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Guidance on Benefit Plan Cybersecurity Best Practices

Plan participants now enroll, change elections, review benefits, apply for plan loans and hardship distributions, and access account information through websites and cellphone apps. As electronic access to plan information has increased, so has the interest of hackers in obtaining the wealth of information stored electronically. Recently, the DOL’s Employee Benefits Security Administration (the “EBSA”) issued the following cybersecurity guidance documents to help plan sponsors comply with their duties to protect plan information: Tips for Hiring a Service Provider with Strong Cybersecurity Practices: These tips are intended to help plan sponsors and plan fiduciaries meet their duties under ERISA to prudently select and monitor service providers. They include a list of questions to ask and considerations to make when evaluating potential service providers. Cybersecurity Program Best Practices: This guidance provides a list of 12 best practices intended to help plan fiduciaries mitigate cybersecurity risks and make prudent decisions when selecting… Continue Reading

Voluntary Correction Program Applications – Best Practices

The IRS recently issued a list of the top errors it finds in Voluntary Correction Program (“VCP”) submissions, which is available here. The errors listed generally relate to issues associated with the submission of files in the correct PDF format, failing to pay the correct user fee, or the incorrect submission of the Form 8950. Filing a VCP application can be a useful method for plan sponsors to correct operational issues that have spanned numerous years or  other issues for which self-correction is unavailable. Errors in the submission can delay resolution of the application or, in some cases, cause a rejection of the application. In addition to the common errors outlined by the IRS, plan sponsors should also use care to avoid the following additional common issues: Failure to Submit a Comprehensive Filing – If one operational error is found, plan sponsors should conduct a self-audit prior to filing a… Continue Reading

Fifth Circuit Decision is a Reminder to Employers on Structuring Severance Plans

Last week’s decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in Atkins v. CB&I, LLC is a reminder that employers may prefer to structure bonus and severance programs so as to be covered by ERISA and thus avoid being subject to unfavorable state laws. In Atkins, five employees brought suit in Louisiana state court claiming their employer’s project incentive bonus plan—which pays a single bonus payment to employees who are laid off or complete their roles in a specific project—constituted an illegal wage forfeiture agreement under the Louisiana Wage Payment Act. Each of the employees had quit and consequently forfeited their bonuses under the plan’s terms. The employer removed the suit to federal district court claiming the bonus plan was a severance plan subject to ERISA and thus ERISA, as controlling federal law, preempted the employees’ state law claims. The district court agreed. The Fifth Circuit reversed… Continue Reading

The DOL Announces a Non-Enforcement Policy on Final ESG Investment and Proxy Voting Rules

On March 10, 2021, the DOL released an enforcement policy statement (the “Statement”), which announced that until the DOL publishes further guidance, it will not enforce the recently issued “Financial Factors in Selecting Plan Investments” final rule (the “ESG Rule”) and the “Fiduciary Duties Regarding Proxy Voting and Shareholder Rights” final rule (the “Proxy Voting Rule”, together with the ESG Rule referred to herein as, the “Final Rules”). The ESG Rule generally required plan fiduciaries to select investments and investment courses of action based solely on consideration of “pecuniary factors,” and the Proxy Voting Rule set forth a plan fiduciary’s obligations when voting proxies and exercising other shareholder rights in connection with plan investments. The implementation of the ESG Rule in particular has caused concerns for plan fiduciaries about the use of environment, social, and governance considerations in its investment decisions and has been met with increasing criticism from a… Continue Reading

Court Finds Exclusion for Autism Treatments Violates the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act

In Doe v. United Behavioral Health, No. 4:19-CV-07316-YGR (N.D. Cal. Mar. 5, 2021) a federal district court in California recently considered a plaintiff’s claim that an exclusion from coverage for “applied behavior analysis” and “intensive behavioral therapies” (the “ABA/IBT Exclusion”) used to assist children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (“Autism”) violated the federal Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act (the “Parity Act”). The plaintiff, as the representative of her minor son who was diagnosed with Autism, was covered under an employer-sponsored, self-funded group health plan subject to ERISA.  The court held that the ABA/IBT Exclusion violated the Parity Act for two reasons. First, the court found that the ABA/IBT Exclusion, on its face, created a separate treatment limitation applicable only to services for a mental health condition (in this case, Autism). Second, the court concluded that the ABA/IBT Exclusion constituted a more restrictive limitation for a mental health condition than… Continue Reading

