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The New DOL Fiduciary Rule – A Return to the Old with a New Proposed Prohibited Transaction Exemption

On June 29, 2020, the DOL issued its much anticipated new “fiduciary rule” under ERISA. The new rule is meant to replace the DOL’s previous fiduciary rule (and related exemptions) which went into effect in 2016 but was vacated by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in 2018. The new fiduciary rule is composed of two parts: (i) a final regulation which reaffirms and reinstates the five-part test for determining whether a person renders “investment advice” for purposes of ERISA (the “Reinstated Rule”), and (ii) a new prohibited transaction class exemption for investment advice fiduciaries based on the “impartial conduct standards” previously adopted by the DOL (the “Proposed Exemption”). Reinstated Rule The new rule amends the Code of Federal Regulations to reinstate the prior 1975 regulation which contained the five-part test for determining whether a financial institution or investment professional is a fiduciary for rendering “investment advice.”… Continue Reading

Have You Notified Participants of Extended Deadlines?

As noted in our prior post here, the U.S. Departments of Labor and Treasury recently issued a notice requiring all employee health and welfare benefit plans to disregard the period from March 1, 2020 until 60 days after the announced end of the COVID-19 National Emergency (or other announced date) when determining the deadline to request HIPAA special enrollment, elect COBRA coverage, make a COBRA premium payment, notify the plan of a COBRA qualifying event or determination of a disability, file a benefit claim or appeal, or request an external review of a benefit claim denial. Although the notice did not address whether plan participants needed to be notified of these extended deadlines, plan administrators should be aware that they likely have a fiduciary duty to accurately convey this information to participants. For example, a COBRA election notice that states a deadline to elect or make premium payments without mentioning… Continue Reading

The DOL Says Certain Private Equity Investments May Be Permissible Designated Investment Alternatives Under Individual Accounts Plans

On June 3, 2020, the DOL issued an information letter addressing the possibility of including a private equity type investment as a “designated investment alternative” under a participant directed individual account plan. The DOL concluded that, as a general matter, “a plan fiduciary would not . . . violate [ERISA’s fiduciary duties] solely because the fiduciary offers a professionally managed asset allocation fund with a private equity component as a designated investment alternative for an ERISA covered individual account plan in the manner described in [the] letter.” The DOL observed that private equity investments “involve more complex organizational structures and investment strategies, longer time horizons, and more complex, and typically, higher fees” and they generally have “different regulatory disclosure requirements, oversight, and controls” and “often have no easily observed market value.” In addition to these considerations, the DOL listed several factors that plan fiduciaries should evaluate when considering whether a… Continue Reading

The Supreme Court Holds Participants in Fully-Funded Defined Benefit Plans Cannot Sue for Fiduciary Breach

The U.S. Supreme Court held Monday that participants in a fully-funded defined benefit plan have no standing to bring a lawsuit against plan fiduciaries for a breach of ERISA’s fiduciary requirements. In Thole, plan participants alleged that the plan fiduciaries had mismanaged funds and invested in imprudent investments causing the plan to lose approximately $748 million more than it otherwise should have during the 2008 recession. Subsequent to that date, the plan sponsor contributed an additional $311 million to the plan resulting in the plan becoming fully funded. The Court held that because the participants would receive the same benefits whether they won or lost the lawsuit, there was no controversy and, therefore, the participants had no standing under Article III of the U.S. Constitution to bring a civil action under Sections 502(a)(2) or 502(a)(3) of ERISA. Thole v. U.S. Bank N.A., No. 17–1712 (U.S. June 1, 2020) can be… Continue Reading

Fifth Circuit Holds that Offering Single Stock Investments in a 401(k) Plan is Not Per-Se Imprudent

Following a spinoff, a 401(k) plan continued to offer the employer stock fund of the predecessor parent company as an investment alternative, but closed it to new investments. After the share price fell by approximately 50%, the participants brought a lawsuit against the plan fiduciaries claiming, among other things, that the fiduciary breached its duty to diversify under ERISA Section 404(a)(1)(C) by retaining the stock fund as an investment alternative. The District Court dismissed the case and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit upheld the dismissal. The Fifth Circuit held that although the stock of the former parent was not statutorily exempt from ERISA’s diversification because it was no longer a “qualifying employer security”, there was no obligation for the plan fiduciaries to force plan participants to divest from the funds. The court explained that ERISA contains no per se prohibition on individual account plans offering single-stock… Continue Reading

