The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) recently announced the cost-of-living adjustments to the applicable dollar limits for various employer-sponsored retirement and welfare plans for 2022. Most of the dollar limits currently in effect for 2021 will increase.
The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) recently announced the cost-of-living adjustments to the applicable dollar limits for retirement plans for 2022. Most of the dollar limits currently in effect for 2021 will increase, with only the catch-up contribution limit remaining the same for 2022.
What can employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) managers due to prepare an effective record in advance of a potential US Department of Labor or Internal Revenue Service investigation? McDermott Partner Allison Wilkerson presented on this topic during The ESOP Association‘s TEA National 2021 Conference.
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.
ESOP Litigation Trends: Department of Labor Voids Fiduciary Indemnification Agreements to Reach Settlements
The US Department of Labor has taken the position that certain indemnification clauses are void against public policy under Section 410 of ERISA. This policy has been adopted by private plaintiff classes; as evident from a recent settlement, a policy that voids indemnity provisions can limit defense budgets, make settlements more likely and potentially create dangerous precedent for ESOPs.
Through a series of recent settlements, the US Department of Labor has outlined the process steps fiduciaries should follow in connection with a transaction involving a purchase from, or sale to, an employee stock ownership plan.
Though the Supreme Court’s 2014 unanimous ruling in Fifth Third Bank v. Dudenhoeffer announced the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) standards for stock valuation in the context of a large public employee stock ownership plan (ESOP), the vast majority of ESOPs are still grappling with valuation issues. ESOPs that hold stock of closely-held corporations—approximately 90% of all ESOPs— remain almost unaffected by Dudenhoeffer’s valuation discussions, and face continued scrutiny by the Department of Labor (DOL). Appraisal of closely-held stock is an inexact science that involves an inherent level of uncertainty in assessing a variety of potential fact patterns.
This article summarizes valuation issues in acquisitions of closely-held corporation stock by ESOPs in the context of Perez v. Bruister, a recently decided Fifth Circuit case. The case stressed the importance of ‘‘process’’ in valuation determinations being utilized for acquisitions of a corporation’s stock by an ESOP. In reviewing the case, this article provides a detail of the process that should be followed to ensure consideration of the appropriate factors by fiduciaries in reviewing valuations for ESOP transactions. The article concludes with a discussion of guidance provided by the court in Bruister that may be instructive as to best practices for ESOP fiduciaries charged with establishing the value to be used by an ESOP holding shares of stock of a private company.
On January 25, 2016, the Supreme Court of the United States issued a per curiam opinion in Amgen Inc. v. Harris, holding that the Amgen, Inc. employees who filed suit after the value of the employer stock in which they had invested dramatically decreased, failed to sufficiently plead a breach of fiduciary duty claim under ERISA in light of the Court’s decision last term in Fifth Third Bancorp v. Dudenhoeffer.