Comments Invited On Burdensomeness of Requirements To Obtain DOL Determination That Benefit Plan Qualifies as As Collectively Bargained Plan

December 30, 2009

By Cynthia Marcotte Stamer

The Employee Benefit Security Administration (EBSA) is inviting public comment on the compliance burdens to comply with its administrative procedure (‘‘procedural rules’’) for obtaining a determination by the EBSA if a particular employee benefit plan is established or maintained under or pursuant to one or more collective bargaining agreements for purposes of section 3(40) of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA).

Codified beginning at 29 CFR 2570.15, these procedural rules concern specific criteria set forth in 29 CFR 2510.3–40 which, if met, constitute a finding by EBSA that a plan is collectively bargained. Plans that meet the requirements of the criteria rules are not subject to state law and qualify for delayed compliance, exemption or other special treatment under various requirements of ERISA, the Internal Revenue Code or other applicable requirements.  Among other things, overzealous characterization and marketing of self-insured health plans covering employees of multiple employers as collectively bargained and therefore exempt from state insurance regulation has resulted in numerous high profile enforcement actions for insurance fraud or other violations around the country over the past decade. 

The procedural rules require applicants to submit certifications and other documentation.  EBSA is inviting comments on the appropriateness of the assessment currently published in connection its publication of the procedural rules of the compliance burden estimates these procedural rules

EBSA particularly is interested in comments that:

  • Evaluate whether the proposed collection of information is necessary for the proper performance of the functions of the agency, including whether the information will have practical utility;
  • Evaluate the accuracy of the agency’s estimate of the burden of the proposed collection of information, including the validity of the methodology and assumptions used;
  • Enhance the quality, utility, and clarity of the information to be collected; and
  • Minimize the burden of the collection of information on those who are to respond, including through the use of appropriate automated, electronic, mechanical, or other technological collection techniques or other forms of information technology, e.g., by permitting electronic submissions of responses.

If you have questions about or need assistance evaluating, commenting on or responding to this invitation or other employee benefit, employment, compensation, employee benefit, workplace health and safety, corporate ethics and compliance practices, concerns or claims, please contact the author of this article, Curran Tomko Tarski LLP Labor & Employment Practice Group Chair Cynthia Marcotte Stamer.  Board Certified in Labor & Employment Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, Chair of the American Bar Association RPTE Employee Benefits & Other Compensation Group, and a Council Member on the ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits, Ms. Stamer is experienced advising and assisting employers, employee benefit plan and their fiduciaries, insurers, financial advisory services, administrators and custodians, debtors, trustees and creditors in bankruptcy and others about plan, process, and product design, administration, documentation, risk management and defense under ERISA, COBRA, HIPAA, labor and employment, tax, state banking and insurance, and other laws.  She also advises, assists, trains, audits and defends employers and others regarding the federal and state Sentencing Guideline and other compliance, equal employment opportunity, privacy,  leave, compensation, workplace safety, wage and hour, workforce reengineering, and other labor and employment and defends related audits, investigations and litigation, charges, audits, claims and investigations by the IRS, Department of Labor and other federal and state regulators. Ms. Stamer has advised and represented employers on these and other labor and employment, compensation, employee benefit and other personnel and staffing matters for more than 20 years. Ms. Stamer also speaks and writes extensively on these and other related matters. For additional information about Ms. Stamer and her experience, see here or to access other publications by Ms. Stamer see here or contact Ms. Stamer directly.   For additional information about the experience and services of Ms. Stamer and other members of the Curran Tomko Tarksi LLP team, see here.

Other Information & Resources

We hope that this information is useful to you. If you or someone else you know would like to receive future updates about developments on these and other concerns, please be sure that we have your current contact information – including your preferred e-mail – by creating or updating your profile here or e-mailing this information here or registering to participate in the distribution of our Solutions Law Press HR & Benefits Update distributions here.  Some other recent updates that may be of interested include the following, which you can access by clicking on the article title:

For important information concerning this communication click here.   If you do not wish to receive these updates in the future, send an e-mail with the word “Remove” in the Subject here.

©2009 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer. All rights reserved. 


