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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DOL Provides (Informal, Non-Binding) Guidance on Missing Participants

On January 12, 2021, the Department of Labor (“DOL”) issued guidance that is intended to help retirement plan fiduciaries meet their ERISA obligations to locate and distribute benefits to missing or nonresponsive participants.

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Fee Disclosure Rules Will Soon Apply to Group Health Plans

Buried in the year-end Consolidated Appropriations Act (CAA) is a provision that requires group health plan brokers and consultants to make comprehensive fee disclosures similar to those that apply to retirement plans. As discussed further below, the new fee-disclosure requirements will result in additional compliance obligations for group health plan sponsors, brokers, and consultants, starting in December 2021.

As background, ERISA generally prohibits transactions between an ERISA plan and a party-in-interest, such as a service provider to the plan. However, a statutory exemption (known as the ERISA 408(b)(2) exemption) allows such transactions so long as the plan pays only reasonable compensation to a party-in-interest to provide necessary services to the plan. In 2012, the Department of Labor (DOL) issued regulations under which the ERISA 408(b)(2) exemption is available for a retirement plan only if a covered service provider makes a number of fee and service disclosures to the plan’s fiduciary to enable the fiduciary to make a determination as to whether the fees are reasonable. These are generally referred to as the 408(b)(2) fee disclosures. The DOL regulations implementing this fee-disclosure requirement specifically omit health and welfare plans.

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Health Plan Transparency Final Rule Requires New Health Plan Disclosures

On October 29, 2020, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Department of the Treasury (Treasury) and Department of Labor (DOL) issued the final rule on transparency in health plan coverage. The final rule imposes significant new requirements on group health plans, including all issuers of non-grandfathered individual and group health insurance coverage and self-insured plans (that are not account based plans), to disclose information on pricing and cost-sharing under their plans. Grandfathered health plans and excepted benefit health plans are not subject to the transparency rules.

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