Category Archives: Fiduciary Issues

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

Death, Taxes, and DOL Audits Persist

What this means for benefit plan sponsors and the professionals who advise them is that compliance with plan reporting and disclosure rules, and with the plan documentation duties that underpin them, must remain a priority. This is particularly the case with regard to health and welfare plans offering group medical, dental, vision, life, disability and similar forms of coverage, as opposed to 401(k) and other retirement plans.

That is because retirement plan service providers supply plan documentation to employers who engage their services, whereas insurance companies only provide benefit summaries designed to comply with state insurance laws rather than with the disclosure duties mandated under ERISA.

It is often left to benefit brokers and other third parties to the insurance (or self-funding) relationship, to bridge the gap, by drafting Summary Plan Descriptions and/or “wrap” documentations containing required ERISA disclosures, and by ensuring that they are properly delivered to plan participants and beneficiaries under Department of Labor protocols for hard copy and electronic distribution.

If you or your clients have any questions on what ERISA requires around plan documents and their delivery to the folks that they cover, please don’t hesitate to give me a call.

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Filed under 401(k) Plans, DOL Audit, ERISA, Fiduciary Issues, Plan Reporting and Disclosure Duties, Self-Insured Group Health Plans, Summaries of Benefits and Coverage, Wrap Documents

State Auto-IRA Programs: What Employers Need to Know

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California and four other states (Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland and Oregon) have passed legislation requiring employers that do not sponsor employee retirement plans to automatically withhold funds from employees’ pay, and forward them to IRAs maintained under state-run investment programs. Provided that these auto-IRA programs meet safe harbor requirements recently defined by the Department of Labor in final regulations, the programs will be exempt from ERISA and employers cannot be held liable for investment selection or outcome.  The DOL has also finalized regulations that would permit large cities and other political subdivisions to sponsor such programs where no statewide mandate exists; New York City has proposed its own such program, tentatively dubbed the New York City Nest Egg Plan.

In light of this growing trend, what do employers need to know about auto-IRA programs?   Some key points are listed below:

  1. Some Lead Time Exists. Even for state auto-IRA programs that become effective January 1, 2017 (e.g., in California and Oregon), actual implementation of employee contributions is pushed out to July 1, 2017 (in Oregon) and, in California, enrollment must wait until regulations governing the program are adopted. The California program, titled the California Secure Choice Retirement Savings Program, also phases in participation based on employer size. Employers with 100 or more employees must participate within 12 months after the program opens for enrollment, those with 50 or more within 24 months, and employers with fewer than 50 employees must participate within 36 months. These deadlines may be extended, but at present the earliest round of enrollment is anticipated to occur in 2019.
  2. Employer Involvement is Strictly Limited. The DOL safe harbor prohibits employer contributions to auto-IRAs and requires that employers fulfill only the following “ministerial” (clerical) tasks:
    • forwarding employee salary deferrals to the program
    • providing notice of the program to the employees and maintaining contribution records
    • providing information to the state as required, and
    • distributing state program information to employees.  Note that in California, the Employment Development Department will develop enrollment materials for employers to distribute, and in addition a state-selected third party administrator will collect and invest contributions, effectively limiting the employer role to forwarding salary deferrals.
  3. Employers Always Have the Option of Maintaining their Own Plan. Generally the state auto-IRA programs established to date exempt employers that maintain or establish any retirement plan (401(k), pension, SEP, or SIMPLE), even plans with no auto-enrollment feature or employer match used to encourage employee salary deferrals. Therefore employers need not be significantly out of pocket (other than for administrative fees) to avoid a state auto-IRA mandate. Employers should bear in mind that an employer-sponsored retirement program, even if only a SEP or SIMPLE IRA, helps to attract and retain valued staff, and should consider establishing their own plan in advance of auto-IRA program effective dates for that reason.
  4. Penalties May Apply. California’s auto-IRA program imposes a financial penalty on employers that fail to participate.   The penalty is equal to $250 per eligible employee if employer failure to comply lasts 90 or more days after receipt of a compliance notice; this increases to $500 per employee if noncompliance extends 180 or more days after notification. The Illinois auto-IRA program imposes a similar penalty.
  5. Voluntary Participation in Auto-IRA Program May Create an ERISA Plan. One of the requirements of the DOL safe harbor is that employer participation in auto-IRA programs (referred to as “State payroll deduction savings programs” be compulsory under state law. If participation is voluntary, an employer will be deemed to have established an ERISA plan. In theory, this rule could be triggered when an employer that was mandated to participate later drops below the number of employees needed to trigger the applicable state mandate (for instance, a California employer that drops below 5 employees), but continues to participate. The DOL leaves it to the states to determine whether participation remains compulsory for employers despite reductions in the number of employees.   The DOL also notes that, under an earlier safe harbor regulation from 1975, an employer that is not subject to state mandated auto-IRA programs can forward employees’ salary deferrals to IRAs on their behalf without triggering ERISA, provided that the employee salary deferrals are voluntary and not automatic.   The DOL final regulations can be read to suggest that a payroll-to-IRA forwarding arrangement that is voluntary and that meets the other requirements of the 1975 safe harbor will constitute a pre-existing workplace savings arrangement for purposes of exempting an employer from a state-mandated auto-IRA program.
  6. The Trump Administration Will Likely Support Auto-IRA Programs. Early and necessarily tentative conclusions are that the Trump Administration will continue to support the DOL’s safe harbor regulation exempting auto-IRA programs from ERISA, as well as other state-based efforts to address the significant savings gap now known to confront much of the country’s workforce.   One unknown variable is the degree to which the Trump Administration will be influenced by opposition to the programs mounted by the financial industry. Until the direction of the Trump Administration becomes clearer, employers that do not currently maintain a retirement plan should track auto-IRA legislation in their state or city and otherwise prepare to comply with a state or more local program in the near future, ideally by adopting their own retirement plan for employees.