DOL Issues Relief for Plan Fiduciaries

The DOL’s Employee Benefits Security Administration (“EBSA”) recently issued EBSA Disaster Relief Notice 2020-01. Notice 2020-01 applies to employee benefit plans, employers, labor organizations, and other plan sponsors, plan fiduciaries, participants and beneficiaries, and service providers subject to ERISA. Notice 2020-01 remains in effect from March 1, 2020 until 60 days after the announcement of the end of the presidentially declared national emergency due to COVID-19 (the “National Emergency”). Untimely Notice Relief Fiduciaries of ERISA plans generally have an obligation to provide notices and disclosures in accordance with the timing requirements of ERISA. However, under Notice 2020-01, the employee benefit plan and the responsible plan fiduciary will not be considered to violate ERISA for failing to timely furnish a notice, disclosure, or document that must be furnished between March 1, 2020 and 60 days after the announced end of the National Emergency, if the plan and responsible fiduciary act in… Continue Reading

Employers Take Note of Suspended COBRA Deadlines due to COVID-19

The U.S. Departments of Labor and the Treasury recently issued a joint notice promulgating final rules that take effect immediately upon publication in the Federal Register (the “Notice”). The Notice suspends a number of deadlines for employer-sponsored, group health plans, including deadlines under COBRA. The extension period is from March 1, 2020 until 60 days after the federal government announces the end of the COVID-19 national emergency or other date announced by the DOL (the “Outbreak Period”). The Outbreak Period is disregarded in determining whether the following COBRA deadlines have been met: (i) the date by which an individual must notify the plan of a COBRA qualifying event or disability determination, (ii) the 60-day period to elect COBRA coverage, and (iii) the deadline to make COBRA premium payments. Group health plans were also offered relief via the suspension of the deadline for providing COBRA election notices to COBRA qualified beneficiaries.… Continue Reading

PBGC Adds Fiduciary Breaches to Mediation Program

In 2017, the PBGC introduced a program that offered voluntary mediation with certain termination liability collection and Early Warning Program cases. The program was made permanent and was expanded to include fiduciary breach cases in 2019. Mediation is offered to eligible plan sponsors either with the demand letter (for fiduciary breach cases) or at the outset of mediation (for Early Warning Program cases) or after review of the information disclosed to the PBGC under 29 C.F.R. § 4062.6 (for termination liability cases). View the PBGC Mediation Program.

Plan Agent’s Misstatements, Plus a Deficient SPD, May Equal an ERISA Fiduciary Breach

A recent opinion issued by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit highlights the adverse consequences that may arise when an employer sponsor of a group health plan that is subject to ERISA fails to maintain a summary plan description of the plan (“SPD”) that is clearly written and that adequately and accurately describes the benefits available under the plan and the terms and conditions of coverage. Case Summary “In re: Emily DeRogatis” is a decision out of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Under the facts of this case, Mrs. DeRogatis, the widow of a deceased participant in a multiemployer group health plan, filed a breach of fiduciary duty claim under ERISA against the plan administrator, asserting that prior to her husband’s death, they were provided misinformation by two non-fiduciary, “ministerial” plan representatives (the “Representatives”) regarding the effect of Mr. DeRogatis’s retirement on their… Continue Reading

Fifth Circuit Opinion Clarifies Legal Claims Distinction under ERISA

In Manuel v. Turner Industries Group, L.L.C., the U.S Circuit Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit (whose jurisdiction includes Texas) considered various claims under ERISA that were brought by Michael Manuel, a former employee of Turner Industries (“Turner”). His claims were brought against Turner and Prudential, the insurer and claims fiduciary under Turner’s long-term disability benefits plan, and related to a denial of benefits to Manuel under that plan. One of his claims was for breach of fiduciary duty asserted against Turner under Section 502(a)(3) of ERISA (the “Equitable Relief Provision”) based on Manuel’s argument that the plan’s SPD omitted the pre-existing condition exclusion contained in the plan document that was the basis for Prudential’s denial of his benefits claim, and thus Manuel relied to his detriment on a deficient SPD. Citing Fifth Circuit and U.S. Supreme Court precedent under ERISA, the Fifth Circuit reiterated the standing rule that… Continue Reading

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