Earlier this year we reported on the “Employee and Retiree Access to Justice Act,” which sought to render arbitration and class action waiver provisions, and discretionary authority for plan administrators, in ERISA plans unenforceable. On September 29, 2022, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Mental Health Matters Act (the Act) — which encompasses the Employee and Retiree Access to Justice Act.
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.
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.
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.
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.
On April 27, 2022, the Sixth Circuit decided Hawkins v. Cintas Corporation, No. 21-3156, holding that claims for breach of fiduciary duty under § 502(a)(2) of the Employment Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), belong to the plan, and plaintiffs asserting such claims for alleged harm to their individual retirement accounts in defined contribution plans may not be compelled to arbitrate those claims absent the plan’s consent.
Hawkins is a putative class action that participants in an ERISA-governed defined-contribution retirement plan filed on behalf of the plan against Cintas Corporation, their former employer and the plan’s sponsor, under ERISA § 502(a)(2). The plaintiffs alleged that Cintas had breached fiduciary duties it owed to them under ERISA in connection with its administration of the plan, causing losses to the plan.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit partially reversed the dismissal of two proposed class actions alleging mismanagement of separate 401(k) plans in violation of ERISA. In Davis v. Salesforce.com, Inc., 2022 WL 105557 (9th Cir. Apr. 8, 2022), participants in 401(k) plan claimed that Salesforce.com, its board of directors, investment committee and executives breached their fiduciary duties by imprudently selecting and retaining relatively high-cost investments and failing to investigate less expensive alternatives, despite the availability of lower-cost options with identical or substantially similar underlying assets. The district court dismissed the plaintiffs’ complaint in its entirety, noting that it lacked adequate factual support. Specifically, the district court held that the allegations regarding alternative share classes, without more, were insufficient to state a claim; the complaint improperly attempted to compare passive funds with actively managed funds; and there is no obligation to offer alternatives such as collective investment trusts (CITs), and, in any event, CITs are not meaningful comparators to mutual funds.
Enforcement of an ERISA plan’s arbitration provision has become a hotly litigated issue. Plaintiffs and courts often raise two objections to arbitration provisions in ERISA plans, including ESOPs. The first is whether participants or the plan itself consented to the arbitration provision. The second is whether class-action waiver language, which requires individualized arbitration, is enforceable under ERISA.
There have been several important ERISA arbitration decisions in recent years, including many involving ESOPs. Interestingly, these decisions suggest that courts are struggling with the same statutory-interpretation problems that courts struggle with when addressing a number of issues raised by ESOP litigation. Many key ERISA provisions are difficult, if not impossible, to interpret based solely on their express language. This is a real problem in ESOP litigation because many disputes turn on a court’s interpretation of the opaque ERISA provisions that are implicated by the disputes.
In Newsom v. Reliance Standard Life Ins. Co., the Fifth Circuit clarified when it is appropriate for a district court to remand an ERISA dispute to a plan administrator for development of a merits record. 26 F.4th 329 (5th Cir. 2022). James Newsom suffered from a variety of maladies, and in September 2017 his employer reduced his schedule to 32 hours per week. In October 2017, Newsom’s schedule again was reduced to 28 hours per week, and he stopped working entirely on January 30, 2018. After Newsom filed a claim for disability benefits, Reliance Standard, the claims administrator, determined that his date of disability was January 30, 2018, and since he was working less than 30 hours per week at that time, he was not a full-time employee and did not qualify for long-term disability coverage. After Newsom sued, the district court determined that Newsom’s date of disability was October 2017, that Newsom was a full-time employee as of that date, and that he was eligible for long-term disability coverage. Accordingly, and without further analysis, the district court awarded Newson long-term disability benefits.
When determining alternative pension benefits (such as joint and survivor annuities and early retirement benefits), a recent court decision held that underlying actuarial assumptions selected decades ago do not violate federal law simply because they are outdated and may result in a pension benefit that is less than using more current actuarial assumption.