Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974

Offering employer stock in a 401(k) plan investment lineup can seem like a win-win situation. It can enable employees to become company owners—real, skin-in-the-game, participants in their employer’s economic future—through a simple deferral election. The U.S. Supreme Court has even recognized the value of employer stock funds, confirming that Congress sought to encourage their creation through provisions and standards contained in the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”).

However, in the wake of a series of high-profile employee lawsuits seeking recovery against Enron, Lehman Brothers, and other employers for losses from 401(k) investments in employer stock, such funds can—almost as easily—seem a recipe for disaster. This article examines the quandary that employer stock funds pose for plan sponsors, who must navigate ERISA’s careful balance of (1) ensuring fair and prompt enforcement of employee rights under employer-provided retirement plans while (2) encouraging employer creation of these plans.

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Originally published in Bloomberg Law, May 25, 2017

In a major victory for church-affiliated hospitals, the US Supreme Court overturned three appellate court rulings and decided unanimously that church-affiliated hospitals can maintain their pension plans as “church plans” exempt from the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, as amended (ERISA), regardless of whether a church actually established the plan. Impacted health systems, and especially their management, should evaluate how best to document and demonstrate their common religious bonds and convictions with the church.

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In the presentation “Highlights of Record Retention Requirements Applicable to Employee Benefit Plans,” Todd A. Solomon detailed the general rules of The Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA). He discussed several specific record-keeping requirements for employee benefit plans and a number of general requirements that imply a duty to retain records, for example general fiduciary duties, plan distribution requirements, COBRA requirements and qualified medical child support requirements.

View the presentation slides here.

The US Department of Labor’s Employee Benefit Security Administration recently released final rules on the adjudication of disability claims under welfare and retirement plans (the Final Rule). The purpose of the Final Rule is to add procedural protections and safeguards that are aimed at providing a full and fair claims review process for disability benefit claims, similar to those applicable to group health plans under the Affordable Care Act. The Final Rule also contains helpful guidance for claims and appeals procedures under all types of ERISA plans.

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On December 2, 2016, the Supreme Court of the United States granted the petitions for writs of certiorari to Advocate Health Care, et al. v. Stapleton, Maria, et al., St. Peter’s Healthcare, et al. v. Kaplan, Laurence and Dignity Health, et al. v. Rollins, Starla, all of which previously requested the Court review their arguments on whether the church plan exemption available under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, as amended (ERISA), applies so long as a tax-qualified retirement plan is maintained by an otherwise qualifying church-affiliated organization, or whether the exemption applies only if, in addition, a church initially established the tax-qualified retirement plan. The three cases are being consolidated and will receive one hour total for oral argument.

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The recent wave of 403(b) lawsuits against more than a dozen prominent US universities could herald similar suits for other 403(b) plan sponsors. Plan sponsors can minimize their risk by reviewing their plan governance procedures, investment policy statements, and plan investment lineup and fee structure.

Read the full article here to learn more.

Recent reports show that the number of retirement plan audits by government agencies is increasing. A survey released by Willis Towers Watson indicates that one in every three plan sponsors has experienced a retirement plan audit by a government agency in the past two years. Unofficial reports also indicate that the US Department of Labor (DOL) has added staff to conduct more retirement plan audits.

The increase in audit activity is not surprising after the DOL released its report last year on the quality of audit work performed by independent qualified public accountants. That report—“Assessing the Quality of Employee Benefit Plan Audits”—found that nearly four out of 10 (39 percent) employee benefit plan audits completed by independent qualified public accountants for the 2011 filing year contained “major deficiencies with respect to one or more relevant GAAS requirements” which “would lead to rejection of a Form 5500 filing.” Common audit deficiencies cited in the DOL report include insufficient review of plan documents and administration, failure to obtain evidence of required communications to participants, inadequate review of employee eligibility, participant accruals and non-discrimination testing, and failure to obtain evidence of adequate internal controls.

The reports of increased audit activity and the DOL findings on the quality of plan audits illustrate the importance for plan sponsors to continually monitor their employee benefit plans for compliance with the requirements of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) and the Internal Revenue Code. Plan sponsors and fiduciaries may erroneously assume that once the independent audit is complete they can rest assured that the plan complies with legal requirements. However, an independent audit is not enough—plan sponsors have a fiduciary obligation to ensure their plans are properly maintained and administered beyond what is required to complete the annual audit.

For a summary of the most common issues under audit examination, please see our article on the “Top IRS and DOL Audit Issues for Retirement Plans.” The article describes numerous steps plan sponsors should take to review their plans to identify problems that come up on Internal Revenue Service and DOL audits, and to make sure they have proper internal controls to avoid those problems in the future. Regular review of these issues and proper focus on internal controls can help prevent costly fines and fees when a government agency audits a plan.

The US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit’s recent ruling addresses various issues that could arise during a plan administrator’s review of a participant’s benefit claim and appeal and any ensuing litigation, including the deference to be granted upon review in a federal court, civil penalties and the possibility of introducing additional evidence outside the administrative record. This decision demonstrates the need for employers to review their benefit plans’ claims procedures to ensure they comply with applicable law and best practices.

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Since 2014, large church-controlled health systems that offer defined benefit pension plans have seen lawsuits filed as to whether such plans are eligible to qualify for the ERISA church-plan exemption, which governs those arrangements. When a retirement plan meets the ERISA church-plan exemption, it is exempt from the typical funding and vesting requirements of ERISA and the Internal Revenue Code as well as from the ERISA reporting and disclosure requirements. As the church-plan litigation moves to the appellate level, two adverse decisions are reached denying ERISA church-plan exemption to two health systems.

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