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.

Access the full article.

The US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit recently affirmed a Minnesota district court’s dismissal of a claim against Wells Fargo & Company (Wells Fargo) under ERISA. A former employee had alleged Wells Fargo breached fiduciary duties by retaining Wells Fargo’s own investment funds as a 401(k) option, and defaulting to those funds when plan participants failed to elect another option.

In holding that the former employee failed to state a claim, the court in Meiners v. Wells Fargo & Co. reasoned that the plaintiff failed to plead facts showing the Wells Fargo investment funds were an imprudent choice. Specifically, the court found that the plaintiff’s allegations that an allegedly comparable fund performed better was not sufficient, especially given the other fund’s differing investment strategy. The court’s prior decision in Braden v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. established that plaintiffs could show that “a prudent fiduciary in like circumstances” would have selected a different fund by providing a basis for comparison–in other words, a benchmark. However, the Eighth Circuit declined the plaintiff’s invitation to extend the rationale of Braden by allowing a plaintiff to demonstrate imprudence with a benchmark that only possesses some similarities to the fund at issue.

The Eighth Circuit’s decision is in line with other courts’ rejection of ERISA claims based on the plaintiffs’ subjective views of which funds are the best overall investment. A US district court judge for the Northern District of Illinois recently labeled such breach of fiduciary duty claims “paternalistic” while dismissing a class action against Northwestern University.

Make a New Year’s resolution to improve the fiduciary governance practices for your employee benefit plans. Join McDermott lawyers Brian Tiemann and Finn Pressly for a refresher course on your fiduciary duties, an overview of common pitfalls and best practice tips to keep your plan administration on track in 2018. We will also provide an update on the Department of Labor’s expansion of the fiduciary rule and what the latest extension of the special transition period means for plan sponsors and service providers.

Register here.

Date:     Friday, January 5, 2017

Time:     10:00 – 10:45 am PST

11:00 – 11:45 am MST

12:00 – 12:45 pm CST

1:00 – 1:45 pm EST

Mark your calendars for the first Friday of every month! McDermott’s Employee Benefits Group will be delivering timely topics in our “Fridays With Benefits” monthly webinar series.

Employee Stock Ownership Plans (ESOPs) are becoming a popular—and tax effective—way for companies to manage succession planning. When structured properly an ESOP can provide huge financial benefits to companies and their employees alike. There have been several craft brewers who have taken advantage of the ESOP structure in the past year, and we expect this trend to pique the interest of craft distilleries. In this article, originally published in Artisan Spirit, Marc E. Sorini and Emily Rickard explore at a very high level some of the issues involved with starting and maintaining a craft distillery ESOP.

Read the full article.

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.

Read the full article.

Originally published in Bloomberg Law, May 25, 2017

by Alison Wetherfield

Employees are often the greatest assets of a business. Their departure to work for competitors (including their own fledgling businesses) can pose one of the greatest risks to the success of the business. These risks have been emphasized in two recent cases in which employers discovered the hard way (by losing) the need for careful drafting of employment contracts and practical management of the employment relationship from beginning to end.

To read the full article, click here.