Stamer Speaks To CPAs About “Privacy & Information Security: Managing Your Accounting Practice’s Liabilities & Counseling Your Clients” January 12, 2010

December 28, 2009

Accountants and their clients face increasing regulatory and business pressures to protect the sensitive business and personal information collected and maintained in the course of their operation to minimize their exposure to personal identity theft and other cybercrime scams by employees, business partners and others. Curran Tomko Tarski LLP Partner Cynthia Marcotte Stamer will speak about “Privacy & Information Security: Managing Your Accounting Practice’s Liabilities & Counseling Your Clients” to members of the Dallas CPA Society on January 12, 2010 beginning at 2:00 p.m.

Part of the Dallas CPA Society Member Appreciation CPE Series Meeting, Ms. Stamer’s presentation will be part of four hours of free CPE training to be provided at a program open to members only at the Hilton Lincoln Centre Hotel located at 5410 LBJ Freeway, Dallas TX  75240 from 1 p.m. to 4:50 p.m. Central Time.  (Parking at the facility costs $5.00).  To register or for additional information, see here.

If you need help responding to these developments or other legislative, regulatory or enforcement concerns, Curran Tomko Tarski LLP can help.  Curran Tomko and Tarski LLP and its attorneys have significant experience assisting businesses and business leaders to manage and defend privacy, data security, tax employee benefit, employment, health care, environmental, safety, securities and other compliance and risk management concerns.

Curran Tomko Tarksi LLP Partner Cynthia Marcotte Stamer has more than 22 years experience helping businesses to use the law, process and technology to manage people and processes, and to manage technology, privacy and data security, employment and other legal and operational risks affecting their businesses.  Author of “Privacy & Securities Standards-A Brief Nutshell,” “Privacy Invasions of Medical Care-An Emerging Perspective,” and “E-Health Business and Transactional Law Other Liability-Tort and Regulatory;” published by The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc., and many other publications, Ms. Stamer has extensive experience advising a accounting firms, law firms, banks and financial services organizations, insurers, consultants, health plans, health care providers and others about HIPAA, FACTA, and other privacy, trade secret and other information security and data breach risk management and compliance concerns.  Ms Stamer also speaks, publishes and provides public policy input extensively on data security, technology and other internal controls and risk management matters.   Chair of the American Bar Association RPTE Employee Benefits & Compensation Committee, an ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits  Council member, and Chair of the Curran Tomko Tarski Labor, Employment & Employee Benefits Practice, Ms. Stamer also is Board Certified in Labor & Employment law.  For additional information about Ms. Stamer and her experience or to access other publications by Ms. Stamer see here or contact Ms. Stamer directly.   For additional information about the experience and services of Ms. Stamer and other members of the Curran Tomko Tarksi LLP team, see here.

If you need assistance with these or other compliance concerns, wish to inquire about federal or state regulatory compliance audits, risk management or training, assistance investigating or responding to a known or suspected compliance or risk management concern, or need legal representation on other matters please contact the author of this update, Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, CTT Labor & Employment Practice Chair at cstamer@cttlegal.com, 214.270.2402; or your other preferred Curran Tomko Tarski LLP attorney.

You can review other recent human resources, employee benefits and internal controls publications and resources and additional information about the employment, employee benefits and other experience of Ms. Stamer here /the Curran Tomko Tarski LLP attorneys here. If you or someone else you know would like to receive future updates about developments on these and other concerns, please be sure that we have your current contact information – including your preferred e-mail – by creating or updating your profile here or e-mailing this information to Cstamer@CTTLegal.com or registering to participate in the distribution of these and other updates on our Solutions Law Press HR & Benefits Update distributions here. For important information concerning this communication click here.    If you do not wish to receive these updates in the future, send an e-mail with the word “Remove” in the Subject to here.

©2009 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer. All rights reserved.


Rising Enforcement and Changing Rules Require Prompt Review & Update of Health Plan Privacy & Data Security Policies & Procedures

December 25, 2009

Health plans and their business associates should review and update their practices and policies concerning the use access and disclosure of protected health information in response to changing requirements and expanding enforcement exposures under the Health Insurance Portability & Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) Privacy and Security Rules.

