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

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