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Posts Tagged ‘ERISA’

Arbitration and Class Action Waivers Upheld in ERISA Plans, but an Industry Shift Toward Arbitration Remains to be Seen

Posted on: September 26th, 2019

By: Justin Boron

The judicial trend in favor of arbitration and class action waivers continues—this time in employee benefit plans.

Last month, a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals panel validated an arbitration and class action waiver agreement contained in an employee retirement plan, and in doing so, it overturned a 1984 precedent holding that fiduciary claims under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (“ERISA”) could not be arbitrated.

In a pair of opinions issued in Dorman v. Charles Schwab Corp.,[1] the panel found that the reasoning in Amaro v. Continental Can Company,[2] was irreconcilable with recent opinions from the U.S. Supreme Court, including American Express Co. v. Italian Colors Rest., which had endorsed an arbitrator’s competence to interpret and apply federal statutes.[3]

The Dorman decision arose from a plan participant’s class action alleging a breach of fiduciary duty that resulted from the inclusion of Schwab affiliated investment funds in the 401k plan.  As yet another affirmation of arbitration and class action waiver agreements, it is sure to attract the attention of plan sponsors and plan fiduciaries.

But it might not necessarily be the game changer that previous class action waiver decisions have proven to be in the consumer and employment context, where companies have rushed to fold class action waivers into sales and employment agreements.

For one, several other circuit courts of appeal had already upheld arbitration agreements in plan documents.[4]  So at least in these circuits, plan sponsors have already been free to include arbitration agreements in employee benefit and retirement plans like the 401k plan at issue in Dorman.  Plaintiff also requested en banc rehearing earlier this month, so Amaro could still be revived.

Other reasons are more practical.  Including class action waivers in arbitration agreements might stave off a class action asserted in federal court.  But in contrast to their effect on wage-and-hour and consumer-protection class actions, class action waivers might not necessarily limit exposure on fiduciary claims under ERISA, which are themselves a kind of representative action brought on behalf of the plan for monetary relief.[5]  The Dorman and other appellate decisions have not expressly addressed whether a plan’s arbitration agreement could confine the action to individual monetary relief as opposed to plan-wide relief.  As a result, any judgment might benefit the plan and plan participants as a whole regardless of whether the action is styled as a class action.

Additionally, the cost savings attributed to arbitration of employment and consumer claims might not be present in ERISA claims, which are often decided on the papers in federal court. In contrast, arbitration likely requires the same amount of attorney time as in federal court, with the added costs of the arbitrator(s) and an arbitration hearing.  Combine the added costs with a limited standard of review, and it might not net a more favorable result than proceeding in federal court in a class action.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Justin Boron at [email protected].

[1] Dorman v. Charles Schwab Corp., No. 18-cv-15281, 2019 U.S. App. LEXIS 24735 (9th Cir. Aug. 20, 2019), No. 18-cv-15281, 2019 U.S. App. LEXIS 24791 (9th Cir. Aug. 20, 2019).
[2] 724 F.2d 747 (9th Cir. 1984).
[3] 570 U.S. 228, 233 (2013).
[4] See, e.g., Williams v. Imhoff, 203 F.3d 758 (10th Cir. 2000); Kramer v. Smith Barney, 80 F.3d 1080 (5th Cir. 1996); Pritzker v. Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith, 7 F.3d 1110 (3d Cir. 1993); Bird v. Shearson Lehman/American Express, 926 F.2d 116 (2d Cir. 1991); Arnulfo P. Sulit, Inc. v. Dean Witter Reynolds, Inc., 847 F.2d 475 (8th Cir. 1988).
[5] 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(2); 29 U.S.C. § 1109.

ERISA Plaintiffs Continue Their Assault on Major Universities, but Every ERISA Fiduciary is Vulnerable

Posted on: May 15th, 2019

By: John H. Goselin II

Beginning in August 2016, the ERISA Plaintiffs’ Bar launched a concerted attack on more than 20 major universities across the country filing class action lawsuits for alleged violations of ERISA fiduciary duties under ERISA Section 404 and alleged participation in ERISA prohibited transactions under Section 406.

