Erin Steele focuses her practice on employee benefits and executive compensation. She has experience working on matters related to employee stock ownership plans (ESOPs), code section 401(k) plans, health and welfare arrangements, and Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) litigation. She has also assisted in employee benefits matters as part of corporate transactional due diligence work. Read Erin Steele's full bio.

Several large employers are disputing how much money the New York Times owes a union multiemployer pension fund. Recently, six companies—including US Foods Inc. and United Natural Foods Inc.—filed an amicus brief supporting the New York Times in its case before the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Ruprecht Co., an Illinois meat processor, also filed its own brief in support of the New York Times.

Under the Employer Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), when determining an employer’s withdrawal liability, the actuarial assumptions and methods must “offer the actuary’s best estimate of the anticipated experience under the plan.” The underlying issue in this case involves an actuarial method called the “Segal Blend,” which often is used to value unfunded vested benefits and calculate withdrawal liability (an exit fee) from a union multiemployer pension plan. Under the Segal Blend, the actuary blends the multiemployer plan’s assumed interest rate on investments with a lower interest rate used by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation for terminating plans. Many multiemployer pension plans commonly use the Segal Blend to calculate an employer’s unfunded liability and payment upon exiting the multiemployer plan (known as “withdrawal liability”). These large employers claim that using the Segal Blend results in an artificially lower interest rate, which in turn results in larger employer withdrawal liability and larger amounts an employer must pay to exit the multiemployer pension plan.

Continue Reading Piling On: Corporations Support the New York Times in Multiemployer Pension Calculation Dispute

Recently, the US District Court for the District of Columbia dismissed a proposed class action lawsuit brought by former Georgetown employees under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) over fees and investments in its two retirement plans. Plaintiffs alleged that Georgetown breached its fiduciary duty of prudence under ERISA by selecting and retaining investment options with excessive administrative fees and expenses charged to the plans, and unnecessarily retained three recordkeepers rather than one.

The court dismissed most of the claims on the grounds that plaintiffs had not plead sufficient facts showing that they had individually suffered an injury. Because they challenged defined contribution plans (as opposed to defined benefit plans), the plaintiffs had to plead facts showing how their individual plan accounts were harmed. In this case, the named plaintiffs had not invested in the challenged funds, or the challenged fund had actually outperformed other funds, or, in the case of the early withdrawal penalty from the annuity fund, the penalty had been properly disclosed and neither plaintiff had attempted to withdrawal funds – thereby suffering no injury. Moreover, in dismissing the allegations that the Plans included annuities that limited participants’ access to their contributed funds, the court rejoined, “[i]f a cat were a dog, it could bark. If a retirement plan were not based on long-term investments in annuities, its assets would be more immediately accessed by plan participants.” As to another fund, the court rejected the claim that the fiduciaries should be liable for the mere alleged underperformance of the fund, noting that “ERISA does not provide a cause of action for ‘underperforming funds.” Nor is a fiduciary required to select the best performing fund. A fiduciary must only discharge their duties with care, skill, prudence and diligence under the circumstances, when they make their decisions.

Continue Reading Georgetown University Defeats Retirement Plan Fee Litigation and “If a Cat Were a Dog, It Would Bark”

In certain cases of a facility sale, restructuring or cessation, recently released information by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) leaves many unanswered questions about plan sponsor liability for single-employer defined benefit plans. Given the lack of clarity, these plan sponsors should continue to consult their lawyer in any type of transaction, restructuring or cessation that approaches a 15 percent demographic change in a plan sponsor’s controlled group over a three-year period.

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As part of its comprehensive 2017 tax reform bill, Congress repealed deductions for Qualified Transportation Fringes including for employer-provided parking, while also requiring that tax-exempt organizations increase their unrelated business taxable income by the nondeductible parking expenses. Recently released IRS Notice 2018-99 addresses some of the year-end tax filing and tax planning concerns for affected employers with rules of special interest to tax-exempt employers.

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