In addition to raising a host of regulatory issues for employee benefit plans, including compliance with the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to cause a sharp rise in ERISA litigation in the coming months. Faegre Drinker’s ERISA litigation team will be issuing a series of alerts designed to help clients navigate the fiduciary and plan liability issues associated with COVID-19. Part One of our series provides helpful guidance for ESOP fiduciaries carrying out their duties during this uncertain time.
With most of the nation on lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many employers are in the unfortunate position of having to lay off workers or significantly reduce their hours. If these workers also lose employer-sponsored health coverage, they will experience a “qualifying event” under the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (“COBRA”), triggering the requirement to send COBRA election notices describing the employee’s (and spouse’s) right to elect to temporarily stay on their employer’s health plan. In these difficult times, employers should review their notices to ensure they are compliant with COBRA and provide adequate information to employees. Compliance is especially important because COBRA notices have become the subject of a growing trend of class action lawsuits filed by ex-employees alleging that their former employers did not provide sufficient notice of their COBRA rights.
Generally, COBRA requires notices to be drafted in a manner that the average plan participant can understand, and must provide specifics about continuation coverage, such as the contact information for the administrator, how to elect coverage, and how much coverage costs. The DOL has issued model notice letters to help employers meet these requirements.
In its February 26, 2020, unanimous decision in Intel Corporation Investment Policy Committee v. Sulyma, the United States Supreme Court resolved a circuit split regarding what constitutes “actual knowledge” for purposes of triggering ERISA’s three-year statute of limitations for fiduciary breach claims. (ERISA § 413(2); 29 U.S.C. § 1113(2)). The Court found that a fiduciary’s act of disclosing investment information is necessary, but not sufficient to demonstrate that a participant has actual knowledge of the information contained in investment disclosures. Simply put, to “meet § 1113(2)’s ‘actual knowledge’ requirement … the plaintiff must in fact have become aware of that information.”
Under ERISA, a plaintiff must file a lawsuit within six years of the alleged fiduciary breach, or within three years of the date the plaintiff had “actual knowledge” of the breach. (ERISA § 413; 29 U.S.C. § 1113). Sulyma filed his lawsuit challenging the prudence of the Intel 401(k) plan fiduciaries’ investment decisions more than three years, but less than six years, after Intel provided ERISA-mandated disclosures of the investments at issue.
The U.S. Supreme Court is poised for a flurry of ERISA-related activity this year, with four cases on the docket. The first decision out of this quartet came on January 14, 2020, when the Supreme Court remanded the closely watched Retirement Plans Committee of IBM v. Jander to the Second Circuit Court to consider issues that were not fully developed at the court of appeals.
In Jander, the plaintiffs were participants in IBM’s employee stock ownership plan (ESOP), which invested in IBM stock. The plaintiffs alleged that the ESOP fiduciaries’ failure to make early corrective disclosures about an incorrect business valuation was a breach of fiduciary duty that caused the IBM stock to drop significantly.
In our fifth installment of ERISA at 45, Kim Jones speaks with Sarah Bassler Millar about the considerable increase in 401(k) litigation and the increased pressure on plan performance; excessive fee lawsuits and the three ERISA cases to watch before the U.S. Supreme Court this term; and the focus employers should place on prudent decision-making to reduce plan sponsor liability, especially in light of high-dollar amounts in settlements.
The Second Circuit Court of Appeals gave participants in New York University’s (NYU) retirement plans a second chance at pursuing their claims of plan mismanagement under ERISA. On October 1, 2019, the Second Circuit overturned the Southern District of New York’s dismissal of the participants’ lawsuit against the independent investment advisor who advised NYU on its retirement plans, even though the complaint alleged substantially the same claims against NYU in a separate lawsuit on which NYU prevailed.
In Sacerdote v. New York University (Sacerdote I), filed in 2016, retirement plan participants brought a class action alleging that NYU breached its fiduciary duties and committed prohibited transactions under ERISA by causing its retirement plans to pay unreasonable administrative and recordkeeping fees and maintain imprudent investment options. Plaintiffs subsequently filed a related action in November 2017, Sacerdote v. Cammack Larhette Advisors, LLC (Sacerdote II), against independent investment advisor Cammack Larhette Advisors, LLC (Cammack). The NYU defendants in Sacerdote II quickly moved to dismiss the suit as duplicative of Sacerdote I, and the Southern District of New York ultimately dismissed the action in its entirety, finding that defendants were in “privity with NYU in Sacerdote I because they had a sufficiently close relationship with NYU and their interests with aligned with those of NYU.”
In several recent ERISA plan lawsuits, plaintiffs have alleged that the plan fiduciary breached its fiduciary duties under ERISA with respect to participant data (e.g., participants’ ages, choice of investments, asset size, etc.), arguing that such participant data is a “plan asset” that the plan fiduciary failed to safeguard. Although ERISA does not specifically address whether participant data is a plan asset, the settlements reached in those lawsuits reveal an emerging trend that plan sponsors need to consider.
The withdrawal liability case of the year came to an anticlimactic end on Monday, September 16, 2019, as the Second Circuit docket sheet of New York Times Company v. Newspaper and Mail Deliverers’ Publishers’ Pension Fund pinged to life with a stipulation withdrawing the case with prejudice.
The most-watched issue in the case was a challenge to the Segal Blend discount rate assumption used by many multiemployer pension plans to calculate employer withdrawal liability. The discount rate assumption can have a massive effect on an employer’s withdrawal liability as even a small variation can dramatically increase a withdrawal calculation.
In our next installment of ERISA at 45, Kim Jones and Sarah Bassler Millar discuss how the landscape of health and welfare plan litigation has changed over the past 45 years, and identify new trends in litigation involving excessive fees, mental health parity, cross-plan offsetting, and pharmacy benefit managers.
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