A series of Office of Civil Rights (OCR) enforcement action against health plans highlights the need for group health plans and insurers to exercise care to comply with HIPAA’s Privacy & Security Rules.  For example, OCR recently required a HMO to take a series of corrective actions based on findings from its investigation of a complaint that the HMO impermissibly disclosed a member’s protected health information by sending her entire medical record to a disability insurance company without her authorization.  Based on its investigation, OCR found the HMO violated HIPAA by relying on a form to make the disclosure that failed to meet the Privacy Rule requirements to qualify as a valid authorization under the Privacy Rule.  Based on these findings, OCR required the HMO among other things:

  • To create a new HIPAA-compliant authorization form that specifies what records and/or portions of the files will be disclosed, that the respective authorization will be kept in the patient’s record, together with the disclosed information and otherwise to meet the content requirements of the Privacy Rule for an authorization; and
  • To implement a new policy that directs staff to obtain patient signatures on these forms before responding to any disclosure requests, even if patients bring in their own “authorization” form.

Another action resulted after a national health maintenance organization sent explanation of benefits (EOB) by mail to a complainant’s unauthorized family member. OCR’s investigation determined that a flaw in the health plan’s computer system put the protected health information of approximately 2,000 families at risk of disclosure in violation of the Privacy Rule.  To resolve this case, OCR required among other things that the insurer to correct the flaw in its computer system, review all transactions for a six month period and correct all corrupted patient information.

In yet another case, OCR found an employee of a major health insurer impermissibly disclosed the PHI of one of its members without following the insurer’s authorization and verification procedures. Among other corrective actions to resolve the specific issues in the case, OCR required the health insurer to train its staff on the applicable policies and procedures, to take action to mitigate the harm to the individual and to counsel and give a written warning to an employee who made the disclosure.

While OCR declined to impose any civil penalties in any of these three instances, violations of the Privacy Rules have resulted in both criminal prosecutions by the Department of Justice and the payment of large civil settlements to OCR.  See, e.g., 2 New HIPAA Criminal Actions Highlight Risks From Wrongful Use/Access of Health Information  HIPAA Risks Soar As CVS Agrees to Pay $2.25 Million To Resolve HIPAA Charges & Stimulus Bill Amends HIPAA.  Furthermore, recent amendments to the Privacy Rules increase the likelihood that health plans and other covered entities violating the Privacy Rules will incur civil penalties.  The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) amended the Privacy Rules effective October, 2009 to increase the civil penalties for Privacy Rule violations and to include new breach notification requirements for covered entities.  Additional ARRA amendments to HIPAA scheduled to take effect February 17, 2010 will further tighten the conditions under which covered entities may use, access or disclose PHI under the Privacy Rules, will expand the circumstances under which health plans and other covered entities will be required to account for dealings with PHI under HIPAA, and will extend the duty to comply with and liability for violations of the Privacy Rules to business associates.  In the meanwhile, employees increasingly are alleging Privacy Rule violations as part of their whistleblower or other wrongful discharge claims.  See, e.g. Retaliation For Filing HIPAA Complaint Recognized As Basis For State Retaliatory Discharge Claim.

In light of these changing rules and expanding liabilities, health plans and their business associates need to review and update their Privacy and Security practices, business associate agreements and privacy notices for compliance in light of the expanding enforcement activities of OCR and these evolving Privacy and Security Rules.  These and other developments make it imperative that health plans and other covered entities and their business associates immediately review and update their HIPAA and other data security and privacy practices to guard against growing liability exposures under HIPAA and other federal and state laws.

If your organization needs assistance reviewing, updating, administering or defending privacy and data security practices under HIPAA, state data breach or other laws, Curran Tomko Tarski LLP can help.  The author of this update, Curran Tomko Tarski LLP Partner Cynthia Marcotte Stamer has extensive experience advising and assisting health plans, health insurers, and other covered entities and business associates to review, update, document, enforce and defend their HIPAA and other privacy and data security policies and practices.  The author of numerous publications on HIPAA and other privacy and data security rules, she also speaks and conducts training extensively on these concerns. 

