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A Light in the Dark: Seventh Circuit Helps Clarify New Pleading Standards for 401(k) Fee Cases

A recent US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit case supplies answers to many questions left open in 401(k) fee litigation cases after the US Supreme Court’s ruling earlier this year in Hughes v. Northwestern University. Specifically, to survive a motion to dismiss in the Seventh Circuit, the recent ruling in Albert v. Oshkosh Corp. reiterated that plaintiffs must allege both high fees and substandard services or performance in comparison to other similar 401(k) plans.

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Save It for a Rainy Day: Recent Amendment Extensions for Qualified Retirement Plans, 403(b) Plans and Individual Retirement Accounts

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) recently issued needed relief to extend some amendment deadlines for non-governmental qualified retirement plans and 403(b) plans, and for individual retirement accounts (IRAs) under the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement Act of 2019 (SECURE Act), the Bipartisan American Miners Act of 2019 (Miners Act), and certain provisions of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) until December 31, 2025. However, the IRS did not provide relief for all required amendments for the 2022 plan year. Plan sponsors that elected to offer COVID-related distributions or loan relief (or utilized disaster-related relief for loans or distributions under the Taxpayer Certainty and Disaster Tax Relief Act of 2020) still need to amend their plans by the end of 2022 plan year.

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SEC Adopts Final Pay Versus Performance Rules

On August 25, 2022, the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) adopted final rules to implement the pay versus performance disclosure requirement mandated by the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (Dodd-Frank Act). The Dodd-Frank Act added Section 14(i) to the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, which directs the SEC to adopt rules that require registrants to clearly disclose the relationship between executive compensation actually paid and the registrant’s financial performance. More than 12 years after US Congress passed the Dodd-Frank Act, the SEC has adopted Item 402(v) of Regulation S-K to put these disclosure requirements into effect in time for the 2023 proxy season.

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Responsible Financial Innovation Act: Proposed Tax and Reporting for Digital Assets

On June 7, 2022, Senators Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) introduced the highly anticipated Responsible Financial Innovation Act (the bill), which sets out to create the first complete regulatory and bipartisan framework for digital assets. The bill is intended to establish some legal clarity for regulators and the industry and to protect consumers by providing a range of disclosures and clarifying settlement conditions and rights over digital ownership. The bill would also treat all digital assets that are not treated as securities as commodities regulated by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. This article discusses key tax considerations raised by the bill concerning taxation and reporting requirements for participants in the digital asset industry.

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ESOP Litigation: Latest Trends and Questions

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.

For questions about employee benefits matters, please contact Chris or McDermott’s employee benefits practice team.




Mature ESOPs: Remodeling the House You Own

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.

For questions about employee benefits matters, please contact Allison or McDermott’s employee benefits practice team.




Homework and Deadlines Matter: New IRS Pre-Audit Compliance Program for Retirement Plans

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.




Understanding a Trustee’s Role in Management Incentive Plans

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.

For questions about employee benefits matters, please contact Erin or McDermott’s employee benefits practice team.




When Are Cryptocurrencies Appropriate Investments for Retirement Plans and IRAs?

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.

Access the article.




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