As people across the country react to the quickly changing COVID-19 pandemic, Congress passed another piece of legislation providing guidance and relief on a variety of issues — the Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, signed into law on March 27, 2020. This article includes brief summaries of what employers should know about key benefits-related components of the CARES Act. Plan sponsors should review their plans to assess the impact of these changes and take appropriate steps to implement the changes (some of which are required).
Hardship Distributions During the COVID-19 Outbreak
As the COVID-19 outbreak continues, retirement plan sponsors will likely receive questions from employees about ways in which they can access funds in their retirement plan accounts. While we wait for any potential Congressional action to ease access to retirement plan accounts, we look to the hardship distribution rules that apply now regardless of Congressional relief. Hardship distributions are one way an employee can receive an in-service distribution of elective deferral contributions (and, depending on the plan provisions, other types of contributions) from their accounts, provided the employee has an immediate and heavy financial need and the distribution is necessary to meet that need.
The IRS’s recently issued final regulations added a new type of safe harbor hardship distribution event, for losses related to a federally-declared disaster. Under the final regulations, an employee may be deemed to have an immediate and heavy financial need when the employee incurs expenses and losses (including loss of income) as a result of a disaster declared by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (“FEMA”), provided the employee’s principal residence or principal place of employment at the time of the disaster was located in an area designated by FEMA for individual assistance with respect to the particular disaster. Historically, the IRS announced similar relief on a piecemeal basis (for example, allowing certain hardship distributions for Hurricane Maria and the California wildfires in 2017).
IRS Guidance Related to Coronavirus Testing/Treatment for HDHPs/HSAs
Last week, the IRS issued guidance confirming that high-deductible health plans with health savings accounts can provide coronavirus testing and treatment at no cost to participants without affecting eligibility for health savings accounts. Without this guidance, any non-preventive services provided to such participants before meeting their plan deductible would have disqualified the participants from health savings account eligibility. This guidance is welcome, as employers attempt to remove obstacles to testing and treatment for coronavirus.
After a delay of several months, Congress passed the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (SECURE) Act, clearing the way for one of the most substantial pieces of retirement plan legislation in years to become law.
The House of Representatives initially passed the SECURE Act in May by an overwhelming 417−3 vote. Although the Act was set for easy bipartisan passage, it foundered in the Senate. The bill found new life at the eleventh hour of the 2019 legislative session as an attachment to the must-pass $1.4 trillion spending bill, which passed by significant margins.
The American Arbitration Association (AAA) significantly altered its rules for multiemployer pension plan arbitrations to respond to Pension Benefit Guaranty Board (PBGC) concerns and public comments regarding recent fee increases and the selection of arbitrators. Today, the PBGC published a Notice of Approval of AAA’s application of its amended rules. Click here for our alert on the changes, which discusses the welcome relief these amended rules provide employers who wish to challenge withdrawal liability assessments and the impact on arbitrating assessments between multiemployer plans and employers.
In the final installment of our ERISA at 45 series, Heather Abrigo spoke with Sarah Bassler Millar about the evolution of retirement plans since the inception of ERISA. Topics included the increasing sophistication of plan sponsors and a shift in fiduciary compliance, how employers are looking at employees and plan design to identify roadblocks to retirement, and the increased level of transparency in fees and expenses. They also discussed issues currently facing plan sponsors, such as how to address missing plan participants and the increased sophistication of alternative investment options, and took a look at what may be the most impactful trends in the years to come, including highly-focused DOL investigations, a resurgence of IRS activity surrounding compliance and qualification issues, and the introduction of state sponsored plans.
On October 23, 2019, the Department of Labor (DOL) published a proposed rule that would ease retirement plan administration by allowing broader use of electronic disclosure. This proposed rule was foreshadowed by an Executive Order issued in August 2018 directing the DOL to review actions that could be taken to improve the effectiveness of retirement plan disclosures under ERISA and to reduce the costs to employers.
Currently, plan sponsors can rely on a 2002 safe harbor for electronic delivery of documents and other information required under ERISA. However, the 2002 safe harbor is limited; notice can be provided electronically only to participants and beneficiaries who either (1) have work-related computer access or (2) provide affirmative consent to receive documents electronically (in addition to meeting certain other requirements). Anyone not falling within one of those categories must receive a hard copy.
The IRS has announced the dollar limits for contributions and benefits in retirement plans and certain deferred compensation plans for 2020. We have compiled a chart summarizing the key limits below, including how they compare with those in the previous year. Plan sponsors should confirm with their recordkeepers that all systems have been updated to reflect the 2020 limits.
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.”