Ms. Stamer is experienced with assisting employers, insurers, administrators, and others to design and administer group health plans cost-effectively in accordance with HIPAA and other applicable federal regulations as well as well as advising and defending employers, health plans, insurers and others against privacy, tax, employment discrimination and other labor and employment, and other related audits, investigations and litigation, charges, audits, claims and investigations by the OCR, DOJ,IRS, Department of Labor and other federal and state regulators.. Chair of the American Bar Association RPTE Employee Benefits & Other Compensation Group, a representative to the ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits Council, past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group and Board Certified in Labor & Employment Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, Ms. Stamer has advised and represented employers on these and other labor and employment, compensation, employee benefit and other personnel and staffing matters for more than 22 years. Ms. Stamer also speaks and writes extensively on these and other related matters. For additional information about Ms. Stamer and her experience or to access other publications by Ms. Stamer see here or contact Ms. Stamer directly.   For additional information about the experience and services of Ms. Stamer and other members of the Curran Tomko Tarksi LLP team, see here.

Other Information & Resources

We hope that this information is useful to you. If you or someone else you know would like to receive future updates about developments on these and other concerns, please be sure that we have your current contact information – including your preferred e-mail – by creating or updating your profile here or e-mailing this information here or registering to participate in the distribution of our Solutions Law Press HR & Benefits Update distributions here.  Some other recent updates that may be of interested include the following, which you can access by clicking on the article title:

 

For important information concerning this communication click here.   If you do not wish to receive these updates in the future, send an e-mail with the word “Remove” in the Subject here.

©2009 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer. All rights reserved. 


3 Articles On Employee Benefit Risk Management Published In ABA RPTE E-Report

December 23, 2009

Curran Tomko Tarski LLP Labor & Employment Practice Chair Cynthia Marcotte Stamer  the author of three articles in the December  2009 Issue of the American Bar Association Real Property Probate & Trust Section E-Report:

Chair of the American Bar Association RPTE Employee Benefits & Compensation Committee, an ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits  Council member, and Chair of the Curran Tomko Tarski Labor, Employment & Employee Benefits Practice, Cynthia Marcotte Stamer is  nationally and internationally recognized for her work assisting businesses, employee benefit plan fiduciaries and vendors, insurers, administrative services providers, governments, and other entities to develop administer and defend cost-effective employee benefit other human resources programs, policies and procedures to meet their budgetary, risk management and compliance and other objectives.  Board certified in Labor & Employment law, Ms. Stamer applies her extensive experience regarding employment, employee benefit, and other related laws to assists clients in a wide range of business and litigation contexts.   The co-founder of the Solutions Law Consortium, Ms. Stamer, also is the publisher of Solutions Law HR & Benefits Update. She speaks and writes extensively about employee benefits and other human resources, compensation and internal controls matters.

If your organization or employee benefit plan needs assistance with employee benefits, labor and employment or other internal controls and risk management matters, please contact Ms. Stamer at cstamer@cttlegal.com, (214) 270-2402; or another Curran Tomko Tarski, LLP attorney of your choice.  For additional information about the experience and services of Ms. Stamer and other members of the Curran Tomko Tarksi, LLP team, see here.

Other Helpful Resources & Information

If you or someone else you know would like to receive future updates about developments on these and other concerns, please be sure that we have your current contact information – including your preferred e-mail – by creating or updating your profile here or e-mailing this information to cstamer@cttlegal.com or registering to participate in the distribution of these and other updates on our CTT HR & Employee Benefits Update distributions in blog form via RSS feed here.  You also may be interested in staying abreast of emerging internal controls and compliance challenges by reviewing and registering for our Corporate Compliance, Risk Management & Internal Controls distributions.  For important information concerning this communication click here.  If you do not wish to receive these updates in the future, send an e-mail with the word “Remove” in the Subject to support@cttlegal.com.

©2009 Curran Tomko Tarski LLP.  All rights reserved.

If you have questions about or need assistance evaluating, commenting on or responding to the  Proposed Regulations, the Q&As, or other employment, compensation, employee benefit, workplace health and safety, corporate ethics and compliance practices, concerns or claims, please contact the author of this article, Curran Tomko Tarski LLP Labor & Employment Practice Group Chair Cynthia Marcotte Stamer.  Board Certified in Labor & Employment Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and Chair of the American Bar Association RPTE Employee Benefits & Other Compensation Group, Ms. Stamer is experienced with assisting employers and others about compliance with federal and state equal employment opportunity, compensation and employee benefit, workplace safety, and other labor and employment, as well as advising and defending employers and others against tax, employment discrimination and other labor and employment, and other related audits, investigations and litigation, charges, audits, claims and investigations by the IRS, Department of Labor and other federal and state regulators. Ms. Stamer has advised and represented employers on these and other labor and employment, compensation, employee benefit and other personnel and staffing matters for more than 20 years. Ms. Stamer also speaks and writes extensively on these and other related matters. For additional information about Ms. Stamer and her experience or to access other publications by Ms. Stamer see here or contact Ms. Stamer directly.   For additional information about the experience and services of Ms. Stamer and other members of the Curran Tomko Tarksi LLP team, see here.