Each side has won significant victories. Duke University, the University of Chicago and Vanderbilt University have capitulated and are paying six and seven-figure class action settlements. The University of Rochester and Long Island University fought until the plaintiffs simply walked away earlier this year. Northwestern University, New York University, Washington University and the University of Pennsylvania won impressive victories at the motion to dismiss stage.

But the battle is never over at the district court level. The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has provided new life to the plaintiffs bringing suit against the University of Pennsylvania, albeit only for 2 of the 7 counts that were originally alleged. Sweda v University of Pennsylvania, 2019 U.S. App. LEXIS 13284 (No. 17-3244, May 2, 2019). Not only does this reversal present new risks for the University of Pennsylvania, but it may put a damper on lower courts willing to dismiss these class action lawsuits.

The Third Circuit rejected a per se rule that would protect plan fiduciaries who provide a “mix and range of investment options” to plan participants. Instead, the Third Circuit held that Plaintiff Sweda had plausibly alleged that the defendants had “failed to conform to the high standard required of plan fiduciaries [under ERISA Section 404(a)(1)]” by alleging that (i) the recordkeeping fees were 6-7 times greater than the fees paid by similar plans, (ii) defendants failed to solicit competitive bids for recordkeeping and other plan services or (iii) defendants failed to hire an independent consultant to assess the plan’s administrative costs. Furthermore, the University of Pennsylvania Plan maintained high-cost investment options with historically poor performance compared to available alternatives, particularly the ongoing use of retail mutual fund shares when lower-cost institutional shares were available, but never adopted by the plan.

It is important to note that the claims being asserted against the universities apply to every business that maintains a 401(k) plan, or other ERISA investment plan, for their employees. The employer as a plan sponsor and the named and functional fiduciaries administering the plan will be held to the “prudent man” standard of care which requires all plan fiduciaries to exercise “the skill, care, prudence, and diligence under the circumstances then prevailing that a prudent man acting in a like capacity and familiar with such matters would use in the conduct of an enterprise of a like character and with like aims.”

In short, the structure and administration of an ERISA plan must be continually reviewed, evaluated and modified to reflect the prevailing better/best practices. Plan sponsors and individual fiduciaries should develop a process of continuing and ongoing education regarding (i) what is expected of ERISA fiduciaries and (ii) the available options in the market place. Furthermore, plan fiduciaries must have a documented process pursuant to which they periodically evaluate the ERISA plan(s) for which they are responsible and make changes when necessary and appropriate.

Once the ERISA Plaintiffs’ Bar is done with the universities, they will be looking for their next targets.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact John Goselin at [email protected].

Don’t Get Bitten… Are You In Compliance With DOL’s COBRA Continuation Coverage Election Notice?

Posted on: August 21st, 2018

By: Pamela Everett

The United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida has certified a class action suit against Marriott International, Inc. for allegations that it failed to provide required notices of eligible terminated employees’ right to continued health care coverage under the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985 (COBRA).  The law suit was filed by Alina Vazquez, individually and on behalf of all others similarly situated, who alleges violations of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), as amended by COBRA.  The Plaintiff asserted that after her termination as a covered employee and participant in Marriott’s health plan she was not provided with adequate notice of her rights to continued coverage under COBRA thus causing her to fail to enroll and incur excessive medical bills.

Marriott’s  plan provided medical benefits to employees and their beneficiaries, and is an employee welfare benefit plan within the meaning of 29 U.S.C. § 1002(1) and a group health plan within the meaning of 29 U.S.C. § 1167(1).  COBRA requires the plan sponsor of each group health plan normally employing more than 20 employees on a typical business day during the preceding year to provide each qualified beneficiary who would lose coverage under the plan as a result of a qualifying event to elect, within the election period, continuation coverage under the plan.  This notice must be in accordance with the regulations prescribed by the Secretary of Labor. To facilitate compliance with these notice obligations, the Department of Labor (“DOL”) has issued a Model COBRA Continuation Coverage Election Notice which is included in the Appendix to 29 C.F.R. § 2590.606-4.

