On March 10, 2021 the U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) released a policy statement that it will not enforce or otherwise pursue enforcement actions against a fiduciary for failing to comply with the “Financial Factors in Selecting Plan Investments” regulation published on November 13, 2020 (the “ESG Rule”) and the “Fiduciary Duties Regarding Proxy Voting and Shareholder Rights” regulation, published on December 16, 2020 (the “Proxy Voting Rule”). Both regulations were promulgated by the DOL shortly before the Biden administration took office. In the recent policy statement, the DOL stated that certain stakeholders, including asset managers, plan sponsors and consumer groups have expressed concern over whether these rules accurately reflect a fiduciary’s duties under ERISA and appropriately consider the utility of environmental, social and governance (“ESG”) factors in making investment decisions. As a result, the DOL intends to “revisit” each of these rules.
Continue Reading DOL Announces Non-Enforcement Policy of Recent ESG and Proxy Voting Rules

On January 21, 2021, the United States District Court for the Northern District of California granted a motion by the Intel Corporation Investment Policy Committee to dismiss all ERISA claims brought against it by two plan participants representing a class of participants. The plaintiffs alleged, among other things, that the Committee acted imprudently by including private equity, hedge funds and commodities in a custom target date investment option in Intel’s 401(k) plan. The case was Anderson v. Intel Corp. Inv. Policy Comm., Case No. 19-CV-04618-LHK.
Continue Reading Court Rejects Plaintiffs’ Claims that Private Equity is Imprudent for 401(k) Plan

Plan sponsors and fiduciaries may have spent 2020 scrambling to amend their plans and operating procedures to accommodate breaking COVID-19 guidance, but the Department of Labor’s (“DOL”) and federal courts’ wheels continued to turn, churning out decisions and guidance on a variety of ERISA issues—and plan sponsors and fiduciaries should take note. Included in recent DOL guidance are rules for reviewing and selecting retirement plan investments, voting proxies, and distributing retirement plan notices. Meanwhile, various federal appellate court decisions should lead fiduciaries to review summary plan descriptions (“SPDs”) and the inclusion of single-stock fund investment options in defined contribution plan lineups. The following checklist sets out 2020 developments for plan sponsors and fiduciaries to consider in the new year.
Continue Reading 2021 Plan Sponsor/Fiduciary Compliance Checklist

The longstanding view of the Department of Labor (the “DOL”) has been that proxy voting and other shareholder rights held by an ERISA plan are subject to ERISA’s fiduciary duties of prudence and loyalty. Previously, this view was expressed by the DOL in sub-regulatory guidance, such as interpretive and field assistance bulletins. In September of 2020, the DOL published a proposed rule (the “Proposal”) regarding an ERISA fiduciary’s duties with respect to shareholder rights. On December 16, 2020, the Department of Labor published the final regulation (the “Regulation”). Much like the Proposal, the Regulation requires that when a fiduciary decides whether and when to exercise plan shareholder rights, it must act prudently and solely in the interests of participants and beneficiaries and for the exclusive purpose of providing them benefits and defraying the reasonable expenses of administering the plan. However, in the Regulation, the DOL took an approach that is less prescriptive and more principles-based than the Proposal.
Continue Reading Final ERISA Regulations Describe Fiduciary Duties Related to Plan Proxy Voting

On October 30, 2020, the U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) released its final regulation (“Final Rule”) relating to a fiduciary’s consideration of environmental, social and governance (“ESG”) factors when making investment decisions for plans subject to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, as amended (“ERISA”). In response to the proposed rule (the “Proposal”), the DOL received several thousand comments, the vast majority of which opposed the new rule. Many plan sponsors and investment professionals voiced objection to the Proposal’s antipathy towards the consideration of ESG factors. In the Final Rule, the DOL generally softened its stance toward the consideration of economic ESG factors, but
Continue Reading The Department of Labor’s ESG-less Final ESG Rule

On September 4, 2020, the U.S. Department of Labor (the “DOL”) issued a proposed rule regarding a plan fiduciary’s duties with respect to shareholder rights appurtenant to shares of stock held by an ERISA plan (the “Proposal”). ERISA requires that a plan fiduciary carry out its duties prudently and solely in the interests of participants and beneficiaries and for the exclusive purpose of providing benefits to participants and beneficiaries and defraying the reasonable expenses of administering the plan.

