Tag Archives: ERISA

April 11, 2016

New Fiduciary Rule Applies Stricter Standard to Most Retirement Account Advisers

By Rebecca Hudson, Bret Busacker, and Molly Hobbs

In its long-awaited final fiduciary rule, the Department of Labor (DOL) establishes stricter fiduciary standards for investment advisers and consultants providing services to ERISA plans and IRAs. Intended to offer additional protection to ERISA plan participants and IRA owners, the final rule issued on April 7th broadens the application of the ERISA fiduciary standard to many investment professionals, consultants, and advisers who previously had no obligation to adhere to ERISA’s fiduciary standards or to the related prohibited transaction rules.

Final Fiduciary Rule Replaces Five-Part Test

Since 1975, ERISA and its implementing regulations have defined “fiduciary” and “investment advice” narrowly. Under ERISA Section 3(21)(A), a “fiduciary” is someone who has the authority and/or responsibility to provide investment advice under a retirement savings plan and is compensated for doing so. Investment advisers and consultants who are a fiduciary with respect to an ERISA plan or IRA engage in a prohibited transaction if they receive “conflicted compensation” (e.g., commissions, trailing commissions, sales loads, 12b-1 fees, and revenue-sharing payments) from third parties with respect to the investments they recommend to these ERISA plans and IRAs. 

In 1975, the DOL created a five-part test to identify an ERISA fiduciary. An adviser or consultant who does not acknowledge his or her fiduciary status with respect to a plan will nonetheless be a fiduciary with respect to the plan if the adviser enters into an agreement to regularly provide individualized investment advice that will serve as the primary basis upon which the advice recipient will make investment decisions (the “five-part test”). 

Believing that the retirement landscape has changed significantly since 1975, including the prevalence of participant-directed 401(k) plans and the extensive use of individual retirement accounts (IRAs), in 2010, the DOL proposed to broaden the definition of investment advice. The DOL subsequently withdrew the 2010 proposed rule in response to significant push back from various stakeholders. In 2015, a new proposed rule was published that eliminated the five-part test and extended fiduciary status to those advisers who provide advice that is individualized or specifically directed to the advice recipient. In response to the wide range of comments it received on the 2015 proposed rule, the DOL made significant changes to the final fiduciary rule, but kept much of the expansive nature of the 2015 proposed rule.

General Structure of the Final Fiduciary Rule

In today’s marketplace, many investment professionals, consultants and advisers have no obligation to adhere to ERISA’s higher fiduciary standards or to the prohibited transaction rules because they do not satisfy each prong of the five-part test. The DOL expects that broader application of the fiduciary standard under the final fiduciary rule will more closely align the advisers’ interests with those of their customers, while reducing conflicts of interest, disloyalty, and imprudence.

Under the final rule, an investment adviser or consultant that makes a “recommendation” to a plan or IRA for a fee or other compensation that is customized for or specifically directed at the plan or IRA may be a fiduciary. For purposes of the final fiduciary rule, a “recommendation” includes providing advice with respect to:

  • buying, holding, selling, exchanging, or rolling over securities or other investment property, or
  • management of securities or other investment property, investment policies or strategies, portfolio composition, selection of other persons to provide investment advice or services, selection of investment account arrangements, and recommendations with respect to rollovers, distributions, or transfers from a plan or IRA.

Accordingly, an investment adviser or consultant who makes an investment recommendation (as defined above) and receives conflicted compensation in connection with the advice provided to the plan or IRA will engage in a prohibited transaction unless one of the enumerated carve-outs from the rule applies or the adviser/consultant complies with the “Best Interest Contract Exemption” requirement.

What You Need to Know

Plans, their affected financial advisers, and other service providers have until April 10, 2017 to prepare for any change from non-fiduciary to fiduciary status. Notably, there are also two exceptions to the effective date, which will provide more time for certain service providers to adapt to the new standards. In particular, the Best Interest Contract Exemption and rules regulating advice with respect to the advisers proprietary funds will have a transition period during which fewer conditions apply, from April 2017 to January 1, 2018, at which time the rule will be fully implemented.

ERISA plans should begin now to review their relationship with their current investment adviser/consultant. Some things plans should consider include:

  • Determine if an adviser or consultant is currently a fiduciary under the new fiduciary rule.
  • Determine if one of the rule carve-outs applies to the services provided by adviser or consultant.
  • Discuss the Best Interest Contract Exemption with any adviser that is a fiduciary and determine the best way to document and comply with that exemption.

In conducting this review, plans should interpret the general fiduciary rule broadly and interpret any of the enumerated carve-outs narrowly. Fiduciaries should expect that advisers will provide written documentation of their role and their satisfaction of any carve-out. Plans should require advisers to indemnify the plan from any prohibited transaction that arises as a result of its failure to comply with any carve-out or exemption.

