ERISA Litigation Roundup: Fifth Circuit Affirms Decision in Favor of American Airlines in Suit Over Plan Investment Alternative Selection

Following the Fifth Circuit’s decision in Ortiz v. American Airlines, plan fiduciaries should be aware that the application of the Thole decision may be deemed inapposite to claims for a defined-contribution plan, where participants’ benefits are tied directly to fiduciary investment decisions.

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Part One of Surprise Medical Billing Regulatory Guidance Outlines Specific Required Changes to Group Health Plan Payment Calculations

The No Surprises Act (the “NSA”), which was signed into law at the end of 2020 as part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, is designed to protect consumers from unexpected medical bills.  The NSA generally applies to group health plans, healthcare providers, and health insurance issuers.  The NSA is expected to have significant and far-reaching impacts on the health industry, so it is imperative that group health plan sponsors take steps to implement regulatory guidance on the NSA as it is issued.

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PBGC Issues Interim Regulations on Special Financial Assistance for Multiemployer Pension Plans

Multiemployer pension plans are collectively bargained defined-benefit employee benefit plans that are funded by several unrelated employers for the benefit of unionized employees. In recent years, the crisis of significantly underfunded multiemployer plans has continued to grow. In response, Congress enacted the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA), which was signed into law on March 11, 2021. ARPA amended ERISA to establish a new program within the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation (PBGC) to offer “special financial assistance” (SFA) to multiemployer plans in danger of becoming insolvent; in contrast to other assistance offered by the PBGC, plans are not required to repay the SFA.

ARPA directed the PBGC to issue regulations or other guidance to prescribe the application requirements for SFA payments and for how funds are to be invested and to impose conditions on plans that receive SFA payments. On July 9, 2021, the PBGC issued this guidance in the form of interim regulations.

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Thinking ESOPs: What the Supreme Court’s Decision in a 401(k) Fee Case Could Mean for ESOPs

The U.S. Supreme Court recently agreed to hear a challenge to the dismissal of an Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) 401(k) excessive fee case. The case involves a question about whether jury trials are appropriate in ERISA cases, but also a question about what an ERISA lawsuit must plead in order to survive a motion to dismiss, particularly when the lawsuit brings a claim for breach of fiduciary duty in managing a 401(k) plan’s fees and investment options. The 401(k) community is watching this case closely, and the employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) community also should pay close attention.

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Internal Revenue Service Extends Temporary Relief from the Physical Presence Requirement by One Year

The IRS recently issued Notice 2021-40, providing a one-year extension through June 30, 2022, of the temporary relief from the physical presence requirement for certain plan elections (including spousal consents) required to be witnessed by a plan representative or notary public. Issued in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the IRS provided initial relief from the physical presence requirement for the period beginning January 1, 2020 and ending December 1, 2020, and then provided initial extended relief through June 30, 2021.

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ERISA Litigation Roundup: The DOL Determines That Audio Recordings Must Be Produced Under ERISA’s Claim Regulations

On June 14, 2021, the Department of Labor (DOL) issued an information letter stating that plan fiduciaries have a duty under ERISA’s claim regulations to produce upon request recordings or transcripts of phone calls between benefit claimants and plan representatives regarding their benefit claims. The DOL letter is a call for plan administrators to revisit and potentially refine their processes for recording and storing such conversations.

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Disclosure of Claims-Related Audio Recordings

Claims-related audio recordings may need to be disclosed to claimants upon request, according to an information letter dated June 14, 2021 (“Information Letter”), issued by the Department of Labor’s (“DOL”) Employee Benefits Security Administration (“EBSA”). Although DOL information letters are not binding, as a result of the Information Letter, claimants may start to request audio recordings of conversations relating to benefit denials. Plan sponsors and claims administrators should be prepared for these requests and should train personnel handling telephone calls with claimants accordingly.

The Information Letter addresses whether ERISA and DOL claims procedures regulations thereunder require a plan fiduciary to provide, upon a claimant’s request, a copy of an audio recording and transcript of a telephone conversation between the claimant and a representative of the plan’s insurer regarding a benefit denial. The request at issue in the Information Letter was denied by the claims administrator on the basis that “recordings are for ‘quality assurance purposes,’” and “are not created, maintained, or relied upon for claim administration purposes, and therefore are not part of the administrative record.” The claims administrator maintained that the actual recording is distinct from the notes made available to the claimant, which contemporaneously documented the content of the recorded conversation, and which became part of the “claim activity history through which [the insurer] develops, tracks and administers the claim.”

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Biden Directs DOL to Consider Rescinding Trump-Era Rule on Environmental, Social and Governance Investing

President Biden signed an executive order on May 20 on climate-related financial risk that seeks to change the rules regarding the use of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) investments in retirement plans. The order specifically directs the Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA) bureau of the Department of Labor (DOL) to consider suspending, revising, or rescinding the Trump-era “Financial Factors in Selective Plan Investments” rule regarding ESG retirement investments. The executive order is consistent with the expectation that the Biden administration will move to encourage the consideration of ESG factors when selecting retirement plan investments given the emphasis on climate change initiatives.

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ERISA Litigation Roundup: Federal District Court Finds ERISA Plan Participants Lack Standing to Challenge Cross-Plan Offsetting

A federal judge in the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota dismissed breach of fiduciary duty claims against UnitedHealth Group, holding that participants in ERISA-governed, employer-sponsored health plans lack standing to challenge UnitedHealth Group’s practice of cross-plan offsetting because they have not been denied any benefits and have not been individually injured. The decision underscores the Supreme Court’s ruling that plaintiffs must demonstrate individual injury in order to assert breach of fiduciary duty claims under ERISA.

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The DOL Provides Practical Guidance on the Application of PTE 2020-02

As described in our recent blog posts, the Department of Labor (“DOL”) recently issued guidance in the form of FAQs to address questions concerning the practical application of PTE 2020-02, Improving Investment Advice for Workers & Retirees.  This blog post discusses the guidance the DOL offers with respect to various topics under PTE 2020-02.  Guidance with respect to the general requirements of PTE 2020-02 was discussed in our prior blog post and the DOL’s guidance with respect to the application of PTE 2020-02 to rollover recommendations was discussed in our prior blog post.

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