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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

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

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

Is it Time for an Investment Committee Tune-up?

Companies sponsoring a 401(k) plan to help their employees save for retirement often form an investment committee to help select plan investments without realizing the duties that the committee assumes.  To help prevent investment committee members from unintentionally breaching their fiduciary duties, companies periodically review their investment committee compliance and should keep complete records of appointments, policies, and procedures.  The following investment committee checklist can be a starting point for this review: Review the underlying plan document to determine who it lists as the “named fiduciary”.  Most plan documents provided by third party administrators list the “plan sponsor” as the named fiduciary, which means the board of directors is the governing body responsible for acting as a fiduciary, absent a delegation of such fiduciary responsibility by the board of directors to a committee.  If your plan lists the “plan sponsor” as the named fiduciary and you have a committee selecting… Continue Reading

Delegating Fiduciary Duties Under ERISA Plans

The recent decision in Hampton v. National Union by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois highlights the importance of following the provisions in ERISA plan documents for delegating fiduciary duties to entities acting as plan fiduciaries, such as third-party service providers and insurers. Following the death of her husband, who was an employee of The Boeing Company (“Boeing”), the plaintiff sought to recover accidental death and dismemberment benefits under insurance policies sponsored by Boeing, for which she was the sole designated beneficiary. After National Union, which underwrote and co-administered the policies with AIG Claims, Inc., denied the plaintiff’s initial benefits claim, as well as her appeal of such denial, the plaintiff brought suit under ERISA. The plaintiff argued that the court should apply a de novo standard of review (i.e., no deference given to the plan fiduciary’s prior decisions) because National Union did not have discretionary… Continue Reading

Proposed Rule Addressing Fiduciary Duties of Prudence and Exclusive Purpose with Respect to Proxy Voting and the Exercise of Shareholder Rights

The DOL recently published a proposed rule (the “Proposed Rule”) that would amend the current investment duties regulations to provide guidance regarding how plan fiduciaries should exercise their duties of prudence and exclusive purpose with respect to proxy voting and the exercise of shareholder rights. Prior to the Proposed Rule, the DOL had addressed such fiduciary duties in sub-regulatory guidance and individual letters, which did not provide plan fiduciaries with consistent and clear guidance on how they must exercise their duties for proxy voting and other exercises of shareholder rights. Specifically, the Proposed Rule: Codifies the DOL’s long-standing position that plan “fiduciaries must carry out their duties prudently and solely in the interests of the participants and beneficiaries and for the exclusive purpose of providing benefits to participants and beneficiaries and defraying the reasonable expenses of administering the plan” when deciding whether, and when, to exercise shareholder rights, including the voting… Continue Reading

Review Investment Policy Statements for ESG Investment Compliance

The DOL recently updated its “investment duties” regulation to provide further guidance in light of recent trends in environmental, social, and governance (“ESG”) investing, which we previously posted on our blog here. As the DOL increases its investigations and inquiries into ESG investments held by retirement plans, plan fiduciaries should review their plan investments and policies to: (i) determine if their retirement plans hold any ESG-type investments, and (ii) if they do hold such investments, (a) review their investment policy statements (“IPS”) and evaluate whether such policies comply with the current rules for ESG investments (and will comply going forward with the DOL’s guidance), and (b) confirm whether such investments remain appropriate for the plan. Plan fiduciaries may need to consult with their financial/plan advisors to determine if ESG-type investments are currently held by their plan. If a plan holds ESG investments and the IPS does not address such investments,… Continue Reading

Cross-Plan Offsetting Practice is Challenged in Class Action Lawsuit

This class action lawsuit, styled Scott, et al. v. UnitedHealth Group, Inc., et al., was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota on July 14, 2020. This lawsuit follows the decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in Peterson v. UnitedHealth Group Inc. that was issued last year. In Scott, the plaintiffs, who were participants in the plans at issue in Peterson, filed, on behalf of a class of plaintiffs (the “Class”), a class action against UnitedHealth Group, Inc. and its wholly-owned subsidiaries (collectively, “UHC”), in their capacities as an insurer and/or third-party claims administrator of employer-sponsored group health plans. The lawsuit alleges the breach of UHC’s fiduciary duties under ERISA as related to UHC’s practice of “cross-plan offsetting.” The Class consists of participants and beneficiaries in all group health plans that are administered by UHC and contain “cross-plan offsetting” (collectively, the… Continue Reading

DOL Issues Proposed Rule to Amend the Investment Duties Regulation

The DOL recently issued a proposed rule to amend the “investment duties” regulation at found at 29 CFR 2550.404a-1 (the “Regulation”). The proposed rule would provide investment guidance to ERISA plan fiduciaries in light of recent trends in environmental, social, and governance (“ESG”) investing. ERISA requires plan fiduciaries to act “solely” in the interest of plan participants and beneficiaries and for the “exclusive purpose” of providing benefits and paying reasonable administrative expenses and prudently selecting investments for the plan. In the past, the DOL has periodically issued guidance addressing fiduciary duties under ERISA with respect to ESG-based investment decisions, including Interpretive Bulletin 94-1, which described a “tie-breaker standard,” whereby ESG considerations could be the deciding factor when competing investments served the plan’s economic interests equally. Later Interpretive Bulletins emphasized that it would be a violation of ERISA to accept reduced returns in favor of ESG goals, but that in certain cases,… Continue Reading

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