For more information about this rule, its carve-outs and the Best Interest Contract Exemption, please read our full summary.

May 18, 2015

Plan Fiduciaries Beware: Your Ongoing Duty to Monitor Investments Allows Beneficiaries To Claim Breach Within Six-Year Statute of Limitations

Beaver_MBy Mike Beaver 

In a ruling that will likely raise the anxiety level of plan fiduciaries, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled today that beneficiaries of a 401(k) plan could pursue their claim against the plan’s fiduciaries related to mutual funds that were added to the plan eight years before the complaint was filed, despite the six-year statute of limitations normally applying to ERISA breach of fiduciary duty claims. The Court concluded that because fiduciaries have a continuing duty to monitor investments and remove those that are imprudent, a claim for breach of that duty is timely so long as the alleged failure to monitor occurred within six years of the filing of the complaint. Tibble v. Edison Int’l, 575 U.S. ___ (2015). 

Higher Administrative Fees Prompted Lawsuit 

In 2007, several beneficiaries of the Edison International 401(k) Savings Plan (Plan) filed a class action lawsuit against the Plan fiduciaries to recover alleged losses incurred as a result of excessive mutual fund fees. According to the beneficiaries, in selecting the investment choices available to Plan participants, the Plan fiduciaries had chosen six “retail-class” mutual funds, instead of identical “institutional class” funds. The retail-class funds carried higher administrative and management fees than the institutional-class offerings. Three of the funds were chosen in 1999, and the others in 2002. 

As to the funds selected in 2002, the lower courts found that the Plan fiduciaries offered “no credible explanation” for selecting the higher-cost retail funds. However, as to the 1999 funds, the Plan fiduciaries argued that the ERISA statute of limitations applicable to fiduciary breaches would bar the beneficiaries’ claims involving the 1999 funds, because they were selected more than six years before the lawsuit was commenced. The statute, 29 U.S.C. § 1113, bars a fiduciary breach claim brought more than six years “after the date of the last action which constituted part of the breach or violation,” or “in the case of an omission the latest date on which the fiduciary could have cured the breach or violation” (emphasis added). The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the fiduciaries, and dismissed all claims relating to the 1999 funds. 

A unanimous Supreme Court, however, reinstated the beneficiaries’ claims pertaining to the 1999 funds. The Court found that, although the funds may have been chosen previous to the fiduciaries’ action in selecting the 1999 funds, the statute did not bar claims relating to the fiduciaries’ alleged omissions since that time. Specifically, the Court held that ERISA fiduciaries have a “continuing duty to monitor trust investments and remove imprudent ones.” This duty imposes a “continuing responsibility for oversight of the suitability of the investments already made.” Since such continuing reviews by the Plan fiduciaries might have been required within the six-year limitation period, a claim that the fiduciaries breached their oversight and review responsibilities could not be summarily dismissed. 

No Guidance on Oversight Duty 

Having held that Plan fiduciaries have a duty to oversee and monitor investment decisions previously made, the Court provided little guidance as to what that duty entails. The Court articulated the fiduciaries’ oversight and monitoring responsibilities only in a broad, theoretical way, holding that “a fiduciary normally has a continuing duty of some kind to monitor investments, and that “the nature and timing of the review [are] contingent on the circumstances.” Because these circumstances had not been fully developed by the lower courts, the Supreme Court remanded the case for further consideration, noting that it did not necessarily find that the Plan fiduciaries had violated any of their duties. 

Lesson for Fiduciaries 

The Supreme Court has made clear that benefit plan fiduciaries have a continuing responsibility to monitor the suitability and prudence of a plan’s investment choices, and that the six-year statute of limitations runs from the alleged breach of this ongoing responsibility, not from the date a particular investment was initially selected. However, the Court provided essentially no guidance concerning how fiduciaries can fulfill this ongoing responsibility. The parameters of a fiduciaries’ ongoing responsibility to monitor and evaluate investment choices will, in all likelihood, be developed only by extensive future litigation. 

Because the Court provided little specific guidance concerning the ongoing duty to monitor investment choices, plan fiduciaries will need to increase their focus on what little regulatory guidance is provided by the U.S. Department of Labor, and many fiduciaries will likely increase their reliance on objective, professional investment advisors. Of course, the choice of an investment advisor is, itself, a fiduciary act, and under the guidance of the Tibble decision, it is likely the fiduciaries’ ongoing responsibility to monitor the suitability and performance of advisors as well. In short, the Tibble decision expands the potential for fiduciary liability without providing much guidance on how that liability might be minimized.

