VP of HR Sued Over 401(k) Operational Error

A proposed class action lawsuit in the Northern District of Illinois involving a failure to follow the terms of a 401(k) plan personally names the Vice President of Human Resources for Conagra Brands, Inc. Karlson v. Conagra Brands, Case No. 1:18-cv-8323 (N.D. Ill., Dec. 19, 2018) as a defendant, and, as it happens, the lead plaintiff is the former senior director of global benefits at the company. Other named defendants included the benefits administrative and appeals committee of the Conagra board, both of which committees included the named VP of Human Resources among its members.

Generally, class action litigation over 401(k) plans has alleged fiduciary breaches over plan investments, such as unnecessarily expensive share classes, undisclosed revenue sharing, and the like. However a failure to follow the written terms of a plan document is also a fiduciary breach under ERISA § 404(a)(1)(D), which requires fiduciaries to act “in accordance with the documents and instruments governing the plan” insofar as they are consistent with ERISA.

In the Conagra case, the plan document defined compensation that was subject to salary deferrals and employer matching contributions to include bonus compensation that was paid after separation from employment provided that it would have been paid to the participant, had employment continued, and further provided that the amounts were paid by the later of the date that is 2 ½ months after the end of employment, or end of the year in which employment terminated. Post-severance compensation was included in final regulations under Code § 415 released in April 2007 and is generally an option for employers to elect in their plan adoption agreements.  Note that, when included under a plan, post-severance compensation never includes actual severance pay, only items paid within the applicable time period that would have been paid in the course of employment had employment not terminated.

Karlson was terminated April 1, 2016 and received a bonus check 3 ½ months later, on July 15, 2016, and noted that the Company did not apply his 15% deferral rate to the bonus check and did not make a matching contribution. Because the bonus check fell squarely within the definition of “compensation” subject to contributions under the plan, Karlson filed an ERISA claim and exhausted his administrative remedies under the plan before filing suit.

The complaint alleges that the failure to apply deferral elections and make matching contributions on the bonus check was not a mere oversight on Conagra’s part. Instead, until 2016 Conagra had allowed deferrals to be made from all post-termination bonus checks (provided they were paid by the end of the year in which termination occurred), but in 2016 it limited it to instances where the bonus check was paid within 2 ½ months of termination.  In claim correspondence with Karlson, Conagra referred to this as an “administrative interpretation” of the terms of the Plan that was within its scope of discretion as Plan Administrator, and did not require a plan amendment.

Karlson maintained that the “administrative interpretation” contradicted the written terms of the plan and pursued his claim through the appeals stage. Karlson alleged, in relevant part, that Conagra’s narrowed administrative interpretation coincided with a layoff of 30% of its workforce and was motivated by a desire to reduce its expenses and improve its financial performance.  This, Karlson alleged, was a breach of the fiduciary duty of loyalty to plan participants and of the exclusive benefit rule and hence violated ERISA.  In addition to the fiduciary breach claim under ERISA § 502(a)(2), Karlson also alleged a claim to recover benefits under ERISA § 502(a)(1)(B).

As of this writing, per the public court docket the parties are slated for a status hearing to discuss, among other things, potential settlement of Karlson’s claims.

Although the timing of the layoff certainly adds factual topspin to Karlson’s fiduciary breach claim, the troubling takeaway from this case is that Conagra’s simple failure to follow the written terms of the plan is sufficient for a court to find that it violated its fiduciary duty. The other concern is that operational errors relating to the definition of compensation are among the IRS “top ten” failures corrected in the Voluntary Compliance Program and are also among the most frequent errors that the author is called upon to correct in her practice.

To limit the occurrence of operational failures related to the definition of compensation, plan sponsors should do a “table read” of the definition of compensation in their adoption agreement and summary plan description, together with all personnel whose jobs include plan administration functions (e.g., human resources, payroll, benefits, etc.) Reference to the basic plan document may also be required.  Most important, outside payroll vendor representatives should attend the table read meeting either in person, or by conference call.  All attendees should review, and be on the same page, as to the items that are included in compensation for plan contribution purposes, and on procedures relating to post-termination compensation.

If questions ever arise in this regard, benefit counsel can help.

The above information is provided for general informational purposes only and does not create an attorney-client relationship between the author and the reader.  Readers should not apply the information to any specific factual situation other than on the advice of an attorney engaged specifically for that or a related purpose.  © 2019 Christine P. Roberts, all rights reserved.

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Filed under 401(k) Plans, Benefit Plan Design, ERISA, Fiduciary and Fee Issues, Fiduciary Issues, Profit Sharing Plan

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