When determining alternative pension benefits (such as joint and survivor annuities and early retirement benefits), a recent court decision held that underlying actuarial assumptions selected decades ago do not violate federal law simply because they are outdated and may result in a pension benefit that is less than using more current actuarial assumption.
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:
Written descriptions of employee benefits may expose Pennsylvania employers to additional contractual obligations and liabilities. According to a three-judge Pennsylvania Superior Court panel, providing written descriptions to employees regarding various benefits, incentives and rewards may form a binding, unilateral contract creating rights and obligations separate from an employee’s at-will relationship with the employer.
On September 30, 2021, the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut dismissed an ERISA stock-drop lawsuit brought against alleged fiduciaries of Aetna, Inc.’s (Aetna’s) employee stock ownership plan (ESOP), holding that the plaintiffs failed to state a fiduciary breach claim under ERISA. Radcliffe v. Aetna, Inc., No. 3:20-cv-01274, 2021 WL 4477408 (D. Conn. Sept. 30, 2021).
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 September 10, 2021, the Seventh Circuit decided Smith v. Board of Directors of Triad Manufacturing Inc., No. 20-2708, holding that benefit plans may require claimants to arbitrate claims under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, 29 U.S.C. § 1001, et seq. (ERISA), but may not preclude claimants from obtaining relief that ERISA provides.
Triad Manufacturing, acting through its board of directors, established an employee stock ownership plan (Plan) in December 2015, when several of Triad’s largest shareholders (Selling Shareholders) sold all of their stock to the Plan. The Plan was a defined-contribution employee retirement plan governed by ERISA. Triad, acting through the Board, was the Plan’s sponsor, GreatBanc served as the Plan’s trustee and James Smith was a former Triad employee and a participant in the Plan. When the value of Triad’s stock dropped significantly in the weeks following the ESOP transaction, the value of Smith’s interest in the Plan decreased commensurately, eventually prompting Smith to sue.
The U.S. Supreme Court recently agreed to hear a challenge to the dismissal of an Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) 401(k) excessive fee case. The case involves a question about whether jury trials are appropriate in ERISA cases, but also a question about what an ERISA lawsuit must plead in order to survive a motion to dismiss, particularly when the lawsuit brings a claim for breach of fiduciary duty in managing a 401(k) plan’s fees and investment options. The 401(k) community is watching this case closely, and the employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) community also should pay close attention.
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.”