Lessons Learned from Recent Fiduciary Victories

There is nothing a plan sponsor or ERISA fiduciary can do to prevent allegations of fiduciary breach; however, there are many things they can do to be prepared to rebut such claims. Unfortunately, because of “headline news,” it is easy for plan sponsors to focus on cautionary tales of what other plan sponsors and fiduciaries did wrong. However, it is just as important, if not more so, to be aware of what plan sponsors and fiduciaries did right….in their legal victories. Two recent fiduciary victories provide valuable insights into how a court would evaluate the decisions and processes of plan committees.[1] In these cases, the courts highlighted conduct by the fiduciaries as evidence that they did not breach their fiduciary duties. Specifically, the judges focused on having a process of review, seeking outside help, and diligently maintaining records. The favorable views of these activities provide guidance for other plan sponsors and fiduciaries regarding how their conduct will be viewed if they face similar claims in the future.

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IRS Announces 2022 Cost-of-Living Adjustments for Retirement Plans

The IRS recently announced the 2022 cost-of-living adjustments to various benefit and contribution limits applicable to retirement plans. Generally, the IRS increased the applicable limits for 2022, although certain limits remained unchanged. The following limits apply to retirement plans in 2022:

  • The limit on elective deferrals under 401(k), 403(b), and eligible 457(b) plans increased to $20,500.
  • The limit on additional catch-up contributions by participants age 50 or older remains unchanged at $6,500. This means that the maximum amount of elective deferral contributions for those participants in 2022 is $27,000.
  • The Internal Revenue Code (“Code”) Section 415 annual addition limit is increased to $61,000 for 401(k) and other defined contribution plans, and the annual benefit limit is increased to $245,000 for defined benefit plans.
  • The limit on the annual compensation that can be taken into account by qualified plans under Code Section 417 is increased to $305,000.
  • The dollar level threshold for becoming a highly compensated employee under Code Section 414(q) increased to $135,000 (which based on the look-back rule is applicable for HCE determinations in 2023 based on compensation in 2022).
  • The dollar level threshold for becoming a “key employee” in a top-heavy plan under Code Section 416(i)(1) is increased to $200,000.

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ERISA Litigation Roundup: Federal District Court Dismisses ERISA Stock-Drop Suit

On September 30, 2021, the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut dismissed an ERISA stock-drop lawsuit brought against alleged fiduciaries of Aetna, Inc.’s (Aetna’s) employee stock ownership plan (ESOP), holding that the plaintiffs failed to state a fiduciary breach claim under ERISA.  Radcliffe v. Aetna, Inc., No. 3:20-cv-01274, 2021 WL 4477408 (D. Conn. Sept. 30, 2021).

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Day of the Dead…lines: Updating Your Plan’s Safe Harbor Notice

As the end of year approaches, now is the time for safe harbor 401(k) plan sponsors to prepare their annual safe harbor notices.

401(k) Plans that satisfy nondiscrimination testing via the employer contribution safe harbors in Internal Revenue Code §§ 401(k)(12) and (13) are required to send notices to participants within a reasonable time prior to the start of the plan year. Per IRS regulations, the timing is deemed reasonable if the notice is provided at least 30 days (and no more than 90 days) prior to the start of the plan year (so, by December 1 for calendar-year plans).

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Department of Labor Proposal Would Encourage Consideration of ESG Factors for Plan Investments

On October 13, 2021, the Department of Labor (DOL) released a new proposed regulation under ERISA that would replace the previous administration’s “pecuniary factors” rule – which is widely viewed as discouraging the use of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors when selecting plan investments – with one that would encourage their consideration and provide a clearer pathway for plan fiduciaries to do so.

Background

Over the years, the DOL’s stated position on the consideration of ESG and other “social” factors when selecting plan investments has toggled back and forth, largely along party lines.

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Thinking ESOPs: Court Rejects DOL Claims of ESOP Overpayment

The board of directors of Bowers + Kubota Consulting, Inc. recently won an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) fiduciary/breach case brought against them by the Department of Labor. See Walsh v. Bowers, et al., No. 1:18-cv-00155-SOM-WRP (D. Haw. Sept. 17, 2021). After a full trial on the merits, the district-court judge entered judgment in favor of the defendants, largely based on the court’s rejection of the DOL’s critiques of the valuation upon which the trustee relied. What is perhaps most interesting about the court’s decision is the contrast between the discussion in this case of fundamental ERISA and valuation concepts, on the one hand, and the discussion of fundamental ERISA and valuation concepts in two other cases in which courts entered judgment against the defendants.

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ERISA Litigation Roundup: Seventh Circuit Weighs in on Arbitration and Class Waiver Provisions in Defined-Contribution Plans

On September 10, 2021, the Seventh Circuit decided Smith v. Board of Directors of Triad Manufacturing Inc., No. 20-2708, holding that benefit plans may require claimants to arbitrate claims under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, 29 U.S.C. § 1001, et seq. (ERISA), but may not preclude claimants from obtaining relief that ERISA provides.

Triad Manufacturing, acting through its board of directors, established an employee stock ownership plan (Plan) in December 2015, when several of Triad’s largest shareholders (Selling Shareholders) sold all of their stock to the Plan. The Plan was a defined-contribution employee retirement plan governed by ERISA. Triad, acting through the Board, was the Plan’s sponsor, GreatBanc served as the Plan’s trustee and James Smith was a former Triad employee and a participant in the Plan. When the value of Triad’s stock dropped significantly in the weeks following the ESOP transaction, the value of Smith’s interest in the Plan decreased commensurately, eventually prompting Smith to sue.

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Employers – Check Your Severance Arrangements Now!

If employees are required to provide proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a timely negative COVID-19 test, and/or wear a mask as a condition of employment (COVID-19 Policies), and an employee is terminated for violating a COVID-19 Policy, will that employee be entitled to severance benefits?

The answer depends on what the employer intends and the terms of the applicable severance arrangement which, for example, can be in the form of a severance plan, a severance agreement, or an employment agreement.

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Revised IRS Correction Procedures (EPCRS) Include Helpful Changes

On July 16, 2021, the Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”) published an updated version of its correction procedures for qualified retirement plans, Revenue Procedure 2021-30, the Employee Plans Compliance Resolution System (“EPCRS”).

The revisions to EPCRS include a number of changes that are intended to help simplify and provide additional flexibility for correcting certain retirement plan failures. Below is a summary of the major changes:

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ERISA Litigation Roundup: Northern District of Illinois Dismisses ERISA Stock-Drop Suit

On August 23, 2021, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois dismissed an ERISA stock-drop lawsuit brought against fiduciaries of Kraft Heinz Food Company’s employee stock ownership plan (ESOP), holding that the plaintiffs failed to meet the “more harm than good” pleading standard set forth in Fifth Third Bancorp v. Dudenhoeffer, 573 U.S. 409, 428 (2014). Osborne v. Emp. Benefits Admin. Bd. of Kraft Heinz, No. 20-cv-2256, 2021 WL 3725613 (N.D. Ill. Aug. 23, 2021).

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