District Court Finds Arbitration and Class Action Waiver Provision Enforceable in Retirement Plan

The Eastern District of Kentucky recently became the latest court to weigh in on arbitration and class action waiver provisions in ERISA-governed defined contribution plans. In Merrow v. Horizon Bank, the court found such a provision enforceable and compelled arbitration of the plaintiffs’ ERISA breach of fiduciary duty and prohibited transaction claims.

The three plaintiffs were former employees of P.L. Marketing (PLM), who were vested participants in the P.L. Marketing, Inc. Employee Stock Ownership Plan (the Plan). They filed an action against Horizon Bank, the Plan’s trustee, asserting that defendants violated ERISA by causing the Plan to overpay for company stock.  Plaintiffs brought three ERISA claims, arguing: 1) Horizon participated in a prohibited transaction; 2) Horizon breached its fiduciary duty as the Plan administrator; and 3) the selling shareholders knowingly participated in ERISA violations under 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(3).

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Reminder: Gag Clause Attestations Due by Year-End

The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 generally requires group health plans and health insurance issuers to submit a Gag Clause Prohibition Compliance Attestation (Attestation) each year to demonstrate compliance with the prohibition on including gag clauses in certain agreements.  The Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and the Treasury (the Departments) issued FAQs last February requiring affected plans and issuers to submit their first Attestations no later than December 31, 2023, covering the period beginning December 27, 2020 through the attestation date, with subsequent Attestations due annually thereafter.

Prohibition on Gag Clauses

Group health plans and health insurance issuers offering group health insurance coverage are prohibited by ERISA and the Internal Revenue Code from entering into an agreement with a health care provider, network or association of providers, third-party administrator (TPA), or other service provider offering access to a network of providers that would directly or indirectly restrict a plan or issuer from (i) disclosing provider-specific cost or quality-of-care information to referring providers, plan sponsors, enrollees or eligible individuals; (ii) electronically accessing de-identified claims and encounter information or data for plan participants, beneficiaries, or enrollees, and (iii) sharing such information or data with business associates, consistent with applicable privacy regulations. A similar prohibition applies to health insurers offering individual health insurance coverage under the Public Health Service Act.  These prohibited restrictions are referred to as “gag clauses.”

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Final Changes Announced to Forms 5500 and 5500-SF

The Department of Labor (DOL) announced that it has finalized, together with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation (PBGC), the third and final round of revisions to the Form 5500 Annual Return/Report of Employee Benefit Plan and the 5500-SF Short Form Annual Return/Report of Small Employee Benefit Plan.

These Phase III revisions implement certain elements of a September 2021 regulatory proposal, which included proposed changes to annual reporting requirements under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA). Some of the changes relate to the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enforcement Act (SECURE Act), including items affecting multiple-employer plans (MEPs) and defined contribution group reporting arrangements. As such, the changes mostly impact retirement plans. Phase III revisions are effective for plan years beginning January 1, 2023, with filing beginning in July 2024. The previous Phases I and II adopted changes for plan years 2021 and 2022, respectively.

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Multiemployer Pension Plan Alert: Evergreen Clauses May Trump the Bargaining Parties’ Subsequent Agreement

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit recently ruled that Central States, Southeast and Southwest Areas Pension Fund may continue its lawsuit against Transervice Logistics, Inc. and Zenith Logistics, Inc. seeking allegedly outstanding pension fund contributions. The case examined two consolidated appeals, each involving a nearly identical collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between each employer and a union, and trust agreements between each employer and the plaintiff fund. The court was asked to determine whether the employers were required to maintain contributions to a multiemployer pension plan pursuant to so-called “evergreen clauses” that renewed the CBAs each year unless timely terminated.

Factual Background

The CBAs obligated the employers to make pension fund contributions to plaintiff, making the fund a third-party beneficiary of the agreements. The trust agreements obligated the employers to contribute to the fund for the “entire term of any collective bargaining agreement… (including any extension of a collective bargaining agreement through an evergreen clause…).” The CBAs were set to expire on January 31, 2019 but contained evergreen clauses that renewed the CBAs each year unless terminated with 60 days’ notice.

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ERISA Litigation Roundup: Judge Permits Partial Jury Trial in Eversource Energy 401(k) Dispute

In an unusual decision, a federal judge last month refused to strike a plaintiff class’ demand for a jury trial in an ERISA 401(k) class action.

In Garthwait v. Eversource Energy Co., a class of former and current participants in the Eversource 401(k) Plan (the Plan) filed an action against Eversource Energy Company and Plan fiduciaries seeking to recover plan losses caused by alleged breaches of fiduciary duty and requesting other equitable or remedial relief.

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EEOC Disavows Former General Counsel’s Letter on Abortion Travel Benefits

We understand a former general counsel of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC or Commission), Sharon Fast Gustafson, recently sent a form letter to various employers alleging that providing abortion-related travel benefits to their employees could result in unlawful discrimination. Specifically, Gustafson’s letter avers that offering abortion travel benefits without also offering travel benefits for other health conditions may constitute several types of discrimination, including pregnancy and childbirth discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, disability discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act and religious discrimination.

The letter does not actually threaten any litigation and appears designed to advance Gustafson’s personal agenda. However, recipients may be concerned that Gustafson’s views could be conflated with those of the EEOC, since the letter’s opening paragraph describes Gustafson as a “recent General Counsel of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) with 31 years of experience practicing primarily employment law.”

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Navigating Open Enrollment Notice Requirements

Fall open enrollment is upon us, and plan sponsors and administrators are preparing to provide their employees with the required notices related to their health and welfare plans. Notice and disclosure obligations for health and welfare plans have become increasingly complex, with some information being required at initial enrollment and others required annually. Although insurers and third-party administrators may prepare or distribute these notices, ultimately the responsibility for compliance often rests with the plan sponsor or plan administrator.

Some of the notices routinely included in open enrollment materials are listed below.

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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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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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