When California’s Dynamex decision rolled out the “ABC test”, it placed the burden on the employer to prove independent contractor (IC) status. In a presentation at the Employment and Employee Benefits Forum in California, McDermott’s lawyers discussed the implications of Dynamex, as it applies to various types of employers as well as those using staffing companies. Additionally, they cover Dynamex’s impact on worker classification and employee benefits plans, particularly under ERISA.

Lastly, they provide best practices that employers can do now to prevent litigation.

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In late December, US Senator Ron Wyden introduced the Retirement Parity for Student Loans Act (Student Loan Act), which would allow employers to make matching contributions under 401(k), 403(b) and SIMPLE plans with respect to student loan repayments made by employees. If enacted, this legislation would provide powerful new guidance for employers looking to offer student-loan-repayment-related benefits to their employees.

Last year, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) released a groundbreaking private letter ruling (PLR) that helped to clear the way for employers to begin providing student loan repayment benefits as part of their 401(k) plans. More specifically, the PLR confirmed that, under certain circumstances, employers might be able to link the amount of employer contributions made on an employee’s behalf under a 401(k) plan to the amount of student loan repayments made by the employee outside the plan. However, the PLR only applied to the plan sponsor requesting the ruling and only addressed the specific issue and facts presented by the plan sponsor. As a result, although the PLR provided helpful guidance to employers, it also left many questions unanswered.

In response, many employers and industry groups have pushed for legislation that provides comprehensive guidance on how employers can and should structure student loan repayment benefits under their retirement plans. The Student Loan Act would address a number of the questions raised in response to the PLR and would provide employers more flexibility to offer student loan repayment benefits under their plans. In particular, the Student Loan Act would open the door for student loan repayments to be treated as elective deferrals under an employer’s plan and to qualify for corresponding matching contributions (rather than the special non-elective contributions described in the PLR). In addition, the Student Loan Act would clarify nondiscrimination testing requirements for student loan repayment benefits and address how student loan repayment benefits may be provided under not only traditional 401(k) plans, but also under safe harbor 401(k) plans, 403(b) plans and SIMPLE plans.

The Student Loan Act is part of the broader Retirement Security & Savings Act, which has bipartisan backing. The prospects for enactment of the Student Loan Act and Retirement Security & Savings Act are uncertain. Nevertheless, the release of the Student Loan Act, and its inclusion as part of the Retirement Security & Savings Act, shows that legislators are responding to employer demand and industry group efforts to seek further clarification on how they can provide employees with student loan repayment benefits under their tax-qualified retirement plans.

Late last year, the Ninth Circuit held that in order to trigger ERISA’s three-year statute of limitations a defendant must demonstrate that a plaintiff has actual knowledge of the nature of an alleged breach. Accordingly, the court held that merely having access to documents describing an alleged breach of fiduciary duty is not sufficient to cause ERISA’s statute of limitations to begin to run. Instead, the court rejected the standard embraced by other courts and ruled that participants should not be charged with knowledge of documents they were provided by did not actually read. The Ninth Circuit’s decision underscores circuit split over what is sufficient to demonstrate the existence of actual knowledge for purposes of triggering ERISA’s three-year statute of limitations.

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Sponsors and fiduciaries of health and welfare plans should be aware of a recently filed class-action lawsuit against alleged fiduciaries of a health plan. It challenges health-plan fiduciary oversight and reasonableness of fees similar to actions against fiduciaries of defined-contribution retirement plans. The action highlights the importance of establishing and documenting prudent fiduciary processes for making decisions on behalf of health and welfare plans.

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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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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.

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.

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 (the “2017 Tax Act”) made some significant changes to the executive pay area for tax-exempt organizations with the imposition of a new excise tax on certain amounts paid to some employees of the tax-exempt organization. Imposing taxation in areas which previously had no such result will warrant tax-exempt organizations reviewing their compensation structures in light of the new rules to ensure not only an understanding of the new rules but to evaluate feasible options in minimizing any taxes.

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On February 9, 2018, President Trump signed a bipartisan budget deal into law, effectively extending federal funding through March 23, 2018. The act includes multiple provisions affecting employee benefit plans, including relaxed hardship withdrawal rules and relief for individuals affected by the California wildfires.

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