual securities held in employee benefit plan portfolios and the appropriateness of active engagement with corporate management by plan fiduciaries. In publishing the Bulletin, the DOL withdrew Interpretive Bulletin 2008-2 and generally reinstated the language of Interpretive Bulletin 94-2, with certain clarifications. The DOL was concerned that Interpretive Bulletin 2008-2 had been misunderstood in a manner that dissuaded plan fiduciaries from voting proxies and otherwise prudently exercising shareholders’ rights, particularly with respect to areas concerning environmental, social, and governance issues and active engagement with corporate management. View the Bulletin here. View a news release related to the Bulletin here.

DOL Issues Fiduciary Rule FAQs

The DOL has issued the first of several FAQs addressing the DOL’s new fiduciary rule, which was finalized in April 2016 (the “Rule”). The Rule, which will generally become effective on April 10, 2017, prohibits parties that provide fiduciary investment advice to plan sponsors, plan participants, and IRA owners from receiving payments that create conflicts of interest, unless the parties comply with a prohibited transaction exemption (“PTE”). The FAQs generally address how the Rule will be implemented and clarify a number of issues related to the new “best interest contract” and “principal transactions” PTEs. View the FAQs. View the DOL’s announcement of the FAQs.

Breach of Fiduciary Duty Class Action Targets Relatively Small 401(k) Plan

Over the past several months, high profile class action lawsuits have been filed against plan sponsors and fiduciaries of very large 401(k) plans alleging breaches of fiduciary duty related to excessive plan administrative fees and underperforming investment options. A new class action lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court of Minnesota raises concerns that plan sponsors and fiduciaries of relatively small 401(k) plans may also become targets of such suits. Similar to the class actions filed against fiduciaries of large 401(k) plans, plaintiffs in the case of Severson v. LaMettry’s Collision, Inc. allege their employer, its president, and its CFO breached their fiduciary duties by causing the employer’s 401(k) plan to pay excessive administrative fees, selecting imprudent classes of investments, and selecting investment options that were unnecessarily expensive. Unlike the other class actions, the LaMettry 401(k) plan is relatively small, having just over 100 participants and approximately $9.2 million in… Continue Reading

Fifth Circuit Addresses ERISA Fiduciary Duty of Appointing Fiduciary to Monitor an Appointed Fiduciary

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which includes Texas, upheld a district court judgment that the former owner of a privately-held company engaged in a prohibited transaction and breached his fiduciary duties of loyalty and prudence when selling shares of company stock to his former company’s leveraged employee stock ownership plan (“ESOP”) at prices in excess of the stock’s fair market value. Specifically, the court found that the owner influenced the outcome of the appraiser’s valuation of the stock to achieve a higher stock price, which resulted in the ESOP overpaying for the stock. The Fifth Circuit disagreed with the district court’s holding that the owner, who was also a trustee of the ESOP, breached his fiduciary duty to monitor the other two plan trustees whom he had appointed and whom he knew had breached their duties of loyalty and care. Perez v. Bruister, No. 14-60811 (5th… Continue Reading

U.S. Department of Labor Issues Final “Fiduciary” Rule

The DOL has issued a final regulation defining who is a “fiduciary” of an employee benefit plan under ERISA (including an individual retirement account (“IRA”)) as a result of giving investment advice to a plan or its participants or beneficiaries. The DOL also issued a number of related prohibited transaction exemptions (including the “Best Interest Contract Exemption” and the “Principal Transactions Exemption”) and amendments to certain current prohibited transaction exemptions. The final rule broadly treats persons who provide investment advice or recommendations for a fee or other compensation with respect to assets of an employee benefit plan or IRA as fiduciaries in a wide array of advice relationships. Although the final rule maintains the same essential framework as the proposed rule, it includes a number of changes and clarifications which the White House has indicated are efforts by the DOL to “[streamline] the rule and exemptions to reduce the compliance… Continue Reading

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