On May 6, 2022, McDermott Partner Chris Nemeth delivered a presentation during the 2022 TEA National Conference titled “ESOP Litigation: Latest Trends and Open Questions.” His presentation focused on recent significant employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) court decisions and emerging litigation trends in the ESOP industry. Chris and his co-presenter touched on the enforceability of arbitration clauses in the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) litigation, post-transaction debt forgiveness, and pleading and standing requirements.
On May 5, 2022, McDermott Partner Allison Wilkerson delivered a presentation during the 2022 TEA National Conference titled “Mature ESOPs: Remodeling the House You Own.” Her presentation focused on the traits of a sustainable employee stock ownership plan (ESOP), common concerns of a mature ESOP and other ESOP-specific investment issues. Allison and her co-presenters also discussed redemption, re-leveraging and the hot acquisition market.
The presentation concluded with the following suggestions:
- There are options available no matter where you are in the ESOP life cycle.
- Gauge your employee-owners.
- Respond with changes that make the ESOP more relevant.
- Reach out for help—the ESOP community is vested in your company’s success.
Employee benefits professionals are inquiring about relief options for proposed regulations for required minimum distributions (RMDs). According to this Tax Notes article, the proposed regulations would make determining the RMDs during the plan participant’s lifetime and the designated beneficiary more challenging for plan sponsors, IRA trustees and custodians, and third-party administrators. One of the major concerns is the implementation of the 10-year distribution period for most beneficiaries of individuals who die in 2020 or later. McDermott Partner Todd Solomon said the 10-year distribution period is a “somewhat surprising development [that] is likely to leave some beneficiaries and their advisers confused and frustrated because of the added layer of complexity and the inability to stretch distributions as under prior law.”
Retirement plan sponsors should be aware of a new Internal Revenue Service (IRS) pilot program, which permits plan sponsors to conduct a pre-examination “check-up” of retirement plan administration before the IRS begins a plan examination. As part of the program, the IRS will send a letter notifying a plan sponsor that its retirement plan has been selected for an upcoming examination and give the plan sponsor 90 days to identify and voluntarily correct any compliance issues that may be self-corrected. Failure to respond by the 90-day deadline will result in an examination. Retirement plan sponsors who receive a pre-examination notice should immediately begin working with their lawyers and other advisors to determine the best way to respond to the IRS notice.
PRE-EXAMINATION PILOT PROGRAM
The IRS pre-examination compliance pilot program gives plan sponsors a chance to correct certain errors before an examination begins. If a plan sponsor identifies errors, then the plan sponsor may be able to self-correct using the procedures set forth in the IRS Employee Plans Compliance Resolution System (EPCRS) program, and the plan sponsor may notify the IRS of its corrective actions. If mistakes are not eligible for self-correction, the plan sponsor may request a closing agreement. With a closing agreement under the pilot program, the IRS will apply the Voluntary Correction Program (VCP) fee structure to determine the sanctions amount rather than the Audit CAP Program fees, which are unpredictable and typically higher. The IRS will review the plan sponsor’s corrective actions and determine whether it agrees that the plan sponsor appropriately corrected the mistakes. The IRS will then determine whether to issue a closing letter or to conduct a limited or full scope audit. The pilot program begins in June 2022.
It’s not clear what factors the IRS will consider when determining whether to conduct a limited or full scope audit following a plan sponsor’s response. However, it stands to reason that a plan sponsor’s efforts at good faith compliance with the correction requirements may serve to limit the scope because typically the IRS wishes to promote self-correction efforts. It’s also not clear whether the 90-day pre-examination period will apply to all retirement plan audits or only to those randomly selected to be part of the pilot program.
NEXT STEPS FOR PLAN SPONSORS
Plan sponsors who receive a pre-examination notice should immediately begin working with their lawyers and other advisors to determine the best ways to respond to the IRS notice. If you receive an initial letter or have questions about the IRS compliance and correction programs, please contact your McDermott lawyer or the authors listed below.
On May 5, 2022, McDermott Partner Erin Turley delivered a presentation during the 2022 TEA National Conference titled “Understanding a Trustee’s Role in Management Incentive Plans.” Her presentation focused on the trustee’s role in Management Incentive Plans (MIPs), how retention and performance stock appreciation rights (SARs) impact an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) and ways to avoid trustee pitfalls with a MIP. Erin also discussed types of synthetic equity design decisions, incentive stock options, non-statutory stock options and phantom stock/SARs.
The presentation concluded with the following fiduciary considerations:
- Since the issuance of any equity or synthetic equity can have a potentially dilutive impact on the ESOP, it is important for any plan to be in the best interest of the ESOP plan participants.
