Follow: Email

by Seth Safra and Jonathan Goldberg

A recent appellate court decision, Cottillion v. United Refining Co. et al. (3d Cir. Mar. 18, 2015), is a good reminder of the high cost that a drafting error can have for a plan’s sponsor.  Although courts have recognized a “scrivener’s error” doctrine, the bar for establishing a scrivener’s error is high and the outcome can be unpredictable.  The Cottillion case illustrates that the sponsor’s intent will not always win the day–even where the outcome does not make sense economically.
Continue Reading Recent Case Illustrates Importance of Careful Plan Drafting

A recent post in the IRS’s Employee Plans News has two important tips for employers who sponsor 401(k) and similar plans:

  1. The plan sponsor is ultimately responsible for maintaining records that document compliance with tax-qualification requirements. Many employers rely on third-party administrators to maintain records of day-to-day transactions, such as loans, hardship withdrawals and distributions. It is important to confirm with the third-party administrators that the records are being kept and that the sponsor will have access to the records–in a usable format–including after the sponsor changes administrators.
  2. The IRS expects the administrator to collect documentation in support of any hardship withdrawal–saying “[i]t’s not sufficient for plan participants to keep their own records of hardship distributions.”

In an effort to streamline plan administration, some third-party administrators have promoted a simplified procedure that would allow employees to get hardship withdrawals without submitting documentation.
Continue Reading IRS Issues Warning on Documentation Requirements for 401(k) Plans

A recent Supreme Court decision, Perez v. Mortgage Bankers Ass’n, highlights two important points about the authority of the U.S. Department of Labor, IRS, and other administrative agencies to interpret rules:

  1. U.S. courts will generally follow administrative interpretations of statutes and an agency’s regulations, except in rare circumstances. This deference extends to “sub-regulatory” guidance, like opinion letters, rulings, notices, amicus briefs, and probably even FAQs posted on a website; and
  2. Agencies have wide latitude to change their minds on interpretive guidance, without any obligation to consult with the public.

The decision illustrates the practical importance of getting involved in the regulatory process, and advocating for important clarifications before regulations are finalized. Although agencies may change interpretive guidance unilaterally, unambiguous regulations generally cannot be changed without advance notice and an opportunity to comment.

Background.  This case involved whether mortgage-loan officers are eligible for overtime under the Fair Labor Standards Act.
Continue Reading Supreme Court Ruling on Agency Flip-Flopping Affects Rules for Benefit Plans

Two cases decided in January—one by the Sixth Circuit and another by the District Court for the District of Columbia—offer a cautionary tale to plan sponsors who rely on a statute or regulation that allows retroactive amendments to tax-qualified plans. Both cases involved a change to the interest and mortality assumptions that pension plans use to calculate the minimum amount of a lump sum distribution. The change was expressly authorized by a statute, but the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation said “not so fast”—leaving the plan sponsors responsible for several million dollars in additional liabilities.

The cases offer a cautionary tale for plan sponsors: practices that are permitted in one context will not necessarily be accepted in other contexts. For this reason, it is important to conduct a thorough analysis before relying on agency guidance or accepted practice.

Continue Reading Two Recent Cases Offer Cautionary Tale to Plan Sponsors Relying on IRS Guidance

A complaint filed this month against FedEx Corporation and its pension plan asks a court to apply the Supreme Court’s decision in Windsor v. United States retroactively.  The case is Schuett v. FedEx Corporation.  The plaintiff is the surviving same-sex spouse of a FedEx pension plan participant who died six days before the Court issued its opinion in Windsor.

Case background.  The participant and the plaintiff began living as a couple in 1983.  The participant worked as a FedEx delivery driver for 26 years while the plaintiff stayed home to care for the couple’s two children.  The participant was diagnosed with cancer and learned on June 3, 2013, that her condition was terminal.  Already registered as domestic partners in California, the couple held a bedside wedding ceremony June 19, 2013, and the participant died the following day.

Six days later, the Supreme Court held in Windsor that the U.S. Constitution requires federal law to recognize state-sanctioned same-sex marriages.  The Court overturned section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”), which defined marriage under federal law to exclude same-sex couples.  The same day, the Court decided Hollingsworth v. Perry, a procedural ruling that effectively reinstated same-sex marriage in California.  The plaintiff obtained a marriage certificate and a judicial order declaring the couple’s marriage legally valid as of June 19, 2013.
Continue Reading Lawsuit by Surviving Same-Sex Spouse Raises Windsor Retroactivity Question

An eight-year transition period for U.S. tax-qualified retirement plans covering Puerto Rico residents is set to end in 2015.  Employers that cover Puerto Rico residents under U.S. tax-qualified plans should consider spinning off the Puerto Rico portion of the plan in 2015, to avoid subjecting Puerto Rico residents to U.S. federal income tax.


Continue Reading Action Required for Retirement Plans Covering Puerto Rico Residents

The tax extenders legislation (formally called the “Tax Increase Prevention Act of 2014“) signed into law on December 17 included a one-year extension of “parity” for the limits on tax-exempt mass transit and parking benefits.  The change retroactively increases the limit on pre-tax mass transit benefits, which means that it affects the information that must be reported on Form W-2 for 2014 (generally due January 31, 2015) and tax refunds are available.

Employers with transportation benefit programs should watch for guidance and consider adjustments that might be required before filing Form 941 for the fourth quarter and issuing Forms W-2 for 2014.

Continue Reading Increase to Transit Reimbursement Limits Might Necessitate Corrective Tax Filings

In the wake of investment losses from the 2008 market downturn, many fiduciaries of employee benefit plans faced lawsuits brought by plan participants.  Most cases involved defined contribution plans, in which participants sought to recover investment losses that had directly reduced their individual benefits.  In contrast, fewer cases were brought against fiduciaries of defined benefit plans, largely because plan sponsors bear the investment risk in the defined benefit context–which means investment losses do not directly affect participants’ individual benefits.  Courts have generally held that participants lack standing to sue defined benefit plan fiduciaries for investment losses–until now.
Continue Reading District Court Opens Door to Suits by Defined Benefit Plan Participants

The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (“PBGC”) recently finalized its rule on insurance for amounts rolled over from a defined contribution plan to a defined benefit plan.  Although amounts rolled over will be subject to greater protections than apply for most other benefits (i.e., benefits derived from employer contributions), the full rollover benefit will not necessarily be protected if the plan terminates with insufficient assets. Employers should assess the impact of the limitations on PBGC protection for their plans and consider updating participant communications to better explain the potential risks from a rollover to a defined benefit plan.
Continue Reading Understanding Limits on PBGC Protection for Amounts Rolled Over From a Defined Contribution Plan

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) has requested that the United States District Court of Minnesota stop Honeywell from implementing a wellness program that would provide financial incentives for undergoing biometric screenings.  The EEOC is challenging Honeywell’s program on grounds that it would violate the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (“GINA”).  The EEOC’s request is a surprising development because, as recently as last year, the EEOC stated that it has not taken a position on whether and to what extent providing a financial reward to participate in a wellness program violates the ADA.  In addition, EEOC staff have not previously given any public indication that providing incentives to spouses for participating in a wellness program violates GINA.  Consequently, many employers provide financial rewards to encourage participation in wellness programs up to the limits permitted by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (“HIPAA”), as amended by the Affordable Care Act (“ACA”).  Employers that offer financial rewards (or impose financial penalties) for participation in wellness programs that request medical information or involve medical examinations should take note of this development.

Update:  On November 3, 2014, the District Court judge denied the EEOC’s request.

Continue Reading EEOC Seeks to Stop Use of Financial Incentives for Wellness Program Participation