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Rick Stepanovic focuses his practice on employee benefits and executive compensation matters. He has experience working on matters related to tax-qualified pension plans, health and welfare plans, and deferred compensation arrangements. He also has experience handling correction and administrative matters before the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Labor. Read Rick Stepanovic's full bio.

The US Department of Labor has taken the position that certain indemnification clauses are void against public policy under Section 410 of ERISA. This policy has been adopted by private plaintiff classes; as evident from a recent settlement, a policy that voids indemnity provisions can limit defense budgets, make settlements more likely and potentially create dangerous precedent for ESOPs.

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On February 26, 2018, the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit (covering Connecticut, New York and Vermont) ruled that workplace discrimination on the basis sexual orientation violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII).

The language of Title VII does not expressly prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. However, in 2015, the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) took the position that Title VII prohibits sexual orientation discrimination under the purview of prohibited sex discrimination. In 2016, the EEOC began filing sexual orientation discrimination lawsuits enforcing that position.

Circuit courts are divided on the question of whether claims of sexual orientation discrimination are viable under Title VII. In March of 2017, the Eleventh Circuit held that sexual orientation discrimination does not violate Title VII. The Seventh Circuit held the opposite the following month, and the Supreme Court declined to decide the split in December. With its en banc decision in Melissa Zarda et al. v. Altitude Express, dba Skydive Long Island, et al., the Second Circuit sided with the EEOC and the Seventh Circuit.

As a result of the decision, employers may see increased litigation in the area of sexual orientation discrimination. To protect against potential lawsuits, employers should consider updating their nondiscrimination policies to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. In addition, employers should perform sexual orientation harassment training for employees and managers.

The decision also raises potential concerns for employee benefit plans. Although the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, as amended (ERISA) generally preempts state laws that relate to employee benefit plans, ERISA does not preempt other federal laws, including Title VII. While certain spousal benefits and rights under qualified retirement plans are required by federal law to be extended to same-sex spouses, the same explicit mandates do not apply to welfare plans. Employers should consider whether any of their employee benefit plans discriminate against employees with same-sex spouses (e.g., excluding same-sex spouses from coverage under a self-funded medical plan). Such distinctions may be ripe for legal action as a result of the decision and the EEOC’s ongoing enforcement efforts.

The Department of Labor announced increased penalties for employee benefit plans under ERISA. The increases generally apply to penalties that involve employee benefit reporting and disclosure failings if the penalty is assessed after January 2, 2018, and if the violation occurred after November 2, 2015. We’ve compiled a resource outlining the ERISA penalty amounts assessed for violations on or before January 2, 2018, and those amounts assessed after January 2.

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The new tax reform legislation includes important changes to the tax treatment of employer-sponsored benefit programs, including transportation benefit programs and moving expense reimbursements. The law also creates a new tax credit for employers who provide paid family and medical leave to their employees.

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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.

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The US Department of the Treasury recently issued guidance that retirement plan sponsors should consider as part of their obligation to take reasonable steps to locate missing participants. Specifically, the Treasury issued a memorandum which sets forth guidelines that prohibit auditors from challenging qualified plans as failing to satisfy the required minimum distribution standards under Internal Revenue Code (IRC) Section 401(a)(9) if the plan has fulfilled all of the following with respect to participants that cannot be located:

  • Searched for alternative contact information in plan, plan sponsor and publicly available records for directories;
  • Used a commercial locator service, credit reporting agency or a proprietary internet search tool for locating individuals; and
  • Sent mail via United States Postal Service (USPS) certified mail to the last known mailing address and attempted contact “through appropriate means for any address or contact information,” which includes email addresses and telephone number.

The Treasury guidance is similar to, but also expands upon, prior guidance provided by the US Department of Labor, which addresses locating missing participants for terminated retirement plans.

Locating missing participants and beneficiaries can be challenging for plan sponsors. Many plan sponsors find that they are unable to locate participants who left employment many years prior and, as a result, are unable to make required minimum distributions. Both the IRS and Department of Labor have stepped up their enforcement of these requirements in recent years. In particular, the Department of Labor has made locating missing participants an enforcement priority for plan audits.

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Both the House and Senate versions of tax reform propose significant changes that may reduce or eliminate the tax benefits of many popular employer-provided fringe benefits, such as dependent care assistance programs, on-premises gyms and bicycle commuting expense reimbursements. In addition, many common deductions for work-related activities—including certain meal and entertainment expenses—may see sweeping changes.

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On Tuesday night, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-UT) released a new modified mark of the Senate version of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act that modifies provisions related to Internal Revenue Code (Code) Sections 409A and 162(m).

The Chairman’s modification adds a transition rule for the elimination of employer deductions for payments over $1 million to certain executives under Code Section 162(m). The transition rule provides that elimination of the employer deduction does not apply to payments under a written and binding contract in effect on November 2, 2017, provided that the contract was not materially modified after that date.

In addition, the Chairman’s modification eliminates the provision that would have replaced Code Section 409A with a new Section 409B, which would have required payments under non-qualified deferred compensation plans to be taxed when they vested. Currently, Section 409A allows employees to defer taxation on such fully-vested payments, provided they meet other requirements under Section 409A. The proposed replacement of 409A with 409B would have had significant tax implications for those employees with non-qualified deferred compensation plans.

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