On Wednesday, April 18th, the SEC introduced a much-anticipated package of proposed rules and formal guidance concerning the standards of conduct for financial professionals. The more than 1,000-page proposal, which emerged eight years after Congress required the agency to conduct a study on the topic, addresses whether investment advisers and broker-dealers should have identical or

Our colleague Jason Levy recently published an article in The Actuary Magazine on the Department of Labor’s fiduciary conflict rule.  More than six years in the making, this rule represents perhaps the most significant regulation from the DOL during the Obama Administration.

The fiduciary conflict rule expands the definition of fiduciary to cover, with certain exceptions, all investment advice provided to a retirement plan (like a 401(k) plan, defined benefit pension plan, or an IRA), or to a participant or beneficiary in any of those retirement plans.  The rule imposes fiduciary status on a broad category of professionals, including many broker-dealers who previously had taken the position that they were not investment advice fiduciaries based on a DOL regulation that had been in place since 1975.

In contrast to the sweeping changes it imposes on investment advice professionals, the fiduciary conflict rule will have a far more modest effect on employers.  The rule is not intended to confer fiduciary status on sponsors of retirement plans.  Likewise, there had been concern under the proposed version of the rule that human resources and other employees who interact with participants might be considered fiduciaries when they discuss retirement plan investments with their co-workers.  However, the final version of the rule provides that, absent unusual circumstances, such employees would not be covered.

Nevertheless, the fiduciary conflict rule has important implications for employers that sponsor retirement plans.


Continue Reading What Employers Need to Know About the Fiduciary Conflict Rule

On July 21, the IRS announced that it is eliminating its current determination letter program for tax-qualified retirement plans. (IRS officials had been sending signals that this was coming for several months. It is now official.) Starting in 2017, the IRS will accept determination letter applications in only three circumstances:

  1. Initial qualification for a new plan. The IRS will still review any plan that has not previously received a determination letter.
  2. Plan termination. The IRS will still accept applications for a determination upon termination of a plan.
  3. Other limited circumstances to be determined by the Treasury Department and IRS. The Announcement says that Treasury and the IRS intend periodically to request public comments on what circumstances should be included in this category.

For plan sponsors, favorable IRS determination letters provide protection against disqualification for a “plan document failure”–for example, if the IRS later determines that a plan provision does not comply with the tax-qualification requirements or the IRS determines that a required provision is missing. Given the significant potential costs of a plan being disqualified, third parties often rely on determination letters to confirm that a plan is qualified. For example, buyers in corporate transactions, plans and IRAs accepting rollovers, and lenders often request to see copies of a plan’s favorable determination letter.


Continue Reading Changes to IRS Determination Letter Program Raise Practical Questions

The IRS issued a notice today stating that it intends to amend regulations to prohibit a pension plan from offering a lump sum distribution to participants who are receiving annuity payments. The new guidance would take effect today, except for certain lump sum offers already in progress. While de-risking through lump sum offers becomes more limited, one state’s legislature made de-risking through annuity purchase a little more attractive: Connecticut passed legislation shielding annuity benefits from creditors of retirees when paid under a group annuity contract that replaced an ERISA-covered pension.
Continue Reading Pension De-Risking Gets New Rules: IRS Shuts Down Lump Sum Offers to Retirees While Connecticut Increases Safety of Group Annuity Contracts

The Supreme Court’s decision last week in Obergefell v. Hodges is big news: it held that the 14th Amendment requires states to license same-sex marriages and to recognize lawful out-of-state same-sex marriages, and thus legalized same-sex marriage throughout the country.  In a final section that begins with a philosopher’s take — “No union is more profound than marriage…”  — and ends with a jurist’s — “It is so ordered.” — the Court captured the attention of SCOTUS junkies and the rest of the country alike, leading to an outpouring of celebrations, headlines, social commentary and musing about the future.

Obergefell clearly is of cultural importance and has personal significance for many people, but what does it mean for private sector employers and their employee benefit plans?  Surprisingly little.  Private sector employee benefits are governed primarily by federal law, which had its watershed moment on this issue in 2013 when the Supreme Court required the federal government to recognize same-sex marriage in United States v. Windsor.


Continue Reading Marriage Equality Decision Is Big News (But May Have Little Impact on Private Sector Employee Benefit Plans)

The ERISA Advisory Council held a hearing last week on “Model Notices and Disclosures for Pension Risk Transfers.”  The Council, which advises the Secretary of Labor on the Labor Department’s administration of ERISA, is working to develop model disclosures to participants who receive lump sum offers in connection with de-risking transactions.  While the Council is focused on lump sums offered in connection with limited election windows, the model disclosures might apply any time an individual is offered a lump sum distribution in lieu of an annuity benefit.

The Council heard testimony from several witnesses, many of whom proposed text or offered suggestions to be included in model disclosures—including testimony by our own Robert Newman of Covington & Burling LLP.  While the Council deliberates, employers conducting lump sum windows might wish to consider some of the disclosures suggested at the hearing.
Continue Reading ERISA Advisory Council Considers Model Lump Sum Window Disclosures

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

For sponsors and fiduciaries of employee benefit plans, the Amara case has presented many interesting and important issues that have been discussed at length in this blog and elsewhere. However, the most recent chapter in this long-running dispute has not garnered nearly as much attention as either the Supreme Court or Second Circuit decisions that came before it. Nonetheless, this latest decision, Cigna Corporation v. Executive Risk Indemnity, raises a critical issue for plan sponsors and fiduciaries: what is and, perhaps more importantly, what is not, covered by fiduciary and other liability insurance policies.

The facts of the Executive Risk case are relatively straightforward. Cigna sought a declaratory judgment that it was entitled to coverage under its fiduciary liability policies for claims asserted in the Amara case. The insurers denied coverage, relying on a policy exclusion for “deliberately fraudulent or criminal acts or omissions.” The trial court ultimately applied the exclusion and denied coverage.

Given the considerable amount at stake, the decision is undoubtedly important to Cigna, Executive Risk, and the other insurers who were defendants in the case. However, other plan sponsors and fiduciaries would be wise to understand the significance of this decision as well: insurance coverage cases often turn on the language of the insurance policies in question and there generally is not “standard” policy language on many critical issues.


Continue Reading ERISA Liability Insurance: Know What’s Covered . . . And What Isn’t

In Lees v. Munich Reinsurance America, Inc., a federal district court in New Jersey recently held that an oral misrepresentation could serve as the basis for a fiduciary breach claim.

The plaintiff in Lees worked for American Re-Insurance Company (a predecessor of the defendant), but was being paid by a related entity. Several years