- As a result, one of the primary objectives of the plan should be to identify and select a group of people to be incentivized and rewarded to drive value for everybody.
- For example, in the case of a SAR, you are rewarding a group of individuals based only on appreciation in the value of the company stock. If the value goes up, that’s good for everybody.
- The overall compensation program should be in line with compensation practices for comparable-type positions in the industry, perhaps taking geography into account.
The US Department of Labor (DOL) recently issued guidance for the first time on the investment of retirement plan assets in cryptocurrencies. Compliance Assistance Release No. 2022-01 cautions 401(k) plan fiduciaries to “exercise extreme care” before allowing participants to invest plan assets in cryptocurrencies because cryptocurrencies “present significant risks and challenges to participants’ retirement accounts, including significant risks of fraud, theft, and loss.” In this Intellectual Property & Technology Law Journal article, McDermott Partners Andrea S. Kramer and Brian J. Tiemann outline what retirement plan fiduciaries need to know about cryptocurrency investments in the current market.
Earlier this spring, McDermott Partner Erin Turley delivered a presentation about the impacts of recent Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) litigation. Lawsuits now target both large and small employee benefit plans; plan sponsors are being sued and dragged into complex and lengthy litigation, thus changing the basic economics of the provision of fiduciary liability insurance. In response to these lawsuits, plan sponsors are looking to outsource as much of this fiduciary responsibility and potential liability and exposure as possible.
Fiduciaries of 403(b), 401(a) and 457(b) retirement plans have come under increased scrutiny in recent years, in part due to participant lawsuits filed against plan sponsors and the resulting media attention. In this presentation with the 457 Consulting Group, McDermott Partner Todd Solomon discusses the fiduciary duties of plan sponsors and how to mitigate potential risks. The content in these slides applies to governmental 457(b) plans.
As the popularity of cryptocurrency continues to grow, what do employee benefits lawyers need to know about this emerging investment option? McDermott Partners Andrew Liazos, Andrea Kramer and Brian Tiemann recently offered their perspectives about cryptocurrencies and how they relate to Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) plans, individual retirement accounts (IRAs) and incentive awards in an American Bar Association virtual event.
The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is strategically working to execute the statutory changes that were outlined by the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement Act (SECURE Act) of 2019. However, the IRS’s efforts to streamline the required minimum distribution (RMD) requirements for Internal Revenue Code (IRC) Section 403(b) plans with Section 401(a) qualified plans, such as 401(k) plans, may have unforeseen challenges and risks.
A proposed rule was published on February 24, 2022, in the Federal Register. The preamble of the rule indicates that the IRS and US Department of the Treasury are considering changes to conform the treatment of Section 403(b) plans more closely with that of Section 401(a) qualified plans for RMDs. Section 403(b) plans are currently treated the same as individual retirement accounts (IRAs) for purposes of applying the RMD rules. As a result, RMDs are not required to be automatically made from Section 403(b) plans like they are from Section 401(a) retirement plans. The IRS’s proposed rule would require any nonprofit organized under IRC Section 501(c)(3) (i.e., hospitals, public schools and churches) with retirement plans to make RMDs going forward.
Though the proposed rule presents the opportunity to simplify and align the treatment of Section 403(b) plans and Section 401(a) qualified plans, it poses administrative difficulties and potential conflicts with state law. Section 403(b) plans can be invested in a variety of funds, including annuity contracts—group and individual contracts—with insurance companies, custodial accounts or retirement income accounts for certain church workers. For individual annuity contracts, this could create a contractual issue. Employers are not a party to individual contracts between plan participants and investment firms, which would limit the ability of employers to compel RMDs. (Note that distributions could still be forced from group annuity contracts between employers and investment firms.) Regardless of the type of annuity contract, every contract will have to be reviewed to ensure it can comply with the proposed rule. To the extent any changes need to be made to these contracts, state-level approval may be required as insurance companies are governed by state law requirements.
In addition, the proposed rule does not take into consideration the effect of the prospective changes on Section 403(b) plans that are exempt from ERISA because of the safe harbor offered by the US Department of Labor (DOL) in 1979 (29 C.F.R. § 2510.3-2(f)). One of the conditions for meeting the safe harbor is that the employer involvement be limited to certain specific activities. If an employer is required to actively negotiate with insurance providers or choose a provider to administer the RMD requirement for participants, it might be violating this restriction and inadvertently subject its program to ERISA. The IRS and DOL will need to coordinate on the impact of this rule in such cases.
The IRS is taking this proposed rule under review and has asked for feedback specifically related to administrative concerns, notable differences in the structure or administration of Section 403(b) plans compared to qualified plans that might affect RMDs, and [...]