On April 14th, 2021, the Department of Labor (“DOL“) issued cybersecurity guidance to plan sponsor and fiduciaries, recordkeepers and other service providers and participants and beneficiaries of plans regulated by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, as amended (“ERISA”). The guidance is presented in three separate parts: Tips for Hiring a Service Provider with Strong Cybersecurity Practices, Cybersecurity Program Best Practices and Online Security Tips for Participants and Beneficiaries.

Over the past ten years, cybersecurity has become an area of critical importance to plan sponsors, plan administrators and plan participants. With plans holding trillions in assets as well as sensitive participant information, retirement accounts have been attractive targets for cyber-enabled fraud. Plan participants are known to check their retirement account balances less frequently than personal banking, credit card or other financial accounts. As a result, there can be a delay before attacks on retirement accounts are discovered, making tracing and recovery efforts exceptionally difficult. Plans also permit electronic access to funds and rely upon outside service providers, which provide additional access points for breach. There is a growing body of litigation involving participants who have suffered retirement plan losses due to cyberattacks. Bartnett v. Abbott Laboratories, No. 20-cv-02127 (ND Ill., 2020) (motion to dismiss participant suit against plan sponsor and administrator granted, but denied with respect to third party record-keeper); Leventhal v. The MandMarblestone Group LLC, No. 18-cv-2727 (ED PA, 2019) (motion to dismiss suit by plan sponsor and participant against third party administrator denied); and Berman v. Estee Lauder, No. 4:19-cv-06489 (ND CA, 2019) (participant suit against plan sponsor, committee and third party record-keeper settled).


Continue Reading U.S. Department of Labor Weighs in on Cybersecurity for ERISA Plans

All too often, retirement plan administrators and benefits attorneys encounter situations with missing participants or uncashed checks that result in head scratching and exasperation.  It is difficult to believe that trying to deliver money to someone could produce such frustration, but it happens more than one would think.  In an attempt to alleviate some of these woes and help ensure that participants and their beneficiaries receive the retirement benefits due to them, the Department of Labor’s (DOL) Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA) came out with three related pieces of guidance on January 12, 2021: (1) a set of Best Practices for Pension Plans (the “Best Practices”), describing steps that plan fiduciaries can take to reduce missing participant issues; (2) Compliance Assistance Release No. 2021-01, outlining the investigative approach that guides the DOL’s regional offices under its Terminated Vested Participants Project; and (3) Field Assistance Bulletin 2021-01, authorizing fiduciaries of terminating defined contribution plans to transfer missing participants’ account balances to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation’s (PBGC) Missing Participants Program as a matter of temporary enforcement policy.  This blog post highlights key points from the Best Practices and focuses on practical tips plan fiduciaries can take away from the DOL guidance.

Continue Reading Key Takeaways From The DOL’s “Best Practices” Missing Participant Guidance

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

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) issued Notice 2020-52 on June 29, 2020, making it temporarily easier for employers to suspend or reduce matching contributions and nonelective contributions to safe harbor 401(k) plans mid-year.

As described in our earlier blog post, the Internal Revenue Code of 1986, as amended (the “Code”) imposes rules that limit the ability of employers to suspend or reduce safe harbor matching contributions and safe harbor nonelective contributions, in the middle of a plan year, to a plan that is intended to be a safe harbor plan under sections 401(k) or 401(m) of the Code (such a plan referred to below as a “safe harbor plan”). Notice 2020-52 eases several of those restrictions for a limited period of time in recognition of the ongoing economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The relief also applies to plans subject to section 403(b) of the Code that apply section 401(m) safe harbor rules.
Continue Reading IRS Eases Ability of Employers to Reduce or Suspend Safe Harbor Matching and Nonelective Contributions

During the economic downturn associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, some 401(k) plan sponsors may be considering a mid-year reduction or suspension of matching contributions or nonelective contributions to their 401(k) plans as a cost-saving measure. Generally, whether the matching or nonelective contributions may be reduced or suspended will depend on the specific terms of the plan. In addition, in the case of  a plan that is intended to be a safe harbor plan under sections 401(k) or 401(m) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 as amended (the “Code”), the Code imposes particularly restrictive rules limiting mid-year changes. The following summarizes steps that a plan sponsor must take to reduce or suspend matching or nonelective contributions to its safe harbor plan during the plan year without jeopardizing the plan’s tax-qualified status.