Plaintiff alleged that, “Marriott authored and disseminated a notice that was not appropriately completed, deviating from the model form in violation of COBRA’s requirements, which failed to provide Plaintiff notice of all required coverage information and hindered Plaintiff’s ability to obtain continuation coverage”.  The  Model Notice also requires that notice shall be written in a manner calculated to be understood by the average plan participant.   Specifically, in her suit the Plaintiff asserted that Marriott’s Notice violated the following requirements:

a. The Notice violates 29 C.F.R. § 2590.606-4(b)(4)(i) because it fails to provide the name, address and telephone number of the party responsible under the plan for the administration of continuation coverage benefits. Nowhere in the notice provided to Plaintiff is any party or entity clearly and unambiguously identified as the Plan Administrator.

b. The Notice violates 29 C.F.R. § 2590.606-4(b)(4)(iv) because it fails to provide all required explanatory information. There is no explanation that a legal guardian may elect continuation coverage on behalf of a minor child, or a minor child who may later become a qualified beneficiary.

c. The Notice violates 29 C.F.R. § 2590.606-4(b)(4)(vi) because it fails to provide an explanation of the consequences of failing to elect or waiving continuation coverage, including an explanation that a qualified beneficiary’s decision whether to elect continuation coverage will affect the future rights of qualified beneficiaries to portability of group health coverage, guaranteed access to individual health coverage, and special enrollment under part 7 of title I of the Act, with a reference to where a qualified beneficiary may obtain additional information about such rights; and a description of the plan’s procedures for revoking a waiver of the right to continuation coverage before the date by which the election must be made.”

In her certification of the class, U.S. District Judge Mary S. Scriven also rejected Marriott’s argument that Vazquez’s claims were not typical because Vazquez could not understand English, could not  have understood the notice once it had been translated and could not afford COBRA continuation coverage.  Currently there is no requirement that the Notice be provided in any language other than English.  Perhaps this suit will change that requirement in a manner similar to some of the provisions in the Affordable Care Act.

Most importantly, this case highlights the importance of ensuring that your company complies with DOL regulations, and to the extent practicable, utilizes the forms provided.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Pamela Everett at [email protected].

Not Just for Trust Fund Babies Anymore

Posted on: May 3rd, 2018

By: Bryce M. Van De Moere

Even with the existence of the Affordable Care Act, the preferred way to get health benefits is still through your employer.  Health insurance packages have become an integral part of employee compensation.  As employers continue to offer health benefits to their employees, liability for employers has also increased exponentially; not only in terms of how to shoulder the premium increases brought on by the utilization of an aging workforce but also exposure to legal action brought on by perceived deficiencies in the quality of the benefits.

Welfare Benefit Plans are described in Title 1 of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) which governs any plan, fund or program that provides (among other things), “medical, dental, prescription drugs, vision, psychiatric, long term health care, life insurance or accidental death or dismemberment benefits.” Regulation of these plans is federally governed and penalties for violation of the regulations can be severe. Further complicating an already difficult area, many employers are approaching health insurance carriers and contracting with them directly.  They are a signatory to a contract to offer benefits to an employee group and as such can be liable for claims made by their employees.   As such, when representing employers, especially those in the public sector, such as Municipalities and School Districts who have a unionized employee base with whom they are required to collectively bargain, it is of vital importance that those employers be shielded from liability, not only from their own employees but also from the penalties associated with failure to comply with state and federal laws that govern those benefit plans and the agencies that enforce those penalties.

One option employers should consider is banding together and pooling their employees by forming or joining a VEBA, or Voluntary Employee Benefit Association. A VEBA is an Internal Revenue Code Section 501(c)(7) Trust that is generally tax exempt and defined as “a mutual association of employees providing certain specified benefits to its members or their designated beneficiaries which may be funded by the employees or their employer.”  VEBA’s are legal entities that take the place of the individual employer.  Much like incorporation protects your personal assets, a VEBA can protect the employer’s business.