DOL Increases Civil Monetary Penalties for Certain ERISA Violations

The DOL recently issued a final rule that adjusts for inflation the amounts of civil monetary penalties assessed or enforced in its regulations, including for certain ERISA violations. The adjusted penalty amounts apply to penalties assessed after January 15, 2021 and for which the associated violations occurred after November 2, 2015. Some of the penalties that were increased include the following: The maximum penalty for failing to properly file a pension or welfare benefit plan’s annual Form 5500 increased from $2,233 per day to $2,259 per day. The maximum penalty for failing to provide notices of blackout periods or of the right to divest employer securities increased from $141 per day to $143 per day (each statutory recipient is a separate violation). The maximum penalty for failing to provide employees the required Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) coverage notices increased from $119 per day to $120 per day (each employee… Continue Reading

Before Cleaning Out Files, Brush Up on Record Retention Requirements

Our world is filled with paper and electronic records, and the HR departments at most companies are no exception. Enrollment forms, notices, plan documents, summary plan descriptions, benefit statements, and service records are just a few of the records that fill the HR department’s file cabinets and computer storage. While it might be tempting to clean out files, plan sponsors should exercise care before disposing of any files relating to benefits under a plan. A clean desk today could create headaches tomorrow. Generally, ERISA requires an employer to retain plan records to support plan filings, including the annual Form 5500, for at least six years from the filing date (ERISA §107) and to maintain records for each employee sufficient to determine the benefits due or that may become due to such employee (ERISA §209), with no time limit on such requirement. In addition, HIPAA requires retention of the policies and… Continue Reading

DOL Issues Missing Participant Guidance

The DOL issued three pieces of guidance relating to missing participants in tax-qualified retirement plans. In response to the new guidance, described in more detail below, employers should again review their plan documents and any plan policies and procedures, to ensure they align with the DOL’s requirements and best practices for avoiding and handling missing participants. In Field Assistance Bulletin No. 2021-01, the DOL issued a temporary enforcement policy on the use of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation’s (“PBGC”) Defined Contribution Missing Participants Program for terminating defined contribution plans. Under the temporary enforcement policy, the DOL will not pursue violations under ERISA’s fiduciary rules if the plan fiduciary of a terminating defined contribution plan transfers the benefits of missing participants to the PBGC under the program and otherwise follows the requirements of the DOL fiduciary safe harbor regulation at 29 CFR 2550.404a-3. In Compliance Assistance Release No. 2021-01, the DOL issued… Continue Reading

New Year’s Resolutions to Ensure Proper ERISA Fiduciary and HIPAA Privacy Training

With the start of the new year, a good New Year’s resolution for employers that sponsor ERISA retirement and/or health and welfare benefit plans is to ensure that all current ERISA plan fiduciaries—including any new members of plan administrative and investment committees—have received up-to-date ERISA fiduciary training. ERISA litigation brought against individual plan fiduciaries has significantly increased in recent years. Plan fiduciaries assume responsibilities and make decisions that could potentially subject them to substantial personal liability. To mitigate this risk exposure, each committee member (or other ERISA plan fiduciary) should receive fiduciary training initially upon becoming a plan fiduciary and at least annually thereafter. Plan fiduciaries need to understand (i) when they are acting on behalf of the plan’s participants in a fiduciary capacity, (ii) the different fiduciary roles under a plan and how fiduciary liability can attach in different ways, (iii) the difference between fiduciary decisions and non-fiduciary (“settlor”)… Continue Reading

The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 and Benefits Changes Employers Need to Focus on Right Now

Retirement Plans Additional Relief May Help Prevent Partial Plan Terminations The recently adopted Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 (the “CAA”) provides relief for qualified retirement plans of employers that had to reduce their workforce as a result of the pandemic (through furloughs, layoffs, or terminations) for plan years that include the period beginning on March 13, 2020 and ending on March 31, 2021. Specifically, these plans shall not be treated as incurring a partial plan termination if the number of active participants covered by the plan on March 31, 2021 is at least 80% of the number of active participants that were covered by the plan on March 13, 2020. A partial plan termination generally occurs when more than 20% of a plan’s participants are terminated in a plan year. If a partial plan termination occurs, then the plan is required to 100% vest any “affected employees”. “Affected employees” are… Continue Reading

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