June 27, 2014

U.S. Supreme Court Eliminates Fiduciary Protection for Employer Stock Investment

By Brenda Berg

On June 25, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its unanimous opinion that retirement plan fiduciaries are not entitled to a presumption of prudence with respect to the plan's investment in employer stock. Fifth Third Bancorp v. Dudenhoeffer, U.S., No. 12-751, 6/25/14. Instead, the fiduciaries are subject to the same duty of prudence that applies to all investment decisions made by ERISA fiduciaries. The rejection of the presumption of prudence might result in an increase in litigation involving employer stock. However, the Court also ruled that the ERISA duty of prudence does not require violating securities laws by disclosing insider information or otherwise taking action that could be in violation of securities laws, and the Court articulated a high pleadings standard for overcoming a motion to dismiss on that point.

Presumption of Prudence

Retirement plan fiduciaries have a duty to act prudently: with the care, skill, prudence and diligence under the circumstances then prevailing that a prudent man acting in a like capacity would act. Many federal circuit courts had adopted a rule that if the governing plan document requires an employer stock investment option, especially where such portion of the plan is designated as an ESOP, then there is a presumption that the fiduciary duty of prudence is met. This presumption is often referred to as the Moench presumption, after the case that first articulated it.

Fiduciaries also have a duty to follow the terms of the plan documents, unless doing so would be contrary to ERISA. The Moench presumption of prudence was an attempt to balance the duty or prudence with the duty to follow plan documents, considering Congress's intent to encourage employee ownership through ESOPs. Under the presumption, fiduciaries have a duty to follow plan documents that require an employer stock investment option, unless the employer is in such "dire" circumstances, such as an employer's bankruptcy, that would likely make the employer go out of business.

In the Dudenhoeffer case, the plaintiffs, who were participants in the plan, alleged that the fiduciaries had violated the duty of prudence by permitting participants to invest in employer stock, and that in July 2007, the fiduciaries knew or should have known that the stock was overvalued. From July 2007 to September 2009, when the complaint was filed, the Fifth Third stock price fell 74%. Although the District Court had dismissed the case based on the presumption of prudence, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and held that the presumption of prudence did not apply at the pleading stage, but only at the evidentiary stage. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected that as well, since the Court held the presumption of prudence does not apply at all. The Court found the presumption was not supported by the statutory language, which provides an ESOP exception from ERISA's duty to diversify but not from the duty of prudence – and Congress's intent to encourage ESOP investments does not override that. In addition, even where the plan document requires an employer stock investment, the regular duty of prudence applies rather than a requirement that only "dire" circumstances can override the plan language.

Conflict with Insider Trading Laws

The Court acknowledged that potential for conflict with the insider trading laws is a legitimate concern. In publicly traded companies, plan fiduciaries are often corporate insiders as well. However, the Court held that a presumption of prudence "is an ill-fitting means" of addressing the concern. The Court also recognized that lack of a presumption may put the fiduciary between a rock and a hard place, in that the fiduciary could be sued for failing to divest the stock, or could be sued for failing to allow the stock as an investment option where the plan documents require it. Again, though, the Court held that the presumption of prudence is not the proper way to address this concern; rather, a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim is the proper mechanism.

Ultimately, the Court vacated the judgment of the Court of Appeals and remanded the case to consider whether the pleadings were sufficient to overcome a motion to dismiss. The Court referred to its previous guidance of considerations on the insider trading issue. As a general rule, where a stock is publicly traded, it would not be sufficient to claim that the fiduciary should have recognized the stock was overvalued based on publicly available information unless the plaintiffs could point to special circumstances affecting the reliability of the market price. With respect to nonpublic information available to the fiduciaries as company insiders, the Court said the plaintiffs must allege an alternative action that the fiduciaries could have taken that would have been consistent with the securities laws and that a prudent fiduciary in the same circumstances would not have viewed as more likely to harm the fund (for example, by driving the price down in a sell-off) than to help it.

Note that the case involved publicly traded employer stock, and does not provide much guidance for fiduciaries of ESOPs with non-publicly traded stock.

Next Steps for Plan Fiduciaries

In light of the Court's Dudenhoeffer decision, fiduciaries of retirement plans that allow investments in employer stock should reevaluate whether employer stock is a prudent plan investment. Fiduciaries can no longer rely on the Moench presumption that the investment would be prudent as long as the documents required the employer stock and the employer was not experiencing "dire" or other extreme circumstances. Instead, fiduciaries must evaluate all of the circumstances of the employer, within the confines of securities laws, and determine on that basis whether employer stock is a prudent investment under the plan. In other words, fiduciaries must treat an employer stock investment just like every other investment offered under the plan. If the fiduciaries determine that employer stock should no longer be offered under the plan, the removal of the stock should be undertaken carefully in order to best protect fiduciaries from participant claims for the removal of the stock.

