Student Loan Assistance From Employers

As recently announced, President Biden has authorized forgiveness of up to $10,000 for federal student loan borrowers and $20,000 to individuals who received Pell Grants.

Employers are also able to provide student loan repayment benefits to their employees on a tax-free basis by expanding the type of permitted expenses under a Code § 127 “educational assistance program” to include student loan repayments made by the employer on behalf of an employee. If an employer has or adopts an educational assistance program, the employer may make student loan payments on behalf of an employee in an amount up to $5,250 annually, and such payments would be excluded from the employee’s taxable income.

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ERISA Litigation Roundup: Seventh Circuit Confirms DOL’s Broad Subpoena Power

 In Walsh v. Alight Solutions, LLC, — F.4th —, 2022 WL 3334450 (7th Cir. Aug. 12, 2022), the Seventh Circuit affirmed a district court order requiring Alight Solutions to produce documents in response to a Department of Labor (“DOL”) subpoena, confirming that the DOL has broad authority to issue subpoenas to investigate possible ERISA violations, even against non-fiduciaries.

Alight provides recordkeeping services for employers who sponsor ERISA-governed health and welfare and retirement plans. In 2019, the DOL began investigating Alight on the basis of alleged cybersecurity breaches that resulted in unauthorized distributions of plan benefits from plans for which Alight provides recordkeeping services. The DOL served Alight with an administrative subpoena duces tecum requesting 32 categories of documents dating back to 2015.

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IRS Relaxes Plan Amendment Deadlines for Changes Under the SECURE Act and Other Laws

The Internal Revenue Service recently granted plan sponsors additional time to amend retirement plans to reflect changes in law under: (i) Section 2203 of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act); (ii) the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement Act of 2019 (SECURE Act); and (iii) Section 104 of the Bipartisan American Miners Act of 2019 (Miners Act).

Sponsors of qualified plans and non-governmental Section 403(b) plans (including collectively bargained plans) now have until December 31, 2025, to adopt certain plan amendments required by these recent changes in law or to conform the written plan to operational changes permitted by these laws.

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ERISA Litigation Roundup: Damned if You Do, Damned if You Don’t

A string of ERISA lawsuits has emerged in recent weeks against companies who offer BlackRock Target-Date Funds (“TDFs”) as 401k investment options to their employees. The lawsuits allege the companies, in their capacities as plan sponsors, breached their fiduciary duty by choosing the low fee investment options offered by BlackRock Inc., despite their funds’ underperformance. This new litigation sparks concern amongst 401k plan sponsors who may now have to worry about lawsuits involving investment fees from all sides-for choosing the high fee options and for choosing the low fee options.

The lawsuits focus on the LifePath Index Funds of BlackRock, a suite of 10 target-date funds.  TDFs have increased in popularity over the past couple of years because they offer participants a lower fee but managed investment option based on target retirement years. Although BlackRock isn’t a party to the litigation, these lawsuits shine a spotlight on the performance of these funds.

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IRS Extends Temporary Relief from “Physical Presence” Requirement Through December 31, 2022

The IRS recently issued Notice 2022-27, providing a six-month extension 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 January 1through December 1, 2020, provided initial extended relief through June 30, 2021, and extended relief for a second time through June 30, 2022. Most recently, Notice 2022-27 extends the relief through December 31, 2022.

The temporary relief from the physical presence requirement applies to any participant election witnessed by a notary public of a state that permits remote electronic notarization or by a plan representative, if certain requirements are satisfied. We discussed those requirements in a prior blog post on this topic.

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Stay Tuned – the DOL Regulatory Agenda

The Department of Labor (“DOL”) recently published its Spring 2022 Regulatory Agenda, and here is a summary of several big ticket items:

ESG & ERISA: Plan sponsors and investment professionals have been waiting for final rules on the permissible use of environmental, social, and governance (“ESG”) considerations under ERISA when selecting plan investments and exercising shareholder rights with respect to plan assets. Based on the updated regulatory agenda, the DOL is planning to issue final ESG rules in December 2022.

Fiduciary Rule: Plan advisors and investment professionals have also been awaiting guidance on the DOL’s fiduciary rule re-write. The Trump era “fiduciary rule” is currently in effect and is a combination of a new and expansive definition of fiduciary advice and an exemption – PTE 2020-02 – from the prohibitions of ERISA and the Internal Revenue Code for certain conflicts of interest arising from nondiscretionary fiduciary recommendations. However, last year, the Biden administration announced that it is revisiting the definition of fiduciary investment advice and the requirements of various prohibited transaction exemptions. Based on the Agenda, we can expect a new proposed fiduciary rule in December 2022.

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ERISA Litigation Roundup: The End of Firestone?

The Employee and Retiree Access to Justice Act is — yes — another employee benefits bill recently introduced in both the House and Senate (see our other blog post on SECURE 2.0, already passed by the House and which now has a draft bill under review in the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee). In addition to seeking to eliminate individual arbitration as a method for resolving benefit denial and breach of fiduciary duty disputes under ERISA, the Employee and Retiree Access to Justice Act also seeks to invalidate discretionary clauses in ERISA-governed benefit plans. The prohibition of such clauses would eliminate deferential judicial review of benefit claim denials in court.

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ERISA Litigation Roundup: Second Circuit Holds Disability Benefit Claim Must Be Fully Determined on Internal Appeal Review Within 45 Days

On June 7, 2022, the Second Circuit decided McQuillin v. Hartford Life and Accident Insurance Co., No. 21-1514, holding that under ERISA and Department of Labor (DOL) regulations governing administrative benefit claims and appeals (29 C.F.R. § 2560.503-1), when considering an appeal of a denied disability claim, a plan administrator must make full determination of benefits. In doing so, the Second Circuit rejected the claim administrator’s argument that reversing the claim denial and remanding the claim internally for reevaluation satisfied the regulations — instead, a decision on whether or not benefits would be awarded was required.

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New Stats on Employer Retirement Plans

On June 8, 2022, the Congressional Research Service published “Private-Sector Defined Contribution Pension Plans: An Introduction.” We reviewed the report and wanted to highlight a few key data points. Defined contribution plans include 401(k), 403(b), and profit-sharing plans. The report does not include government employer plans.

Takeaways

Congress continues to introduce bills related to retirement security (see our Blog Post on Secure Act 2.0 and the Employee and Retiree Access to Justice Act). These new bills continue to focus on increasing access to part-time workers, easing the implementation of retirement plans for smaller employers, and encouraging plans to implement automatic enrollment features. Based on the results in this Congressional Research Service report, we can expect continued emphasis on those features. If you’d like to discuss design changes to your defined contribution plan, please contact a Faegre Drinker benefits attorney for assistance.

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IRS Pilots Pre-Examination Compliance Program for Retirement Plans

In its recent June Employee Plans newsletter, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) announced the launch of a 90-day pre-examination compliance pilot program. Under the program, the IRS will notify a plan sponsor that its retirement plan has been selected for pre-examination. The notification will provide the sponsor with 90 days to review retirement plan documents and operations to determine compliance with current tax law. If the sponsor does not respond within 90 days, the IRS will contact the sponsor to schedule an examination.

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