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Joseph (Joe) K. Urwitz focuses his practice on employee benefits, executive compensation and Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) fiduciary matters. He advises clients on a wide range of issues, including fiduciary duties and prohibited transactions, employee benefit matters arising in mergers and acquisitions, benefits issues unique to nonprofit entities, deferred compensation arrangements, equity award and bonus plan design, employment and severance arrangements, and qualified plan work. Read Joe Urwitz's full bio.

A federal judge in the Northern District of Illinois recently dismissed a lawsuit against Northwestern University alleging that the University and its fiduciaries mismanaged its retirement and voluntary savings plans. This is the latest decision in a series of class action lawsuits against prominent universities in which plaintiffs allege fiduciary violations of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, as amended (ERISA) for retirement plans governed by Internal Revenue Code Section 403(b). Northwestern is the second university to obtain a complete victory on a motion to dismiss in a 403(b) university case; the first university to do so was the University of Pennsylvania in Sweda v. University of Pennsylvania.

In Divane v. Northwestern University et al., No. 16 C 8157 (N.D. Ill. May 25, 2018), plaintiffs alleged that Northwestern University and its fiduciaries breached fiduciary duties, engaged in prohibited transactions under ERISA and failed to monitor other fiduciaries. Specifically, fiduciaries allegedly mandated the inclusion of particular stock accounts in the plans, imposing excessive record-keeping fees, improperly allowed payment for record-keeping expenses through revenue sharing, and included too many investment options. The Court rejected all of plaintiffs’ fiduciary duty claims.

The Court also rejected plaintiffs’ claims that defendants engaged in prohibited transactions. Namely, the Court held that there was no transfer of plan assets that would substantiate a prohibited transaction claim under ERISA Section 1106(a)(1)(D) and similarly rejected plaintiffs’ Section 1106(a)(1)(C) argument that fiduciaries engaged in transactions that resulted in “furnishing of goods, services, or facilities between the plan and a party in interest” as a “circular “argument.

The Court denied plaintiffs’ motion for leave to amend, amounting in a complete victory for Northwestern.

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.

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In early 2017, the IRS updated its Golden Parachute Payments Audit Technique Guide for the first time since its 2005 issuance. While intended as an internal reference for IRS agents conducting golden parachute examinations, the Audit Technique Guide offers valuable insight for both public and private companies, and recipients of golden parachute payments, into how IRS agents are likely to approach golden parachutes when conducting an audit.

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In a major victory for church-affiliated hospitals, the US Supreme Court overturned three appellate court rulings and decided unanimously that church-affiliated hospitals can maintain their pension plans as “church plans” exempt from the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, as amended (ERISA), regardless of whether a church actually established the plan. Impacted health systems, and especially their management, should evaluate how best to document and demonstrate their common religious bonds and convictions with the church.

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The 2016 proposed regulations significantly expanded 457(f) plan sponsors’ ability to permit elective deferrals, use noncompetition agreements and make larger severance payments than otherwise permitted under 409A without immediate taxation to participants. In a recent presentation, Ruth Wimer, Mary Samsa and Joseph Urwitz discuss the surprising opportunities with respect to tax-exempt and governmental entities’ “ineligible nonqualified deferred compensation” arrangements in 2016 regulations. They also address the rules and limitations of the short-term deferral exception, the interaction of the 2016 regulations with existing regulations, other types of arrangements potentially affected, as well as best practices for employers.

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Multiple large, class action lawsuits have been filed against prominent higher education institutions claiming fiduciary breaches under their Code Section 403(b) plans as a result of insufficient oversight of plan investments, which allegedly caused excessive fees to be paid by participants. Last week, district courts in Georgia and North Carolina, respectively, ruled on defendants’ motions under Henderson v. Emory University and Clark v. Duke University. Although the defendants in these cases has some success in eliminating certain causes of action, other causes of actions involving the payment of excessive fees and use of multiple record-keepers will continue through litigation.

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Join members of the McDermott Employee Benefits team in May at one of these programs covering a variety of employee benefits topics.

The John Marshall Law School The Center for Tax Law & Employee Benefits 14th Annual Employee Benefits Symposium | May 1, 2017 | Chicago, Illinois | Speaker, Joseph S. Adams

Proposed 457(f) Regulations: Opportunities and Challenges | May 3, 2017 | Webinar presented by Mary K. Samsa, Joseph K. Urwitz, Ruth Wimer

M&A Workshop: New Developments and Key Legal and Tax Issues Throughout the Life Cycle of a Deal | May 4, 2017 | Chicago, Illinois | Speaker, Joseph S. Adams

Benefits Emerging Leaders Working Group | May 10, 2017 | Chicago, Illinois | Speakers, Lisa K. Loesel, Lisa Schmitz Mazur, Jacob M. Mattinson, Jeffrey Arnold, Sarah Raaii

There are numerous reasons why organizations exempt from taxation under Internal Revenue Code Section 501(c) (3), as amended (the “Code” and, such organizations, “Tax-Exempt Entities”) may offer severance payments to employees who incur involuntary terminations of employment. For example, severance that is conditioned on the departing employee’s execution of a release of claims in favor of the Tax-Exempt Entity can reduce the likelihood of costly and burdensome litigation. Similarly, payment of severance may reduce the risk of negative publicity for the Tax-Exempt Entity by diminishing resentment felt by departing employees. Severance may also help retain existing employees by providing them with a measure of economic security that can dissuade them from seeking alternative employment, particularly if they suspect that the Tax-Exempt Entity has encountered budgetary shortfalls and may be implementing near-term workforce reductions. For these and other reasons, many Tax-Exempt Entities have either implemented or are considering implementing severance programs. Tax-Exempt Entities should be aware of unique opportunities and recent IRS regulations that impact the design of severance programs. This article discusses key decisions and planning opportunities for Tax-Exempt Entities to consider when designing and implementing severance plans and individual severance arrangements. Tax-Exempt Entities face a number of legal and regulatory challenges in establishing severance arrangements, particularly with respect to executive-level severance, as discussed in more detail in Part I. Part II discusses the legal parameters around using Code Section 403(b) retirement savings plans to offer severance to employees with lower levels of compensation.

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