Click here to print/email/pdf this article.

December 26, 2013

ERISA Plan’s Limitation Period Is Enforceable, Says U.S. Supreme Court

By Elizabeth Nedrow 

The U.S. Supreme Court recently issued a decision that provides some welcome guidance to insurers and employers sponsoring ERISA employee benefit plans.  The Court upheld a three-year limitations period in a long term disability plan.  The terms of the plan required participants to file a lawsuit to recover benefits within three years after “proof of loss.”  Heimeshoff v. Hartford Life & Accident Ins. Co.,No. 12-729, 571 U.S.  ___ (Dec. 16, 2013).  The Court ruled that because ERISA itself does not specify a limitations period, the plan’s three year deadline was reasonable and therefore enforceable.  

Benefit Plan Participant Filed Lawsuit After Benefits Were Denied 

Julie Heimeshoff, a senior public relations manager for Wal-Mart Stores, was a participant in a long term disability plan administered by Hartford Life & Accident Insurance Company (Hartford).  In 2005, she filed a claim for disability benefits following a diagnosis of lupus and fibromyalgia.   On her claim form, her rheumatologist listed her symptoms as extreme fatigue, significant pain and difficulty in concentration.  Hartford denied her claim after her rheumatologist failed to respond to its requests for more information.  In 2006, Heimeshoff provided Hartford with an evaluation from another physician who also determined that she was disabled.  Hartford retained a physician to review Heimeshoff’s records who concluded that she was able to perform the activities of her sedentary job.  Hartford again denied her disability claim.  

After granting Heimeshoff an extension to the appeal deadline to provide additional evidence and retaining two additional physicians to review her claim, Hartford issued its final denial of benefits on November 26, 2007.  On November 18, 2010, Heimeshoff filed suit in district court seeking review of her denied claim under ERISA’s judicial review provision, known as ERISA Section 502.  Hartford and Wal-Mart asked the court to dismiss her suit because she did not file the case within the limitations period provided for in the plan, namely within three years after the time that written proof of loss is required to be furnished to Hartford.  The district court agreed that the lawsuit was untimely and dismissed her case.  On appeal, the Second Circuit affirmed.  The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case in order to resolve a split among the Courts of Appeal on the enforceability of an ERISA plan’s contractual limitations period. 

ERISA Contractual Limitations Provisions Should Be Enforced As Written 

The long-term disability plan at issue stated that legal action against Hartford could not be taken more than three years after the time that written proof of loss is required to be furnished according to the terms of the policy.  Written proof of loss is necessarily due before Hartford and the participant complete the internal review process and before a plan participant is notified of a final denial of benefits which is necessary before filing a lawsuit in court.  The result of this contractual limitations period is that a participant has less than three years to file a lawsuit in court after learning that their benefit claim has been finally denied. 

In reviewing whether to enforce this limitations period, the Supreme Court relied on well-established precedent which states that in the absence of a limitations period provided by a controlling statute, a provision in a contract may validly limit the time for parties to bring an action on such contract to a period less than that prescribed in the general statute of limitations as long as the shorter period is reasonable.  The Court noted that ERISA does not specify a statute of limitations.  Consequently, the Court ruled that a participant and a plan may agree by contract to a particular limitations period as long as it is reasonable.  

Heimeshoff argued that the contractual limitations period at issue was not reasonable because it began to run before a claimant could exhaust the internal review process which is required before seeking judicial review.  The Court unanimously disagreed, concluding that the three-year limitations period from the date that proof of loss is due was not unreasonably short and therefore, was enforceable.  Although Hartford’s administrative review process took longer than usual, Heimeshoff still had approximately one year to file suit before the limitations period was up.  Because Heimeshoff filed her lawsuit more than three years after her proof of loss was due, as required contractually by the plan, her complaint was time barred.  Therefore, the Court upheld the dismissal of Heimeshoff’s suit. 

Significance for Employee Benefit Plans 

The Court’s decision is welcome news for insurers and employers who want efficient resolution of ERISA claims disputes.  Plan documentation should be reviewed, and where appropriate, language should be added or clarified to provide a reasonable limit on the time a participant has to bring a lawsuit to challenge a denied claim for benefits. 

Disclaimer: This article is designed to provide general information on pertinent legal topics. The statements made are provided for educational purposes only. They do not constitute legal advice and are not intended to create an attorney-client relationship between you and Holland & Hart LLP. If you have specific questions as to the application of the law to your activities, you should seek the advice of your legal counsel.

Print Friendly and PDF