Last week, the Supreme Court issued its anticipated ruling in the ERISA fiduciary-breach class action Hughes v. Northwestern. In its unanimous decision, the Court vacated the Seventh Circuit’s dismissal of the case and sent the case back to the lower court for further review. The narrow decision may boost plaintiffs in similar ERISA cases involving challenges to retirement plan fees and investment options, but it also offers hope to defendants.
On December 21, 2021, the Department of Labor (DOL) issued additional guidance on the use of private equity investments in certain retirement plans, warning that most plan fiduciaries will not have enough experience to adequately evaluate such investments.
The DOL’s guidance relates to a June 3, 2020 “information letter” (which is a non-binding statement) issued by the Employee Benefits Security Administration of the DOL . In that information letter, the DOL addressed private equity investments in “designated investment alternatives” (or DIAs) offered to participants in individual account plans, like 401(k) plans, considered whether ERISA prohibits offering certain private equity investments to participants in individual account plans.
On January 20, 2022, the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida enforced a mandatory arbitration and class action-waiver provision (Arbitration Provision) in an ERISA-governed defined contribution plan, precluding a putative class of former and current plan participants from pursuing breach-of-fiduciary duty claims against plan fiduciaries in federal court. The plaintiffs in Holmes v. Baptist Health South Florida, Inc., 2022 WL 180638, argued that the plan’s Arbitration Provision was unenforceable as it both violated the “effective vindication” doctrine and was unenforceable because the participants did not knowingly agree to it. The court rejected both arguments.
Holmes adds to the flurry of recent decisions on the enforceability of mandatory arbitration and class action-waiver provisions in defined-contribution plans, which have yielded inconsistent results and are still working their way through courts of appeals. However, plan sponsors following this line of cases can glean several takeaways from the Holmes decision:
- Hardship Distributions. 401(k) plans and 403(b) plans must be amended, as applicable, to comply with the final regulations updating the hardship distribution rules. For hardship distributions made on or after January 1, 2020, plans must be amended by December 31, 2021, to: (i) eliminate the suspension of elective deferrals following a hardship distribution; and (ii) require employees requesting hardship distributions to represent that they have insufficient cash or other liquid assets reasonably available to satisfy the need.Additionally, plans that made changes to their hardship distribution provisions that were (i) permitted under the regulations, and/or (ii) took effect on or before January 1, 2020 (such as eliminating the requirement to exhaust all available loans before taking a hardship distribution, or permitting amounts contributed as qualified nonelective contributions (QNECs) or qualified matching contributions (QMACs) and earnings to be made available for hardship distributions), must adopt such changes by December 31, 2021.
- PBGC Rates. Defined benefit plans that refer to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) immediate rate may need to be amended to reflect that the PBGC stopped publishing monthly rates at the end of 2020. Such amendment would need to be effective January 1, 2021 (which, for calendar year plans, would require adoption of an amendment by December 31, 2021).
- Collectively Bargained Cash Balance/Hybrid Defined Benefit Plans. Cash balance/hybrid defined benefit plans maintained pursuant to a collective bargaining agreement ratified on or before November 13, 2015 must be amended by December 31, 2021, to comply with requirements regarding market rate of return and other cash balance/hybrid plan requirements that first applied to such plans generally on or after January 1, 2017.
- Discretionary Amendments. If a retirement plan implements discretionary changes during the 2021 plan year, retirement plan sponsors must adopt an amendment to that effect by the last day of the 2021 plan year (December 31, 2021, for a calendar year plan).
There is nothing a plan sponsor or ERISA fiduciary can do to prevent allegations of fiduciary breach; however, there are many things they can do to be prepared to rebut such claims. Unfortunately, because of “headline news,” it is easy for plan sponsors to focus on cautionary tales of what other plan sponsors and fiduciaries did wrong. However, it is just as important, if not more so, to be aware of what plan sponsors and fiduciaries did right….in their legal victories. Two recent fiduciary victories provide valuable insights into how a court would evaluate the decisions and processes of plan committees. In these cases, the courts highlighted conduct by the fiduciaries as evidence that they did not breach their fiduciary duties. Specifically, the judges focused on having a process of review, seeking outside help, and diligently maintaining records. The favorable views of these activities provide guidance for other plan sponsors and fiduciaries regarding how their conduct will be viewed if they face similar claims in the future.
The IRS recently announced the 2022 cost-of-living adjustments to various benefit and contribution limits applicable to retirement plans. Generally, the IRS increased the applicable limits for 2022, although certain limits remained unchanged. The following limits apply to retirement plans in 2022:
- The limit on elective deferrals under 401(k), 403(b), and eligible 457(b) plans increased to $20,500.
- The limit on additional catch-up contributions by participants age 50 or older remains unchanged at $6,500. This means that the maximum amount of elective deferral contributions for those participants in 2022 is $27,000.
- The Internal Revenue Code (“Code”) Section 415 annual addition limit is increased to $61,000 for 401(k) and other defined contribution plans, and the annual benefit limit is increased to $245,000 for defined benefit plans.
- The limit on the annual compensation that can be taken into account by qualified plans under Code Section 417 is increased to $305,000.
- The dollar level threshold for becoming a highly compensated employee under Code Section 414(q) increased to $135,000 (which based on the look-back rule is applicable for HCE determinations in 2023 based on compensation in 2022).
- The dollar level threshold for becoming a “key employee” in a top-heavy plan under Code Section 416(i)(1) is increased to $200,000.
As the end of year approaches, now is the time for safe harbor 401(k) plan sponsors to prepare their annual safe harbor notices.
401(k) Plans that satisfy nondiscrimination testing via the employer contribution safe harbors in Internal Revenue Code §§ 401(k)(12) and (13) are required to send notices to participants within a reasonable time prior to the start of the plan year. Per IRS regulations, the timing is deemed reasonable if the notice is provided at least 30 days (and no more than 90 days) prior to the start of the plan year (so, by December 1 for calendar-year plans).
On October 13, 2021, the Department of Labor (DOL) released a new proposed regulation under ERISA that would replace the previous administration’s “pecuniary factors” rule – which is widely viewed as discouraging the use of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors when selecting plan investments – with one that would encourage their consideration and provide a clearer pathway for plan fiduciaries to do so.
Over the years, the DOL’s stated position on the consideration of ESG and other “social” factors when selecting plan investments has toggled back and forth, largely along party lines.
On July 16, 2021, the Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”) published an updated version of its correction procedures for qualified retirement plans, Revenue Procedure 2021-30, the Employee Plans Compliance Resolution System (“EPCRS”).
The revisions to EPCRS include a number of changes that are intended to help simplify and provide additional flexibility for correcting certain retirement plan failures. Below is a summary of the major changes:
When a participant experiences a distribution event (e.g., terminating service with the employer), and when the participant does not affirmatively elect to take the distribution, a plan document may require that an account balance of $5,000 or less be distributed immediately, and without the participant’s consent, by rolling the account over to an IRA. This is sometimes called a “forced rollover.” When making a forced rollover, a plan must comply with the applicable plan provisions and related Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”) and Department of Labor (“DOL”) guidance.
A forced rollover can only be made if a participant’s vested account balance is $5,000 or less. If a participant’s vested account balance is greater than $5,000, the account cannot be distributed without participant consent (unless the participant has attained the later of normal retirement age or age 62). The only exception to that limit is for terminating defined contribution plans. Additionally, although the Code does not require a forced rollover for distributions of $1,000 or less (where a “forced” distribution can be used in lieu of a rollover), the plan document can require that mandatory distributions of $1,000 or less be rolled over to an IRA.