Through a series of recent settlements, the US Department of Labor has outlined the process steps fiduciaries should follow in connection with a transaction involving a purchase from, or sale to, an employee stock ownership plan.
Emily Rickard focuses her practice on executive compensation and employee benefits, and has devoted a substantial portion of her practice to assisting employers in implementing and maintaining employee stock ownership plans (ESOPs). She has represented companies, inside ESOP trustees, and outside ESOP trustees in buy-side and sell-side transactions, as well as in ongoing ESOP compliance matters. Read Emily Rickard's full bio.
Since the announcement by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) that sponsors of individually designed retirement plans may no longer receive a periodic determination letter, plan sponsors have faced uncertainty about how to demonstrate compliance for their retirement plans. Our McDermott Retirement Plan Compliance Program, a new opinion letter and operational review program for individually designed 401(a) and 403(b) retirement plans, will allow plan sponsors to document their plans’ compliance with tax code requirements in response to the curtailment of the IRS’ determination letter program.
In October 2016, the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) sued the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in the US District Court for the District of Columbia seeking an injunction against the latest iteration of wellness program regulations. The final EEOC regulations issued last year offer employers a roadmap for offering employee wellness programs that pass muster as “voluntary” examinations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (GINA). In response, AARP argued that the EEOC failed to adequately justify the new rules and abused its regulatory power by reversing course on its long-standing position against wellness programs.
Employee Stock Ownership Plans (ESOPs) are becoming a popular—and tax effective—way for companies to manage succession planning. When structured properly an ESOP can provide huge financial benefits to companies and their employees alike. There have been several craft brewers who have taken advantage of the ESOP structure in the past year, and we expect this trend to pique the interest of craft distilleries. In this article, originally published in Artisan Spirit, Marc E. Sorini and Emily Rickard explore at a very high level some of the issues involved with starting and maintaining a craft distillery ESOP.
Offering employer stock in a 401(k) plan investment lineup can seem like a win-win situation. It can enable employees to become company owners—real, skin-in-the-game, participants in their employer’s economic future—through a simple deferral election. The U.S. Supreme Court has even recognized the value of employer stock funds, confirming that Congress sought to encourage their creation through provisions and standards contained in the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”).
However, in the wake of a series of high-profile employee lawsuits seeking recovery against Enron, Lehman Brothers, and other employers for losses from 401(k) investments in employer stock, such funds can—almost as easily—seem a recipe for disaster. This article examines the quandary that employer stock funds pose for plan sponsors, who must navigate ERISA’s careful balance of (1) ensuring fair and prompt enforcement of employee rights under employer-provided retirement plans while (2) encouraging employer creation of these plans.
Originally published in Bloomberg Law, May 25, 2017
The future of the fiduciary rule—originally set to be implemented this upcoming April—remains uncertain after the White House directed the United States Department of Labor (DOL) to reevaluate, defer implementation and consider rescinding the controversial new fiduciary rule on February 3, 2017. In response to the White House, the acting US Secretary of Labor announced that the DOL will now consider its legal options to delay the applicability date to comply with the President’s directive. McDermott’s ERISA practice will closely monitor these developments and provide additional guidance as it becomes available.
On June 29, 2016, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) officially sounded the death knell for the five-year remedial amendment cycle with its release of Revenue Procedure 2016-37. Effective January 1, 2017, employers that sponsor an individually designed qualified retirement plan—a group that includes most large retirement plans—may no longer request periodic determination letters. Instead, the IRS will continue to conduct random audits to assess plan compliance with plan document operational requirements.
The IRS will continue to conduct random audits to assess plan compliance with plan document operational requirements. Beginning in 2017, the IRS expects plan sponsors to amend written plan documents in accordance with Revenue Procedure 2016‑37 and without reliance on a determination letter. In the context of an audit, a plan sponsor may rely on a plan’s last favorable determination letter, but only with respect to provisions that have not been amended since the last issued determination letter. Sponsors of individually designed plans must develop new means for assuring they comply with the qualification requirements in the wake of Revenue Procedure 2016-37.
Though the Supreme Court’s 2014 unanimous ruling in Fifth Third Bank v. Dudenhoeffer announced the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) standards for stock valuation in the context of a large public employee stock ownership plan (ESOP), the vast majority of ESOPs are still grappling with valuation issues. ESOPs that hold stock of closely-held corporations—approximately 90% of all ESOPs— remain almost unaffected by Dudenhoeffer’s valuation discussions, and face continued scrutiny by the Department of Labor (DOL). Appraisal of closely-held stock is an inexact science that involves an inherent level of uncertainty in assessing a variety of potential fact patterns.
This article summarizes valuation issues in acquisitions of closely-held corporation stock by ESOPs in the context of Perez v. Bruister, a recently decided Fifth Circuit case. The case stressed the importance of ‘‘process’’ in valuation determinations being utilized for acquisitions of a corporation’s stock by an ESOP. In reviewing the case, this article provides a detail of the process that should be followed to ensure consideration of the appropriate factors by fiduciaries in reviewing valuations for ESOP transactions. The article concludes with a discussion of guidance provided by the court in Bruister that may be instructive as to best practices for ESOP fiduciaries charged with establishing the value to be used by an ESOP holding shares of stock of a private company.
On January 25, 2016, the Supreme Court of the United States issued a per curiam opinion in Amgen Inc. v. Harris, holding that the Amgen, Inc. employees who filed suit after the value of the employer stock in which they had invested dramatically decreased, failed to sufficiently plead a breach of fiduciary duty claim under ERISA in light of the Court’s decision last term in Fifth Third Bancorp v. Dudenhoeffer.