After several delays, the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 (the “Act”) was signed into law on December 27, 2020. Although the Act primarily addresses coronavirus emergency response and relief and appropriations through September 30, 2021, it also contains several provisions of interest for employers that sponsor benefit plans, including temporary flexibility for health care and dependent care flexible spending accounts (FSAs), changes to retirement plan provisions, and certain health care plan changes related to so-called “surprise billing”. The following summarizes the provisions of the Act that affect health care and dependent care FSAs.
Pooled plan providers hoping to start operating pooled employer plans in 2021 will finally have the ability to register to do so, under regulations finalized by the Department of Labor (“DOL”) on November 16, 2020.
As described in detail in our prior alert, the SECURE Act created a new type of retirement vehicle called a “Pooled Employer Plan,” or PEP, in which multiple unrelated employers may participate and which may be sponsored by entities including financial services companies, such as banks, insurance companies and third-party administrators. The sponsors, referred to as “Pooled Plan Providers” or PPPs, are responsible for most fiduciary and administrative duties related to the PEPs they sponsor. The SECURE Act permits a PPP to begin sponsoring PEPs as soon as January 1, 2021, provided the PPP meets the SECURE Act’s requirements, including registration with the DOL and IRS before commencing operations. The DOL issued proposed regulations on August 20, and in its November 16 final regulations, softened some of the requirements it had originally proposed. Continue Reading Diving into the Pooled Plan Provider Deep End? It’s Time to Register!
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
Ed. Note: On September 22, 2020, the Fourth Circuit denied Gannett’s petition for rehearing en banc. On October 8, 2020, the Fifth Circuit denied Schweitzer’s petition for rehearing en banc. We expect the defendants (in Gannett) and the plaintiffs (in Schweitzer) will petition the Supreme Court for certiorari within the coming weeks, and will update this post as new developments arise in the case.
The Fourth Circuit’s recent split decision in Quatrone v. Gannett Co., Inc., No. 19-1212 (4th Cir. Aug. 11, 2020) is sure to raise the blood pressure of sponsors and administrators of retirement plans with single stock funds. Together with a recent Fifth Circuit decision in Schweitzer v. Inv. Comm. of Phillips 66 Sav. Plan, No. 18-cv-20379, 2020 WL 2611542 (5th Cir. May 22, 2020), the Gannett case highlights the dilemma of retirement plan sponsors and fiduciaries, who, as a result of a corporate transaction, inherit a plan investment fund consisting of a single class of stock that does not constitute an employer security for purposes of ERISA (i.e., a “single stock fund”). Plan fiduciaries in these circumstances have been targeted in class actions brought by an aggressive plaintiffs’ bar both for liquidating a single stock fund too soon and for not liquidating a single stock fund soon enough. While courts are still evaluating how to handle these single stock fund cases, a plan fiduciary’s potential exposure for continuing to maintain such a fund seems to turn, at least in part, on the manner in which ERISA’s duties of prudence and diversification apply to the single stock fund as a plan investment option.
On August 28, 2020, the Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”) issued Notice 2020-65 (the “Notice”) as its guidance on implementing the Memorandum on Deferring Payroll Tax Obligations in Light of Ongoing COVID-19 Disaster signed by President Trump on August 8, 2020 (the “Payroll Tax Memo”). As described in a previous post, the Payroll Tax Memo left many unanswered questions that made it difficult for employers to determine whether to implement the payroll tax deferrals for employees. Unfortunately, as described below, the Notice only provides limited guidance, and many of the difficult questions remain unanswered, which puts employers in a difficult spot with the deferral potentially applying to wages paid starting on or after September 1, 2020. Continue Reading IRS Issues Limited Guidance on President Trump’s Executive Order on Deferring Payroll Tax Obligations
On August 8, 2020, President Trump signed a Memorandum on Deferring Payroll Tax Obligations in Light of Ongoing COVID-19 Disaster for the Secretary of the Treasury (the “Payroll Tax Memo”). The Payroll Tax Memo notes that President Trump previously declared the COVID-19 pandemic an emergency and that further action is needed to support working Americans during the pandemic. The Payroll Tax Memo directs the Secretary of the Treasury to use his authority (under Section 7508A of the Internal Revenue Code) to defer withholding, deposit, and payment of certain Federal Insurance Contribution Act or “FICA” taxes owed by certain employees for wages paid between September 1, 2020 and December 31, 2020 (the “Deferral Period”), subject to the following conditions:
- The deferral is only permitted for employees whose bi-weekly pre-tax compensation is less than $4,000 (or the equivalent amount with respect to other regular pay periods); and
- Amounts deferred shall be deferred without any penalties, interest, additional amount or addition to the tax.
The SECURE Act, enacted in December 2019, greatly enhances the ability of employers (particularly small and medium-sized employers) to maintain retirement programs for their employees. Specifically, it provides for the creation of a new retirement vehicle called a “Pooled Employer Plan.” Unrelated employers may participate in a Pooled Employer Plan, which is sponsored by a “Pooled Plan Provider.” Learn more about Pooled Employer Plans in our recent client alert, available here.
The Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”) released two informal updates to guidance on income inclusion timing, and withholding and deposit rules, for stock options and for stock-settled stock appreciation rights (“SARS”) and restricted stock units (“RSUs”). First, the IRS released Generic Legal Advice Memorandum 2020-004 (the “GLAM”) on May 22, 2020, which outlines the views of the IRS Office of Chief Counsel with respect to the timing of income inclusion and the application of Federal Insurance Contribution Act (“FICA”) and Federal income tax (“FIT”) withholding and deposit obligations for three types of stock-settled equity awards. Second, the IRS updated Section 18.104.22.168.2 of the Internal Review Manual (“IRM Update”) on May 26, 2020, to expand the categories of equity awards eligible for certain administrative relief from the penalties of the Next-Day Deposit Rule (described below), while slightly tightening the conditions for such relief. Continue Reading IRS Updates Guidance on Timing of Wage and FICA Withholding for Stock Options and RSUs
The Tenth Circuit’s recent split decision in M. v. Premera Blue Cross, No. 18-4098 (July 24, 2020), poses a significant threat to the deferential standard of review typically applied to benefit plan claim determinations, and imposes a new burden on plan administrators.
More than 30 years ago, the Supreme Court held in Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. v. Bruch, 489 U.S. 101 (1989), that benefit denials are “reviewed under a de novo standard unless the benefit plan gives the administrator or fiduciary discretionary authority to determine eligibility for benefits or to construe the terms of the plan.” Applying the Firestone doctrine, lower courts have consistently applied the substantially more deferential “arbitrary and capricious” or “abuse of discretion” standard of review to benefit denials when the plan at issue granted the plan administrator (or relevant fiduciary) discretionary authority consistent with the Firestone case.
The Tenth Circuit, in Premera, changes that standard.