The US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit recently affirmed a Minnesota district court’s dismissal of a claim against Wells Fargo & Company (Wells Fargo) under ERISA. A former employee had alleged Wells Fargo breached fiduciary duties by retaining Wells Fargo’s own investment funds as a 401(k) option, and defaulting to those funds when plan participants failed to elect another option.

In holding that the former employee failed to state a claim, the court in Meiners v. Wells Fargo & Co. reasoned that the plaintiff failed to plead facts showing the Wells Fargo investment funds were an imprudent choice. Specifically, the court found that the plaintiff’s allegations that an allegedly comparable fund performed better was not sufficient, especially given the other fund’s differing investment strategy. The court’s prior decision in Braden v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. established that plaintiffs could show that “a prudent fiduciary in like circumstances” would have selected a different fund by providing a basis for comparison–in other words, a benchmark. However, the Eighth Circuit declined the plaintiff’s invitation to extend the rationale of Braden by allowing a plaintiff to demonstrate imprudence with a benchmark that only possesses some similarities to the fund at issue.

The Eighth Circuit’s decision is in line with other courts’ rejection of ERISA claims based on the plaintiffs’ subjective views of which funds are the best overall investment. A US district court judge for the Northern District of Illinois recently labeled such breach of fiduciary duty claims “paternalistic” while dismissing a class action against Northwestern University.

ERISA broadly preempts state laws that “relate to” ERISA-governed employee benefit plans to ensure a uniform federal regulatory scheme and to relieve ERISA plans from the burdens of satisfying a patchwork of state laws. Recently, however, several states have enacted legislation designed to regulate the prices that pharmacy benefit managers, as third-party administrators for ERISA-governed plans, agree to reimburse pharmacies for dispensing prescription drugs to ERISA plan members. These regulations run afoul of ERISA, as the US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit has twice held.

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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.

In a recent 2-1 decision, the Fifth Court vacated the US Department of Labor’s controversial expansion of the ERISA fiduciary regulations (the New Fiduciary Rule). If the DOL does not seek a rehearing, the Fifth Circuit will enter a mandate revoking the New Fiduciary Rule nationwide. However, given recent fiduciary regulations proposed by the Securities and Exchange Commission, the DOL may be less likely to appeal the ruling and no longer seek to enforce the New Fiduciary Rule.

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Join us for a webinar on Friday, May 4 as McDermott litigation attorney Chris Nemeth joins employee benefit attorney Judith Wethall to discuss what’s new in employee benefits litigation. Chris will give you a peek into a world you hope never to go! Learn about disturbing trends, traps and how to prevent your employee benefit plans from being targeted.

Friday, May 4, 2018
10:00 – 10:45 am PDT
11:00 – 11:45 am MDT
12:00 – 12:45 pm CDT
1:00 – 1:45 pm EDT

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McDermott’s Benefits Emerging Leaders Working Group provides benefit professionals with tools to better serve employees in an ever-changing and evolving benefits landscape.

Presentations will tackle the latest benefits hot topics and best practice solutions, supplemented with important networking opportunities aimed to connect tomorrow’s benefit leaders with a broad network of professionals.

Planned agenda topics include:

  • What’s Happening in Washington?
  • Lessons from an RFP
  • Lunch Discussion: Changing Behavior through Benefits Communication
  • Global Benefit Plans
  • Moderated Group Discussion (including Voluntary Benefits)

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The UK Employment Appeal Tribunal has upheld the Employment Tribunal’s finding that Uber drivers are “workers”. It rejected Uber’s argument that Uber is simply a technology platform acting as an agent to connect self-employed Uber drivers with users of the ride-hailing app.

What Is the Issue?

The United Kingdom recognises three categories of employment status: employees, workers and self-employed contractors, each with varying levels of protection under employment law. Employees and workers are afforded greater protection than self-employed contractors, with employees having the full suite of UK employment rights. Workers are entitled to core rights such as statutory holidays, sick pay and breaks, and national minimum wage.

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The SEC recently confirmed that the new CEO pay ratio disclosure rules mandated in the Dodd-Frank Act will go into effect in the 2018 proxy season. To assist companies in preparation of the new disclosure, the SEC published interpretive guidance on September 21, 2017.

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