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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

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

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

IRS Issues Proposed Regulations Targeting Management Fee Waivers by Private Equity Funds

The Internal Revenue Service (the “IRS”) recently released proposed regulations providing that certain arrangements in which a service provider receives allocations of a partnership’s underlying income may be treated as compensatory payments for services under the Internal Revenue Code (the “Code”).  In releasing such regulations, the IRS is attempting to crack down on certain “management fee waiver” practices by private equity firms which try to convert management fees into profits interests in order to get capital gains treatment on such income as opposed to ordinary income treatment.  The proposed regulations provide a facts and circumstances test and factors to evaluate whether an arrangement should be treated as a disguised payment for services.  An arrangement that is recharacterized as a disguised payment for services under the proposed regulations will be treated as such for all purposes of the Code.  Such payment will be subject to tax at ordinary income tax rates,… Continue Reading

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