The DOL originally articulated its position that ERISA’s fiduciary duties extend to the voting rights of stock in an opinion letter published in 1988 (commonly known as the “Avon Letter”). Since that time, the DOL has provided additional sub-regulatory guidance in the form of Interpretive Bulletins and Field Assistance Bulletins. Much like the DOL’s guidance on ESG investing, the DOL’s guidance in this area has shifted in focus with each presidential administration; however, a published regulation, subject to review and comment like the Proposal, would be more difficult to overturn by a future administration if finalized.

The DOL’s previous guidance issued in 2016 generally encouraged the voting of proxies by plan fiduciaries, other than in certain limited circumstances. In contrast, the Proposal warns that a fiduciary can only vote proxies that it prudently determines to have an “economic impact on the plan after the costs of research and voting are taken into account.”
Continue Reading To Vote, or Not to Vote, That is the Question

On June 22, 2020, the United States Department of Labor (the “DOL”) submitted a proposed regulation (the “Proposal”) regarding the use of Environmental, Social and Governance (“ESG”) factors in selecting investments for plans subject to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, as amended (“ERISA”). The Proposal generally cautions plan fiduciaries against considering ESG factors when making investment decisions, unless such factors are relevant to the plan’s pecuniary goals.

Interest in ESG-themed investments has surged in popularity in recent years. One 2020 survey showed that nearly 74% of global investors intend to increase their allocation to ESG-oriented ETFs. However, ESG-themed investments have also captured the attention of regulators, including the DOL. The Securities and Exchange Commission recently listed ESG investments in its list of examination priorities with respect to the accuracy and adequacy of disclosures in the marketing of such investments. In addition, President Trump issued an Executive Order on April 10, 2019, which included a section on ESG investments. The Executive Order required the DOL Secretary to complete a review of trends with respect to ERISA plan investment in the energy sector.


Continue Reading DOL Proposed Rule Urges Caution Regarding the Use of ESG Factors for ERISA Plans

On May 21, 2020, the US Department of Labor (DOL) and the Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA) issued final regulations expanding the use of electronic disclosures for retirement plans. The regulations provide a new safe harbor that will substantially ease the use of electronic delivery by retirement plan administrators to satisfy the disclosure requirements of Title I of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA). The new regulations were published in the Federal Register on May 27, 2020, and they take effect on July 27, 2020 (though the DOL will not take enforcement action against a plan administrator that relies on the regulations’ new safe harbor before that date).

Continue Reading The DOL Embraces Wider Use of Electronic Notices for ERISA Disclosures

The Department of Labor’s recent pronouncement on the permissibility of investing 401(k) and other defined contribution plan assets in private equity has gotten wide-spread attention. Yet the guidance, which was issued in the form of an information letter, does not establish any new fiduciary principles, or provide any exemptions under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”). Nevertheless, the guidance is of great significance to the industry and this blog discusses why.
Continue Reading DOL Issues Guidance about Private Equity Investments in 401(k) Plans

When an employee separates from employment with a severance payment, the employee will frequently agree to a broad release of claims against the employer. Special concerns arise when applying a general release to potential claims that arise under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA). Although participants cannot be forced to forfeit their vested pension benefits or the assets in their individual retirement plan accounts, there have been a spate of class action lawsuits in recent years alleging that retirement plan fiduciaries breached their duties under ERISA § 502(a)(2). When faced with a prior release agreement, ERISA plaintiffs often argue that participants cannot individually waive fiduciary breach claims because they are bringing them on behalf of the plan. The Seventh Circuit rejected that argument in Howell v. Motorola, Inc., 633 F.3d 552 (7th Cir. 2011), dismissing the plaintiff’s fiduciary breach claim in a stock drop action because he had knowingly and voluntarily executed a general release. Other courts, however, have held that individual releases do not bar ERISA fiduciary breach claims brought on behalf of the plan. See, e.g., In re Schering Plough Corp. ERISA Litig., 589 F.3d 585, 594 (3d Cir. 2009). While neither the D.C. Circuit nor the district court had to directly address this issue—the argument was not properly raised by the plaintiff—they both concluded in a victory for plan sponsors that the plaintiff’s prior release agreement barred her fiduciary duty claims under ERISA § 502(a)(2).

Continue Reading D.C. Circuit Holds That a Participant Who Signed a Release Could Not Assert ERISA Fiduciary Breach Claims on Behalf of Her Retirement Plan