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Reminder: A Severance Policy Could be an ERISA Plan

As the coronavirus pandemic continues, many employers have been forced to reduce their workforce, oftentimes paying some form of severance to their employees. One area that continues to cause confusion among employers is whether their severance policy is an employee benefit plan subject to ERISA. Generally, informal arrangements that feature one-time payments in response to ad hoc situations and that do not have an ongoing administrative scheme will not be subject to ERISA. However, it is not always clear when such arrangements become “employee benefit plans” that are subject to ERISA. It is generally not to the employer’s advantage to have its severance strategy characterized as an informal arrangement not subject to ERISA. For example, the beneficiary of such an arrangement would be able to sue in state court for benefits, which could expose the employer to larger damage awards than are available under ERISA. Employers should ask their counsel… Continue Reading

IRS Relief Allows Individuals to Make Participant Elections Electronically

Treasury Regulations § 1.401(a)-21(d)(6) requires participant elections, including spousal consents, to be witnessed in the physical presence of a plan representative or notary public.  In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the IRS recently issued Notice 2020-42 (the “Notice”) to allow individuals making participant elections to do so through electronic means for the period from January 1, 2020 through December 31, 2020.  For participant elections, including spousal consents, that require a signature to be witnessed in the physical presence of a notary public, the “physical presence” requirement is satisfied if remote notarization is done through live audio-video technology that otherwise satisfies the requirements of Treasury Regulations § 1.401(a)-21(d)(6) and is compliant with state law applicable to notaries.  For participant elections, including spousal consents, that require a signature to be witnessed in the physical presence of a plan representative, the “physical presence” requirement is satisfied if (i) the person signing the participant… Continue Reading

Cases Highlight Importance of Governing Law Clauses in ERISA Plan Documents

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit recently held that the choice of law provision contained in a long-term disability insurance policy (the “LTD Policy”) controlled when determining which state law applied to the case. The LTD Policy, which was subject to regulation under ERISA as an employee benefit plan, stated that it was governed by the law of Pennsylvania, where Comcast (the employer) was incorporated and had its principal place of business. The employee argued that Colorado law controlled, because Colorado is where the employee worked for Comcast and filed the lawsuit. This was important because Colorado insurance law prohibited granting discretion to the plan administrator to interpret the LTD Policy, whereas Pennsylvania law did not prohibit this deferential standard. Generally, a plan administrator’s denial of benefits under an ERISA plan is reviewed by a court de novo (i.e., without deference being paid to the plan administrator’s… Continue Reading

IRS Issues Memorandum Providing Guidance on Income Inclusion, FICA, and Income Tax Withholding for Stock-Settled Equity Awards

The IRS recently issued Generic Legal Advice Memorandum No. AM 2020-004 (the “GLAM”) to address when income from nonqualified stock options, stock-settled stock appreciation rights, and stock-settled restricted stock units is (i) includable in an employee’s gross income, (ii) subject to FICA taxes, and (iii) subject to federal income tax withholding. In addition, the GLAM provides a discussion of the deposit rules for FICA and income tax withholdings that have been withheld with respect to such equity awards, including the “One-Day” rule (or the Next-Day Deposit Rule) that requires employers to deposit employment taxes on the next banking day after $100,000 or more in employment taxes have been accumulated. The GLAM provides a series of illustrative examples and analyses of such issues. The GLAM does not, however, address the impact of an employer’s ability to defer employment tax deposits under Section 2302 of the Coronavirus, Aid, Relief and Economic Security… Continue Reading

IRS Issues Proposed Rule on Withholding from Periodic Payments from Pensions and Annuities

Under Section 3405(e)(2) of the Internal Revenue Code, withholding from periodic payments from pensions and annuities is determined under rules prescribed by the Secretary of the Treasury. Currently, under IRS Notice 2020–3, if no withholding certificate is in effect, the required withholding amount is determined by treating the payee as a married individual claiming three withholding exemptions. Under the proposed rule, beginning in 2021, the required withholding amount will be determined in the manner described in the applicable forms, instructions, publications, and other guidance prescribed by the IRS Commissioner (e.g., the annual Publication 15-T and instructions to Form W-4P). The Proposed Rule can be found here.

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

PPP Loans: SBA Releases New Loan Forgiveness Application and Instructions

The Small Business Administration (“SBA”) recently released a form Loan Forgiveness Application and instructions related to the potentially forgivable loans made under the Paycheck Protection Program (“PPP”). PPP loans are generally forgivable if, among other things, the loan proceeds are used to cover certain payroll costs incurred over the eight-week period after the loan is made (for additional information on PPP loans, see our prior blog posts here, here, here, and here). To apply for the forgiveness of a PPP loan, borrowers should complete a Loan Forgiveness Application, which can be completed in either paper or electronic form, and then send the completed application to its lender. The Loan Forgiveness Application and instructions are available here. For additional information on the Loan Forgiveness Application and other recent SBA Guidance, see the following Haynes and Boone article: SBA Issues New Guidance via Interim Final Rule on Foreign Affiliates; Releases Loan Forgiveness… Continue Reading

The DOL Announces Final Rule for Electronic Delivery of ERISA-Required Retirement Plan Disclosures

The DOL recently announced a final rule which provides an additional “Notice-and Access” safe harbor for plan administrators to electronically deliver ERISA-required notices and disclosures. The final rule is substantially similar to the proposed rule (which we discussed in a previous blog post here). Under the final rule, plan administrators may electronically deliver certain “covered documents” to “covered individuals” with electronic addresses by (i) posting the covered documents on a website and sending a notice of Internet availability (“NOIA”) to the covered individual’s electronic address or (ii) sending covered documents directly to a covered individual’s electronic address. The NOIA may be sent on an annual basis, describing multiple covered documents, and must include (x) a description of the covered documents being posted, (y) the address of or hyperlink to the website where the covered documents are posted, and (iii) information about the covered individual’s right to request covered documents in… Continue Reading

Use Care When Implementing CARES Act Retirement Plan Distributions – State Law and Benefit Offset Concerns

As we have previously reported on our blog here and here, the CARES Act provided relief to participants in retirement plans by allowing employers to amend their retirement plans to include certain coronavirus-related distributions and to permit increased loan amounts for certain qualified individuals. Many employers have agreed to adopt these changes, and under federal law, the treatment of these distributions is clear. But there are other issues that employers and employees should consider, including: The coronavirus-related distributions could be subject to taxation under state law, even if the employee later repays the distribution to the plan; and If employees are receiving unemployment and/or disability benefits, the coronavirus-related distributions may reduce or offset these benefits. However, the enhanced loans would not be subject to taxation and may not offset unemployment and disability benefits, which may make the enhanced loan a better option for employees who anticipate paying back the distribution.… Continue Reading

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