 

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Filed under 401(k) Plans, 403(b) Plans, California Secure Choice Retirement Savings Program, ERISA, Fiduciary Issues, Payroll Issues, State Auto-IRA Programs

Webinar: Dept. of Labor 401(k) Audits – How Not to Get Selected (and How to Survive if You Do) UPDATED

 Y01VDYAX63Please join Christine Roberts and former DOL investigator David Kahn for a free, one-hour webinar on Wednesday, Aug 24, 2016 at 10:00 AM PDT which will provide tips on how to reduce the risk of audit, and how to survive an audit if one occurs. We will cover investigation triggers and issues that the DOL targets once an audit is underway. This no-charge webinar qualifies for continuing education credits for California CPAs and ASPPA. Join us for a webinar. Register now! https://lnkd.in/b-58niA

For those of you who missed the event, the PowerPoint and audio file are found here.

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Filed under 401(k) Plans, DOL Audit, Fiduciary and Fee Issues, Fiduciary Issues, Plan Reporting and Disclosure Duties, Profit Sharing Plan

Benefits Compliance: Where You Get It; What You Need (Poll)

Y01VDYAX63Changes in the law and continued advances in technology have made benefits compliance a constantly shifting landscape.  As one of many potential sources for your own path towards benefits compliance, E for ERISA would very much appreciate your participation in the following poll, which asks a few simple questions about where you currently get your benefits compliance services and what you may still need in that regard.  Thank you in advance for (anonymously) sharing your thoughts and experiences.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under 401(k) Plans, 403(b) Plans, Affordable Care Act, Applicable Large Employer Reporting, Benefit Plan Design, Employer Shared Responsibility, ERISA, Federally Facilitated Exchange, Fiduciary and Fee Issues, Fiduciary Issues, Fringe Benefits, Health Care Reform, HIPAA and HITECH, Payroll Issues, Plan Reporting and Disclosure Duties, PPACA, Profit Sharing Plan, Uncategorized

A Conversation About the DOL Fiduciary Rule (Audio File)

The Department of Labor recently published a final regulation defining a “fiduciary” for purposes of investment advice rendered for a fee with regard to “retirement accounts.” The final regulation marks the first change in the regulatory definition of this type of fiduciary since the regulation originally was published in 1975. Retirement accounts under the new rule include those held under qualified plans (e.g., 401(k), pension plans), which have always been subject to ERISA, and now for the first time with regard to IRAs, which formerly were subject only to Internal Revenue Code rules governing self-dealing and other forms of prohibited transactions that the Internal Revenue Service enforced through audits.  The new rule – together with new and amended prohibited transaction exemptions related to the rule – becomes applicable on April 10, 2017, with full implementation required on and after January 1, 2018.

Recently I was interviewed about the new definition of an investment advice fiduciary for an episode of Money Talk that KZSB (1290 AM) will broadcast a 2:00 p.m. PDT on June 20, 2016.  The interview provides a broad overview of the rule and how it will likely impact IRA investors, employers, and the investment industry.  Joining me were program hosts Dianne Duva, Partner at Arlington Financial Advisors, and Neil Kriesel, who worked in finance for many years, has taught at SBCC as an adjunct faculty member and serves on the SBCC Foundation Board and various other non-profit organizations.  Click below to listen.

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Filed under 401(k) Plans, Fiduciary and Fee Issues, Fiduciary Issues, IRA Issues, Uncategorized

DOL to Revise, Re-Propose Fiduciary Regulation

The Department of Labor’s Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA) announced on September 19th that it was withdrawing, and would re-propose, its draft regulation defining a “fiduciary” for purposes of qualified plans and IRAs. The proposed regulation is in “turnaround” mode as a result of significant pressure from the financial services industry and members of Congress, who objected to the way the proposed regulation expanded the definition of a fiduciary, without articulating clear exceptions to fiduciary status for a number of common financial transactions including IRA rollovers and swap transactions. Most recently, on September 15, 2011, Rep. Barney Frank (D. Mass.), the ranking member of the House Financial Services Committee, sent a letter to Labor Secretary Hilda Solis urging that the Department revisit the regulation in light of these concerns.

It is expected that EBSA will release a re-proposed regulation early in 2012.

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