Continue Reading Reducing or Suspending Matching or Nonelective Contributions Under a Safe Harbor Plan

In a case of first impression, a federal district court in the Southern District of Texas has ruled that a former parent company’s stock was not an “employer security” under section 407(d)(1) of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, as amended (“ERISA”).[1] As a result, the ERISA exemption from the duty to diversify and the duty of prudence (to the extent the latter requires diversification) were not available where a plan held former parent company stock in a legacy single-stock fund. Although in this case plaintiff participants’ claims were ultimately dismissed, the decision should be on the radar of fiduciaries of plans holding significant amounts of former employer securities.

As background, in 2012, Phillips 66 Company, Inc. (“Phillips 66”) spun off from ConocoPhillips Corporation (“ConocoPhillips”) and sponsored a new defined contribution plan with an employee stock ownership plan (“ESOP”) component, as had ConocoPhillips. In addition to newly issued Phillips 66 stock, however, Phillips 66’s new plan also held more than 25% of its assets in a frozen ConocoPhillips stock fund that was transferred from the old plan in connection with the Phillips 66 spinoff.

When the value of ConocoPhillips stock held by the Phillips 66 plan dropped, participants sued the plan’s investment committee and its members, along with the plan’s financial administrator, alleging imprudence and failure to diversify plan assets in violation of ERISA. In reply, defendants argued that ConocoPhillips stock was not subject to the duty to diversify, as those shares were “employer securities” when issued; ConocoPhillips was previously the employer of the participants. Therefore, defendants argued, ConocoPhillips stock remained exempt from the duty to diversify despite Phillips 66’s spin-off from the ConocoPhillips controlled group.

The court rejected this aspect of defendants’ argument, holding that stock does not indefinitely retain its character as “employer securities” for purposes of ERISA’s diversification and prudence requirements. Ultimately ruling in favor of defendants, the court held that ERISA’s diversification and prudence requirements were not violated because the plan’s investment lineup overall was diversified, public information on the risks of ConocoPhillips stock was reflected in its market price, and because the claims about procedural imprudence lacked factual support in the complaint’s allegations. The Schweitzer court also emphasized that participants were free to shift their ConocoPhillips holdings to other investment options under the plan.


Continue Reading Court Holds That Shares of Former Parent Company Are No Longer “Employer Securities” After Spinoff

On April 23, 2018, the U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) issued Field Assistance Bulletin No. 2018-01 (the “FAB”), which revisits two important topics relating to ERISA plan investments: (1) whether and to what extent a fiduciary can consider environmental, social and governance (“ESG”) factors when deciding between different investment options and (2) the exercise of shareholder rights.

The FAB clarifies that while ESG factors can present economic risks or opportunities that can be appropriately considered as part of an economic analysis, prior guidance should not be read to suggest that an investment’s promotion of ESG factors or positive market trends means that the investment is automatically a prudent investment choice. Rather, fiduciaries must always focus on the economic interests of plan beneficiaries and must be careful not to put too much weight into ESG factors.
Continue Reading DOL Issues Guidance on the Use of Environmental, Social and Governance Factors in Evaluating Plan Investment Options and the Exercise of Shareholder Rights

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (Tax Act) did not directly modify the rules governing hardship withdrawals from 401(k) plans. However, one change enacted by the Tax Act does necessitate a careful review of 401(k) plan hardship withdrawal language and could impact the administration of hardship withdrawal requests. Further, the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018,