A VEBA is guided by a Board of Trustees made up of the member employers (and sometimes union representatives.)  The Trust is now the signatory to the contract.  The employer and their employees become a part of a much larger group or “pool” buying benefits in bulk which helps promote price stabilization and increases negotiation power. The Board of Trustees is also allowed to delegate the responsibilities of the Trust, which means they can hire a Trust ERISA counsel and Trust auditor to ensure regulatory compliance and a Trust Benefit Administrator to manage the claims of the benefit plan members.  This further shield’s the employer from responsibility and liability.

This is just one of the vehicles available for the management of employee benefit plans. If you have questions about this or other options available under the Internal Revenue Code, feel free to contact me at [email protected].

Has Fiduciary Rule Suffered a Fatal Blow?

Posted on: April 4th, 2018

By: Theodore C. Peters

The Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”) defined a “fiduciary” as someone who provides investment advice for a fee.  The following year, the U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) promulgated regulations that provided a five-part test for assessing whether someone was a fiduciary as defined by ERISA.  Seeking to implement a uniform fiduciary rule for all retail investment accounts, the DOL issued the Fiduciary Rule on April 6, 2016.  The Fiduciary Rule re-defined who is an “investment advice fiduciary” under ERISA and heightened the fiduciary duty to a “best interest” standard for those clients with ERISA plans and IRAs.  Previously, brokers were bound only to make “suitable” recommendations.  The Fiduciary Rule also created a “Best Interest Contract Exemption” that permitted financial advisors to avoid penalties stemming from prohibited transactions so long as they contractually affirmed their fiduciary status.

Several industry groups brought suit against the DOL, opposing implementation of the Fiduciary Rule.  In 2017, the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas, in an 81-page ruling, ruled in favor of the DOL.  Chief Judge Barbara M.G. Lynn concluded that the DOL had not exceeded its authority and had not created a private right of action for clients. On March 15, 2018, in Chamber of Commerce v. United States Department of Labor, the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit invalidated the Fiduciary Rule in a 2-1 decision.

In reversing the lower court, the Court addressed a simple but critical issue: whether the DOL exceeded its rulemaking authority by expanding the definition of “investment advice fiduciary.” The Court concluded that the new definition was in conflict with ERISA and the Internal Revenue Code because it was inconsistent with the common meaning of “fiduciary.”  The Court noted that the DOL arbitrarily and improperly sought to broaden the scope of its authority through the concept of investment “advice,” that included products sold by financial salespersons and even insurance agents. Further, the Court criticized the best interest contract exemption, which permitted brokers to receive compensation for investment products they recommend (thereby creating potential conflicts), provided they agree by contract to act in the investor’s “best interests.”

By vacating the Fiduciary Rule under the Administrative Procedures Act, the Fifth Circuit effectively voided the entire rule nationwide.  The DOL could possibly request a hearing en banc before the entire Fifth Circuit, or alternatively, petition for a writ of certiorari to the United State Supreme Court.  Or perhaps, the DOL will take no action at all, in which case the Fiduciary Rule will presumably die on the vine, and the five-step test enunciated in 1975 would be resurrected. Of note, however, mere days before the Fifth Circuit’s decision, the Tenth Circuit ruled in favor of the DOL in the context of a more limited challenge to the Fiduciary Rule highlighting a split between federal circuits – which may in turn spur the DOL to seek Supreme Court review.

Regardless of what action the DOL takes, the Securities Exchange Commission (“SEC”) is likely to seek to implement its own rules.  Commencing in October 2017, the SEC began reviewing the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule with a goal of introducing its own new rule governing investment advice.   SEC Chairman Jay Clayton testified before the Senate Banking Committee that the drafting of an SEC rule that harmonizes with the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule was a priority.  Despite the Fifth Circuit ruling, the SEC’s resolve appears to remain steadfast.  During a Q&A session at the SIFMA compliance conference just days after the ruling, Jay Clayton said “I’m not sitting on this… [and] as far as I’m concerned, we’re moving forward.”

If you have questions or would like more information, please contact Ted Peters at [email protected].