New DOL FAQs Provide Guidance Regarding Lifetime Income Illustrations for Defined Contribution Plans

On July 26, 2021, the Department of Labor (Department) issued frequently asked questions (FAQs) regarding the interim final rule (IFR) on lifetime income illustrations (LIIs) that must be included in participants’ pension benefit statements for defined contribution plans on an annual basis. The IFR on LIIs, which we previously discussed in a client alert, will become effective on September 18, 2021. The FAQs respond to comments received in response to the IFR regarding the applicability date of the rules and method for furnishing benefit statements.

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ERISA Litigation Roundup: The DOL Determines That Audio Recordings Must Be Produced Under ERISA’s Claim Regulations

On June 14, 2021, the Department of Labor (DOL) issued an information letter stating that plan fiduciaries have a duty under ERISA’s claim regulations to produce upon request recordings or transcripts of phone calls between benefit claimants and plan representatives regarding their benefit claims. The DOL letter is a call for plan administrators to revisit and potentially refine their processes for recording and storing such conversations.

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Disclosure of Claims-Related Audio Recordings

Claims-related audio recordings may need to be disclosed to claimants upon request, according to an information letter dated June 14, 2021 (“Information Letter”), issued by the Department of Labor’s (“DOL”) Employee Benefits Security Administration (“EBSA”). Although DOL information letters are not binding, as a result of the Information Letter, claimants may start to request audio recordings of conversations relating to benefit denials. Plan sponsors and claims administrators should be prepared for these requests and should train personnel handling telephone calls with claimants accordingly.

The Information Letter addresses whether ERISA and DOL claims procedures regulations thereunder require a plan fiduciary to provide, upon a claimant’s request, a copy of an audio recording and transcript of a telephone conversation between the claimant and a representative of the plan’s insurer regarding a benefit denial. The request at issue in the Information Letter was denied by the claims administrator on the basis that “recordings are for ‘quality assurance purposes,’” and “are not created, maintained, or relied upon for claim administration purposes, and therefore are not part of the administrative record.” The claims administrator maintained that the actual recording is distinct from the notes made available to the claimant, which contemporaneously documented the content of the recorded conversation, and which became part of the “claim activity history through which [the insurer] develops, tracks and administers the claim.”

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Biden Directs DOL to Consider Rescinding Trump-Era Rule on Environmental, Social and Governance Investing

President Biden signed an executive order on May 20 on climate-related financial risk that seeks to change the rules regarding the use of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) investments in retirement plans. The order specifically directs the Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA) bureau of the Department of Labor (DOL) to consider suspending, revising, or rescinding the Trump-era “Financial Factors in Selective Plan Investments” rule regarding ESG retirement investments. The executive order is consistent with the expectation that the Biden administration will move to encourage the consideration of ESG factors when selecting retirement plan investments given the emphasis on climate change initiatives.

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The DOL Provides Practical Guidance on the Application of PTE 2020-02

As described in our recent blog posts, the Department of Labor (“DOL”) recently issued guidance in the form of FAQs to address questions concerning the practical application of PTE 2020-02, Improving Investment Advice for Workers & Retirees.  This blog post discusses the guidance the DOL offers with respect to various topics under PTE 2020-02.  Guidance with respect to the general requirements of PTE 2020-02 was discussed in our prior blog post and the DOL’s guidance with respect to the application of PTE 2020-02 to rollover recommendations was discussed in our prior blog post.

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The DOL Provides Practical Guidance on the Application of PTE 2020-02 to Rollover Recommendations

As described in our recent blog post, the Department of Labor (“DOL”) recently issued guidance in the form of FAQs to address questions concerning the practical application of PTE 2020-02, Improving Investment Advice for Workers & Retirees. Recommendations regarding the rollover of assets from an employee benefit plan to an IRA are a key focus of the DOL and of these FAQs. This blog post discusses the guidance the DOL offers with respect to rollover recommendations under PTE 2020-02.

In 1975, the DOL issued a regulation that adopted a five-part test for determining when investment advice is “fiduciary investment advice” and would qualify an investment professional as a fiduciary under ERISA (the “1975 Labor Regulation”). The five-part test is met if an investment professional: 1) renders advice to a plan, plan fiduciary or IRA owner as to the value of securities or other property, or makes recommendations as to the advisability of investing in, purchasing, or selling securities or other property; 2) on a regular basis; 3) pursuant to a mutual agreement, arrangement, or understanding with the plan, plan fiduciary or IRA owner; 4) where the advice will serve as a primary basis for investment decisions with respect to plan or IRA assets; and 5) where the advice will be individualized based on the particular needs of the plan or IRA.

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The DOL Issues FAQs on Prohibited Transaction Exemption 2020-02 Related to Fiduciary Investment Advice

On December 18, 2020, the Department of Labor (“DOL”) adopted PTE 2020-02 Improving Investment Advice for Workers & Retirees (“PTE 2020-02”), a new prohibited transaction exemption related to fiduciary investment advice offered to plan sponsors and plan participants of ERISA-governed retirement plans and IRA owners.

Last month, the DOL issued guidance in the form of FAQs to address questions concerning the practical application of PTE 2020-02 (“FAQs”). These FAQs discuss various applications of PTE 2020-02, including guidance with respect to the general requirements of PTE 2020-02, recommendations for the rollover of employee benefit plan assets to an IRA, the use of disclaimers, the requirement to mitigate conflicts of interest, the use of payout grids for compensation, and the application of PTE 2020-02 to insurance industry financial institutions.

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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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Department of Labor Confirms It Will Not Enforce Controversial “Pecuniary Factors” Rule for ERISA Plan Investments

On March 10, 2021, the Department of Labor’s Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA), the agency charged with interpreting and enforcing ERISA, announced that it will not enforce the Trump-era “Financial Factors in Selecting Plan Investments” rule, which has been perceived as potentially discouraging retirement plan fiduciaries from selecting investment alternatives which emphasize environmental, social, and governance factors (commonly referred to as “ESG investments”).

The rule, which was finalized in November 2020 and technically became effective on January 12, 2021, does not prohibit ESG investments.  However, it has been widely criticized as fostering a misapprehension that ESG investments may be subjected to a higher degree of fiduciary scrutiny than others.  Following the election, EBSA’s announcement of its non-enforcement policy comes as no surprise, as the Biden administration had already identified the rule on its “List of Agency Actions for Review.”

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Biden Administration Permits Trump-Era Investment Advice Exemption, Rollover Guidance, to Come Into Effect

The Department of Labor issued a press release on February 12 confirming that Prohibited Transaction Exemption 2020-02, titled “Improving Investment Advice for Workers & Retirees” (the “Exemption”), would go into effect as scheduled. The Exemption was finalized and published by the Trump administration in December 2020, and came into effect on February 16.

The newly available Exemption is intended to fill a void left by the loss of the “Best Interest Contract” or “BIC” Exemption, which was struck down along with the rest of the Obama-era Fiduciary Rule in a March 2018 Fifth Circuit ruling.

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