Following a bench trial in a Pennsylvania federal district court in Nunez v. B. Braun Medical, Inc., 401(k) plan fiduciaries defeated a lawsuit alleging that the fiduciaries imprudently managed and paid excessive recordkeeping and investment management fees. The B. Braun Medical fiduciaries’ win follows on the heels of a jury trial win by fiduciaries of Yale University’s 403(b) plan. The court opinions in both of these cases serve as a good reminder that offense is the best defense, and ERISA plan fiduciaries best protect themselves against ERISA breach of duty of prudence claims by proactively implementing strong fiduciary governance practices, such as keeping thorough committee meeting minutes. Consistently creating and maintaining detailed records regarding the initial selection and ongoing monitoring of vendors and investment options will help the committee defend those decisions later.
In Nunez, the court found that both the processes and the outcomes with respect to the plan’s recordkeeping and investments were objectively prudent—the opposite of which the plaintiffs would be required to prove to win their case.
Continue reading “Another 401(k) Plan Fiduciary Defeats Breach of Fiduciary Duty Claims at Trial”
A series of cases against fiduciaries of 401(k) plans that offer BlackRock Target Date Funds (TDFs) have been dismissed by district courts in recent months. In three recent cases, the district courts held that plaintiffs failed to allege any facts about the plan fiduciaries’ process for selecting and monitoring the BlackRock TDFs and that plaintiffs’ reliance on the BlackRock TDFs’ alleged underperformance alone was insufficient to state a claim for breach of fiduciary duty.
Continue reading “Plan Fiduciaries Continue to Defeat BlackRock Target Date Fund Class Actions”
The Department of Labor (DOL) announced that it has finalized, together with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation (PBGC), the third and final round of revisions to the Form 5500 Annual Return/Report of Employee Benefit Plan and the 5500-SF Short Form Annual Return/Report of Small Employee Benefit Plan.
These Phase III revisions implement certain elements of a September 2021 regulatory proposal, which included proposed changes to annual reporting requirements under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA). Some of the changes relate to the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enforcement Act (SECURE Act), including items affecting multiple-employer plans (MEPs) and defined contribution group reporting arrangements. As such, the changes mostly impact retirement plans. Phase III revisions are effective for plan years beginning January 1, 2023, with filing beginning in July 2024. The previous Phases I and II adopted changes for plan years 2021 and 2022, respectively.
Continue reading “Final Changes Announced to Forms 5500 and 5500-SF”
The Seventh Circuit revived two previously dismissed ERISA breach of fiduciary duty claims in its latest decision in Hughes v. Northwestern, which had been remanded from the Supreme Court. In doing so, the Seventh Circuit issued its own pleading standard for deciding ERISA duty of prudence claims alleging mismanagement of defined contribution plans. The standard does not affect how plan fiduciaries review, choose, and monitor investment choices and recordkeeping fees, but makes it easier to second-guess those decisions without fully understanding the “circumstances prevailing” at the time the fiduciary acts.
Continue reading “ERISA Litigation Roundup: Seventh Circuit Sets Forth Pleading Standard in ERISA Duty of Prudence Claims in Hughes v. Northwestern University”
This article originally appeared in the March 2023 edition of The Brief Case, DRI’s monthly newsletter.
Amid a circuit split, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit (Fourth Circuit) has firmly taken a side as to its treatment of benefit claim denials brought under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(1)(B). In Tekmen v. Reliance Standard Life Insurance Company, 55 F.4th 951 (4th Cir. 2022), the Fourth Circuit endorsed seeking judgment, not via summary judgment or a quasi-summary judgment procedure, but through Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 52 if the case involves de novo review of a benefit claim with factual disputes. Rule 52 allows a court to conduct a “trial on the papers” and thus issue findings of fact and conclusions of law.
Continue reading “Fourth Circuit Endorses Rule 52 for Resolving ERISA Benefit Claim Cases with Factual Disputes”
In an unusual decision, a federal judge last month refused to strike a plaintiff class’ demand for a jury trial in an ERISA 401(k) class action.
In Garthwait v. Eversource Energy Co., a class of former and current participants in the Eversource 401(k) Plan (the Plan) filed an action against Eversource Energy Company and Plan fiduciaries seeking to recover plan losses caused by alleged breaches of fiduciary duty and requesting other equitable or remedial relief.
Continue reading “ERISA Litigation Roundup: Judge Permits Partial Jury Trial in Eversource Energy 401(k) Dispute”
The Department of Labor (DOL) recently removed one regulatory hurdle for public companies that maintain employee benefit plans subject to the Form 5500 requirement. Specifically, the DOL has relaxed the criteria for who qualifies as an “independent qualified public accountant,” or “IQPA.” This matters to employers because it will open the market to new accounting firms that can issue the accountant’s report for the Form 5500 annual filing. IQPAs are the auditors who issue the annual accountant’s report. While not all Form 5500-filers are subject to the accountant’s report requirement, ERISA-covered retirement plans (except for certain small retirement plans) and funded welfare plans must provide the accountant’s report annually.
Revising and restating its 1975 Interpretive Bulletin on the Independence of Employee Benefit Plan Accountants with new Interpretive Bulletin 2022-01, the DOL has changed its guidelines for determining the “independence” of an IQPA. Previously, an auditor could not be an IQPA for a plan if they, the accounting firm, or certain other “members” of the firm owned any direct or indirect financial interest in the plan sponsor during the period covered by the financial statements that are the subject of the audit or during the period of the professional engagement.
Continue reading “The Annual Form 5500 Audit: DOL Broadens Criteria for Independent Qualified Public Accountants”
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.
Continue reading “ERISA Litigation Roundup: Legislation Update — House Passes ERISA Bill to End Arbitration and Firestone“
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.
Continue reading “ERISA Litigation Roundup: Seventh Circuit Confirms DOL’s Broad Subpoena Power”
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.
Continue reading “ERISA Litigation Roundup: Damned if You Do, Damned if You Don’t”