Employee Stock Ownership Plans (ESOPs)

On September 20, 2018, the US Supreme Court dismissed—pursuant to settlement—an ERISA lawsuit that could have resolved the circuit split over who holds the burden of proof in ERISA breach of fiduciary duty cases. In Pioneer Centres Hold. v. Alerus Fin., Case No. 17-677 (2018), the Pioneer Centres Holding Company Employee Stock Ownership Plan and Trust (the “Plan” or “ESOP”) and its trustees sued Alerus Financial, N.A. (Alerus) for breach of fiduciary duty in connection with the failure of a proposed employee stock purchase. In affirming summary judgment in Alerus’s favor, the Tenth Circuit determined that the Plan carried the burden to prove causation rather than shifting the burden to Alerus to disprove causation once the Plan established a prima facie case. In so holding, the Tenth Circuit agreed with the Sixth, Ninth and Eleventh circuits that beneficiaries, not fiduciaries, must prove causation between the company’s conduct and the plan’s losses due to a fiduciary breach. The Second, Fourth, Fifth and Eighth circuits disagreed, holding that the burden of proof shifts to the fiduciaries to establish the absence of loss causation once the beneficiaries makes a prima facie case by establishing breach of fiduciary duty and loss. Details of the parties’ settlement were not disclosed.

The settlement and dismissal of this case is disappointing for ERISA litigators because the anticipated resolution regarding burden shifting for loss causation will likely not be resolved in the near future. The outstanding burden shifting inquiry is not limited to the ESOP context. These issues have also been considered in other ERISA cases, such as the 401(k) context. See, e.g., Womack v. Orchids Paper Prod. Co. 401(K) Sav. Plan, 769 F. Supp. 2d 1322, 1334–35 (N.D. Okla. 2011) (acknowledging the burden shifting circuit split in the 401(k) context). Moreover, the lack of resolution will necessarily encourage plaintiffs to continue forum shopping tactics. Thus, the industry may see an increase in ERISA cases filed in the Second, Fourth, Fifth and Eighth circuits, which shift the burden to fiduciaries to establish the absence of loss causation once the plaintiffs make a prima facie case.

Recent litigation and audit activity is focusing on the process undertaken by fiduciaries in connection with a transaction involving an ESOP. Eliot Burriss presented at the 2018 National Center for Employee Ownership Conference summarizing relevant litigation cases, exploring roles and responsibilities, and providing best practices.

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Emily Rickard presented “ESOP Fiduciary Responsibility for Value Determination” at the National Center for Employee Ownership National Conference addressing the fiduciary duties involved in the selection of an ESOP appraiser and the review of a valuation report.

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The Department of Labor’s fiduciary rule has recently been rendered unenforceable following a recent 5th Circuit Court of Appeals decision. In an article published by the Society for Human Resource Management, McDermott partner Brian Tiemann weighs in on what this means for plan sponsors. “As a result of the Fifth Circuit’s ruling, the suitability standard is effectively restored” for advising plan participants on investments, distributions and rollovers, Tiemann observed. He also points out that advisors may want to revise service agreements with plan fiduciaries to clarify the scope of advice that fiduciaries will provide participants.

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Originally published by the Society for Human Resource Management, May 2018.

ESOP transactions continue to grow in sophistication as sellers, plan sponsors and fiduciaries seek to meet certain goals and regulatory requirements. Allison Wilkerson, and other panelists for this presentation, reviewed a number of advanced transaction structures that are being utilized more and more to address specific needs identified by one or more of the parties involved in the arrangement. Such structures include the use of warrants in a financing structure, implementation of clawback and/or earn out requirements, use of incentive plans for successive management, and provisions that may be impactful with respect to future transaction or planning.

This presentation provides information to those companies/sellers/ESOP fiduciaries who are pursuing an ESOP transaction with alternatives that may provide an opportunity to better address the goals and objectives of the shareholders, ESOP, Company, employees and other stakeholders.

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Last month, Alexander Lee and Maureen O’Brien joined with Rob Wellner from Velocity Global to discuss the tax and employee benefits complications that arise in cross-border transactions. Key points discussed:

  • Complex tax structures must be considered and understood
  • Transfers of employment may be governed by different statutes in each affected jurisdiction
  • Purchasers may not be ready to provide employment, payroll and benefits on the closing date without significant pre-closing work

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Allison Wilkerson presented on a panel at the National Center for Employee Ownership (NCEO) Conference. The panel provided an overview of issues impacting compensation matters, as well as decisions affecting privately held companies that are wholly or partially owned by an ESOP.  The presentation included an analysis of certain legal requirements and a current view on best practices.  Finally, the panelists provided real-life examples of effective compensation programs and decision-making strategies for executive and staff compensation.

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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

Register now.

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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The PBGC’s missing participants program, which previously applied only to single-employer defined benefit pension plans, has been expanded to defined contribution plans, multiemployer defined benefit plans and small professional service defined benefit plans that end on or after January 1, 2018. The revised program provides a helpful alternative for plan administrators of terminating defined contribution plans, and also includes welcome clarifications that enhance the program available to defined benefit pension plans.

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