Several large employers are disputing how much money the New York Times owes a union multiemployer pension fund. Recently, six companies—including US Foods Inc. and United Natural Foods Inc.—filed an amicus brief supporting the New York Times in its case before the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Ruprecht Co., an Illinois meat processor, also filed its own brief in support of the New York Times.

Under the Employer Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), when determining an employer’s withdrawal liability, the actuarial assumptions and methods must “offer the actuary’s best estimate of the anticipated experience under the plan.” The underlying issue in this case involves an actuarial method called the “Segal Blend,” which often is used to value unfunded vested benefits and calculate withdrawal liability (an exit fee) from a union multiemployer pension plan. Under the Segal Blend, the actuary blends the multiemployer plan’s assumed interest rate on investments with a lower interest rate used by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation for terminating plans. Many multiemployer pension plans commonly use the Segal Blend to calculate an employer’s unfunded liability and payment upon exiting the multiemployer plan (known as “withdrawal liability”). These large employers claim that using the Segal Blend results in an artificially lower interest rate, which in turn results in larger employer withdrawal liability and larger amounts an employer must pay to exit the multiemployer pension plan.

Continue Reading Piling On: Corporations Support the New York Times in Multiemployer Pension Calculation Dispute

A recent Eighth Circuit decision regarding “cross-plan offsetting” serves as an important reminder of how ERISA’s fiduciary duties impact both employers and fiduciaries who handle claims.

The case involved the common practice of cross-plan offsetting, which occurs when a claims administrator resolves an overpayment to a provider by refusing to pay that provider for a future claim (or reducing the amount paid for that future claim)—even if the latter claim was made by a participant in an unrelated plan. Cross-plan offsetting allows claims administrators to quickly recover overpaid benefits without the time and expense associated with one-off recovery actions against providers. Defendant UnitedHealth Group (UnitedHealth) initially applied this practice among its in-network providers, but then expanded cross-plan offsetting to non-network providers beginning in 2007. This practice was challenged by two out-of-network doctors in the case at issue, Peterson v. UnitedHealth Group, Inc.

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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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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.

Continue Reading Georgetown University Defeats Retirement Plan Fee Litigation and “If a Cat Were a Dog, It Would Bark”

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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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.

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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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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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