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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The Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) has long been a source of complex and often-expensive litigation for employers. However, as the number of actions brought by employees under ERISA have surged, employer-defendants have often relied on the so-called top-hat exemption to dismiss certain claims involving executives. Now, several federal courts of appeals have addressed the disputed contention that the presence of employee bargaining power is required for a plan to fall under the top-hat exemption. In this article, Elizabeth Rowe, J. Christian Nemeth and Joseph Urwitz look at recent appeals court decisions and their effects on this exemption.

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Originally published in Benefits Law Journal, Autumn 2018

Todd Solomon and Brian Tiemann presented on alternative investments for pension plans during the Association for Financial Professionals (AFP) Conference in Chicago. They discussed various rules benefit plan investors should consider, including the “look-through” rule and the “significant” investment rule. They also addressed common hedge fund structural and operational issues, and problems if a fund holds ERISA plan assets.

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The US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit has solidified a circuit split on who has burden of proving loss causation in ERISA breach of fiduciary duty cases. The First Circuit joined the Fourth, Fifth and Eighth Circuits holding that once a plaintiff demonstrates a fiduciary breach, the defendant has the burden to negate loss causation. Other circuits, including the Sixth, Ninth, Tenth and Eleventh Circuits, have held that a plaintiff bears to burden to establish loss causation. This issue is ripe for Supreme Court review.

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President Trump signed an executive order last year directing the Secretaries of Labor, Treasury and Health and Human Services to consider proposing regulations to “increase the usability of HRAs.” This month, the collective departments issued proposed regulations containing changes to the prohibition on pairing HRAs with individual health policies, as well as other changes to the current HRA rules.

Proposed effective date January 1, 2020; comments due December 28, 2018.

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Socially responsible investing often sounds like an intriguing idea, but investing plan assets in a socially responsible manner is a notoriously tricky proposition. Earlier this year, the US Department of Labor issued additional guidance clarifying existing DOL guidance applicable to socially responsible investment of plan assets. However, the clarifications included in FAB 2018-01 may further limit the scenarios in which socially responsible investing could be considered prudent under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, as amended (ERISA).

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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.

Evan Belosa, Tony Bongiorno and Andrew Liazos summarize key changes and important issues associated with Massachusetts Noncompetition and Trade Secret Law and next steps to consider as the date of effectiveness approaches.

The Massachusetts Noncompetition Agreement Act and Trade Secret Law will become effective October 1, 2018.

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During the most recent Tax in the City event in Dallas, Partners Erin Turley and Judith Wethall, presented on the rise of consumer driven health care. Some popular programs they discussed include wellness, smoking cessation, high deductible health plans and HSAs, telemedicine, direct contracting and affordable care organizations. They also discussed the compliance complexities associated with these programs, including ERISA, FLSA and HIPAA privacy concerns.

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