The US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit has solidified a circuit split on who has burden of proving loss causation in ERISA breach of fiduciary duty cases. The First Circuit joined the Fourth, Fifth and Eighth Circuits holding that once a plaintiff demonstrates a fiduciary breach, the defendant has the burden to negate loss causation. Other circuits, including the Sixth, Ninth, Tenth and Eleventh Circuits, have held that a plaintiff bears to burden to establish loss causation. This issue is ripe for Supreme Court review.

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Join us Friday, November 2 for our monthly Fridays with Benefits webinar. With 2019 right around the corner, now is the time to dust off your year-end checklist and take stock of changes we have seen in 2018, and how they project to impact planning for the new year. Join us for an interactive discussion designed to draw attention to the key employee benefits issues you should tackle before New Year’s Eve. Our lively 45-minute discussion will include a tax reform update, an overview of retirement plan disaster relief, responding to new disability regulations from the DOL, and how to implement final regulations on QNECs and QMACs.

Friday, November 2, 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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During the Tax in the City event held in Dallas, Erin Turley and Allison Wilkerson gave an overview of benefit plan audits and the IRS examination process. They discussed various areas of focus, including, required minimum distributions, investment issues, benefit calculations and appropriate tax reporting. They provided attendees with best practices before an audit, as well as helpful resources from the IRS and DOL.

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Late last month, the IRS released the latest version of its Employee Plans Compliance Resolution System, the IRS’s program for correcting retirement plan errors. The newest version of the correction program—effective beginning in 2019—includes mostly minor changes and clarifications. Most importantly, however, it requires electronic filing of Voluntary Correction Program submissions beginning April 1, 2019.

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The Internal Revenue Service and the Security Summit partners recently issued a news release outlining the “Security Six,” a list of essential steps to protect stored employee information on networks and computers. Employee benefits professionals, including those who administer welfare and retirement plans for employees and beneficiaries, should review and implement the “Security Six” in order to protect sensitive data from cyberattacks.

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We would also like to thank law clerk Charnae Supplee for contributing to this article.

During our Tax in the City roundtable event in Dallas, Erin Turley and Judith Wethall presented on the hidden costs in benefit contracts. They provided attendees with a checklist of what to look out for in contracts, including services, protection and pricing terms. When negotiating contracts, Erin and Judith recommended establishing a list of needs and objectives, as well as seeking referrals from other similarly situated employers.

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Socially responsible investing often sounds like an intriguing idea, but investing plan assets in a socially responsible manner is a notoriously tricky proposition. Earlier this year, the US Department of Labor issued additional guidance clarifying existing DOL guidance applicable to socially responsible investment of plan assets. However, the clarifications included in FAB 2018-01 may further limit the scenarios in which socially responsible investing could be considered prudent under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, as amended (ERISA).

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Join us Friday, October 5 for our monthly Fridays with Benefits webinar on employer options for student loan benefits. Student loan debt is an increasingly significant concern for employees and student loan benefits are becoming an increasingly significant way for employers to attract and retain key talent.

Join members of the McDermott Benefits Team for a discussion on employer options and strategies for employee student loan benefits that your company won’t want to miss! We will address refinancing options, direct financial assistance, and developments in retirement plan designs for benefits tied to student loan repayments.

Friday, October 5, 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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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.