What steps can retirement plan sponsors take to mitigate Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 litigation risks? McDermott Partner Andrew Liazos presented on this topic and shared best practices during the Plan Sponsor Council of America’s National Conference.
Can employers offer incentives for employees to get a COVID-19 vaccine? In short, yes. Incentives may take many forms, such as a one-time bonus, a gift card or a few extra vacation hours. Employers can get creative.
According to McDermott’s Michelle S. Strowhiro, Judith Wethall and Ludia Kwon, there are two issues to consider when implementing a vaccine incentive program for purposes of complying with employment and benefits laws: the concepts of coercion and reasonable accommodation.
The US Department of Labor (DOL) recently issued guidance concerning a new exemption under the prohibited transaction provisions of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) in connection with the provision of investment advice. PTE 2020-02, Improving Investment Advice for Workers & Retirees (the Exemption), became effective on February 16, 2021. On April 13, 2021, the DOL issued additional guidance, in FAQ format, to further explain the Exemption.
Earlier this year, the US Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) issued a final rule, modifying PBGC regulations that apply to defined benefit pension plans. Among those changes were revisions to: (i) the reportable event notification requirements; (ii) annual financial and actuarial information (Form 4010) reporting; (iii) single-employer plan termination rules; and (iv) the premium rate calculation rules. The rule was generally effective on March 5, 2020, but some provisions have different applicability dates.
On June 12, 2020, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) of the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) finalized a rule under Section 1557 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (the 2020 Final Rule) that rescinds certain protections afforded to LGBTQ individuals and persons with limited English proficiency. At the same time, the 2020 Final Rule removes burdensome disclosure requirements that may be a welcome relief for entities covered by Section 1557. On June 15, 2020, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that workplace discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation is forbidden under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Although Title VII is not included in the precedential civil rights laws that gave rise to Section 1557, we nevertheless anticipate that the Supreme Court’s holding will lead to legal challenges in a number of areas, including healthcare and health insurance, religious exemptions and the 2020 Final Rule from HHS OCR.
On Monday, June 15, 2020, the US Supreme Court held in Bostock v. Clayton County that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects transgender, gay and lesbian employees (and prospective employees) from workplace discrimination based on sex. This means that the protective authority of Title VII for LGBTQ individuals generally extends to employer-sponsored healthcare benefits.
On March 28, a District of Columbia federal court agreed with a New York-led challenge by a group of 11 states and the District of Columbia and found that the Department of Labor’s (DOL) 2018 association health plan (AHP) rule (the Final Rule):
- Is contrary to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA)’s text and purpose; and
- Circumvents the protections and standards of the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
The decision, penned by Judge Bates, may act to deal a significant blow to the Trump administration’s attempt to expand coverage for small employers. Crafted in response to the October 12, 2017, executive order directing the DOL to promote the availability of AHPs, the Final Rule materially relaxed the standards for qualifying as an AHP under ERISA.
As further described here, the Final Rule sets forth the criteria pursuant to which a “bona fide group or association of employers” may establish a single-employer AHP under ERISA. Under the Final Rule, employers, associations and sole proprietors (referred to as “working owners”) can participate in AHPs provided certain arguably subjective requirements are satisfied. The states challenged the Final Rule, arguing that the DOL unreasonably expanded ERISA’s definition of employer. Applying the Chevron standard, the court agreed with the states to hold that the DOL unlawfully expanded ERISA’s definition of employer by failing to provide a “meaningful limit on the associations that would qualify as ‘bona fide’ ERISA ‘employers.’” The court vacated the bona fide association and working owner provisions of the Final Rule, but also provided some specific critiques and ordered the DOL to determine whether any part of the Final Rule can be salvaged; for now, the Final Rule is in limbo.
In a set of Questions and Answers issued April 2, 2019, the DOL noted that it disagrees with the court’s decision, and is considering all available options in consultation with the Department of Justice (DOJ). The DOJ has until May 28 to file a notice of appeal. The Trump administration could seek a stay of the order pending resolution of any appeal. Unless a court issues a stay, the regulations in effect prior to the Rule would be in effect. Stay tuned for further guidance and developments.
Georgetown University Defeats Retirement Plan Fee Litigation and “If a Cat Were a Dog, It Would Bark”
Recently, the US District Court for the District of Columbia dismissed a proposed class action lawsuit brought by former Georgetown employees under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) over fees and investments in its two retirement plans. Plaintiffs alleged that Georgetown breached its fiduciary duty of prudence under ERISA by selecting and retaining investment options with excessive administrative fees and expenses charged to the plans, and unnecessarily retained three recordkeepers rather than one.
The court dismissed most of the claims on the grounds that plaintiffs had not plead sufficient facts showing that they had individually suffered an injury. Because they challenged defined contribution plans (as opposed to defined benefit plans), the plaintiffs had to plead facts showing how their individual plan accounts were harmed. In this case, the named plaintiffs had not invested in the challenged funds, or the challenged fund had actually outperformed other funds, or, in the case of the early withdrawal penalty from the annuity fund, the penalty had been properly disclosed and neither plaintiff had attempted to withdrawal funds – thereby suffering no injury. Moreover, in dismissing the allegations that the Plans included annuities that limited participants’ access to their contributed funds, the court rejoined, “[i]f a cat were a dog, it could bark. If a retirement plan were not based on long-term investments in annuities, its assets would be more immediately accessed by plan participants.” As to another fund, the court rejected the claim that the fiduciaries should be liable for the mere alleged underperformance of the fund, noting that “ERISA does not provide a cause of action for ‘underperforming funds.” Nor is a fiduciary required to select the best performing fund. A fiduciary must only discharge their duties with care, skill, prudence and diligence under the circumstances, when they make their decisions.
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.
In certain cases of a facility sale, restructuring or cessation, recently released information by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) leaves many unanswered questions about plan sponsor liability for single-employer defined benefit plans. Given the lack of clarity, these plan sponsors should continue to consult their lawyer in any type of transaction, restructuring or cessation that approaches a 15 percent demographic change in a plan sponsor’s controlled group over a three-year period.