ERISA Litigation Roundup: A Ninth Circuit Ruling Reminds ERISA Plans of the Importance of Administrative Accuracy

The Ninth Circuit’s recent decision in Bafford v. Northrop Grumman (April 15, 2021) affirmed the district court’s dismissal of the plaintiffs’ breach of fiduciary duty claims under ERISA but vacated the district court’s holding that state-law professional and negligent misrepresentation claims were preempted.

Northrop Grumman (Northrup), sponsor of the ERISA-governed retirement plan at issue, delegated administration of the plan to an administrative committee (the Committee). The Committee, in turn, contracted with a record keeper to provide outside administrative services. One of the services offered by the record keeper was an online benefits portal to assist plan participants in estimating pension benefits.

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ERISA Litigation Roundup: Ninth Circuit Holds State IRA Plans Not Preempted by ERISA

In a matter of first impression, the Ninth Circuit affirmed that ERISA does not preempt a California law that created a state-managed retirement program for certain private employers. Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association v. California Secure Choice Retirement Savings Program, 2021 WL 1805758 (9th Cir. May 6, 2021).

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ERISA Litigation Roundup: Eastern District of Michigan Weighs in on Allegations of COBRA Notice Violations

On May 4, 2021, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan granted in part and denied in part a motion to dismiss in a class action lawsuit regarding the adequate notice of the right to continued insurance coverage under the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985 (COBRA). The decision follows a blitz of class action lawsuits alleging deficient COBRA notices and underscores the importance of careful review by employers.

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Department of Labor Guidance Addresses Cybersecurity Risk Mitigation

On April 14, 2021, the Department of Labor (“DOL”) issued three documents that provide cybersecurity guidance for plan sponsors, fiduciaries, recordkeepers, and plan participants. Cybersecurity has become an increasingly important topic for plan sponsors and committees, given the fiduciary requirements to act in the interest of plan participants and to prudently select and monitor service providers, in addition to general risk management considerations. While the guidance was not issued under a formal notice and comment process, it lists actions the DOL recommends that plan fiduciaries and committees take to safeguard data and monitor service providers – and potentially indicates the steps that the DOL would view as the minimum necessary to satisfy applicable fiduciary obligations.

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IRS and PBGC Provide Welcome Clarification on Contribution Deadline for Defined Benefit Pension Plans

On November 16, 2020, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) issued Notice 2020-82 (the Notice), to further extend the deadline for required minimum contributions for single-employer defined benefit pension plans that would otherwise be due during the 2020 calendar year, from January 1, 2021, to January 4, 2021. On the same day, the PBGC issued complementary guidance, in Technical Update 20-2 (the PBGC Update), to reflect the January 4, 2021, deadline established by the IRS in the Notice when calculating variable-rate premiums.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) previously established a January 1, 2021, deadline for certain required minimum contributions that would otherwise be due during the 2020 calendar year. This pension funding holiday applies for contributions to single-employer defined benefit pension plans required under Section 430(j) of the Internal Revenue Code (the Code). Under Code Section 430(j), single-employer defined benefit pension plan sponsors are required to make certain minimum contributions that are designed to keep the plan sufficiently funded. For a given contribution to apply for a plan year, generally the contribution must be made no later than 8-1/2 months after the plan year ends. However, when a plan has a funding shortfall for the prior plan year, the plan sponsor is required to pay four quarterly installments toward the required minimum contribution for the plan year (due on April 15, July 15, and October 15 of the plan year, and January 15 of the following year, for a calendar year plan). The CARES Act gave plan sponsors additional time to make these required minimum contributions, by providing a January 1, 2021, due date for amounts otherwise due during 2021.

In the Notice, the IRS recognized the legislative intent to defer a plan sponsor’s payment obligation to calendar year 2021. The IRS acknowledged that this deferment to 2021 would not be possible with a January 1, 2021, deadline, given that January 1, 2021, is a bank holiday, and financial institutions cannot transfer funds on the January 1, 2021, due date. As a result, the Notice extends the deadline to January 4, 2021, the next business day after January 1, 2021. For amounts that are contributed on January 4, 2021, and treated as timely made pursuant to the Notice, the amount of the required minimum contribution that is considered satisfied by the contribution is determined by computing the applicable interest adjustment based on the actual contribution date.

The Notice also extends the deadline for a plan sponsor of a single-employer defined benefit pension plan to make certain elections related to the plan’s prefunding balance. These extended deadlines relate to (a) an election to add contributions made in excess of the minimum required contribution for a plan year to the plan’s refunding balance (i.e., a balance that may be used at the plan sponsor’s election to offset minimum required contributions for a later plan year) and (b) an election to use an existing prefunding balance or funding standard carryover balance to offset a required minimum contribution for a plan year. The deadline for those elections is now also January 4, 2021, for a plan year for which the extended due date for required minimum contributions applies. Note, however, that the Notice does not impact the treatment of certain missed quarterly installment contributions otherwise due on January 1, 2021, pursuant to the CARES Act. Further, the extended deadline (previously January 1, 2021, and now January 4, 2021) does not apply for a multiemployer plan, a money purchase pension plan, a “cooperate and small employer charity” (CSEC) plan, or a fully insured plan as described in Code Section 412(e)(3).

Prior to this Notice, the IRS had issued guidance on the CARES Act funding rules for single-employer defined benefit pension plans in Notice 2020-61. That notice addressed the payment of annual premiums to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) (as well as interest adjustments for minimum required contributions, the actuarial certification of a plan’s adjusted funding target attainment percentage (AFTAP), and Form 5500 reporting for contributions made with respect to the 2019 plan year that were made after the filing deadline for the 2019 plan year).

The PBGC Update referenced above addresses the IRS guidance and its impact on the PBGC premium filings by providing that, for premium filings due on or after March 1, 2020, and before January 1, 2021, the date by which prior-year contributions must be received by the plan to be included in plan assets used to determine the variable-rate premium is extended to January 4, 2021. If such a contribution is made by January 4, 2021, a plan sponsor may amend the premium filing to revise the originally reported asset value and the applicable variable-rate premium. Note that the PBGC relief does not impact the premium due dates, and it does not allow a plan sponsor to include a contribution that has not yet been made in the premium filing.

Contact your Faegre Drinker attorney for more information on the extended deadline for required minimum contributions, the variable-rate premium contribution calculation and deadlines, and other aspects of the CARES Act relief for single-employer defined benefit pension plans.

Talking Through the DOL’s Proposed Prohibited Transaction Exemption, Episode 4: Litigation Risks

On June 29, the Department of Labor (DOL) issued a proposed prohibited transaction exemption (PTE), filling the void left when the Fifth Circuit vacated the Obama-era 2016 DOL regulation in 2018. While the proposed rule is ostensibly an administrative rulemaking on which the DOL seeks public comment, it also does a lot more. In this podcast episode, Faegre Drinker’s Jim Jorden and Brad Campbell analyze the litigation issues related to this new interpretation — particularly as it pertains to the sale of annuities and other insurance products.

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