Other Information & Resources

We hope that this information is useful to you. If you or someone else you know would like to receive future updates about developments on these and other concerns, please be sure that we have your current contact information – including your preferred e-mail – by creating or updating your profile here or e-mailing this information here or registering to participate in the distribution of our Solutions Law Press HR & Benefits Update distributions here.  Some other recent updates that may be of interested include the following, which you can access by clicking on the article title:

For important information concerning this communication click here.   If you do not wish to receive these updates in the future, send an e-mail with the word “Remove” in the Subject here.

©2009 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer. All rights reserved.


President Signs Law Extending & Expanding Temporary AARA COBRA Subsidy Requirements For Group Health Plans

December 22, 2009

By Cynthia Marcotte Stamer

Employer and union sponsored group health plans, their sponsors and administrators must act quickly to comply with the extension and expansion of temporary “COBRA Subsidy Rules” for “assistance eligible individuals” originally added to the group health plan medical coverage continuation requirements of the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985, as amended (“COBRA”) by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (“AARA”) last February.

The Department of Defense Appropriations Act (H.R. 3326) signed into law by President Obama on December 19, 2009 extended the period that employer and union-sponsored group health plans must allow employees and members of their family that lose group health plan coverage due to an involuntary employment loss to continue their group medical coverage under the reduced premium and other temporary ARRA COBRA Subsidy Rules and lengthened the period during which an involuntary employment loss can qualify an otherwise COBRA-eligible employee or dependent as an assistance eligible individual.

Original COBRA Subsidy Rules

As originally enacted, the ARRA COBRA Subsidy Rules limited the COBRA premium that a COBRA-covered group health plan could charge a COBRA-eligible employee or dependent whose group health plan eligibility ended due to an involuntary employment loss between September 1, 2008 and December 31, 2009 (“assistance eligible individual”) to 35% of the otherwise applicable COBRA premium (the “Reduced ARRA Premium”) for a period of up to 9 months (the “Subsidy Period”).  ARRA dictated that employers sponsoring these group health plans must pay the remaining 65% of the COBRA premium (the “COBRA Subsidy”) for the assistance eligible individual during the Subsidy Period, but allowed employers to seek reimbursement by claiming a payroll tax credit for these COBRA Subsidy payments by complying with applicable IRS procedures.  AARA also mandated that group health plans offering a choice of coverage options offer assistance eligible individuals the option to switch coverage options and required group health plans to notify assistance eligible individuals of the special COBRA Subsidy Rules.

H.R. 3326 COBRA Subsidy Rules Extension

As signed into law on December 19, 2009, H.R. 3326:

  • Extends the period during which an involuntary employment loss can qualify an otherwise COBRA-eligible employee or dependent as an assistance eligible individual for an additional two months (from December 31, 2009 to February 28, 2010);
  • Adds an additional six months (from 9 to 15 months) the Subsidy Period during which an assistance eligible individual experiencing an involuntary loss of employment between September 1, 2008 and February 28, 2010 is entitled to pay the Reduced AARA Premium;
  • Requires group health plans to notify assistance eligible individuals of the extension; and
  • Requires group health plans to allow additional time for assistance eligible individuals who had exhausted their original 9-month Subsidy Period before H.R. 3326 extended the Subsidy Period to 15 months to pay the Reduced AARA Premium related to the extension.

Group health plans, their employer or union sponsors, administrators, insurers and service providers will need to act quickly to prepare and provider required updated notifications to assistance eligible individuals of these extended eligibility periods and their resulting rights,  and otherwise update their plan documents, procedures, and COBRA notifications in light of these new rules. 

If you have questions about or need assistance evaluating, commenting on or responding to these or other employment, health or other employee benefit, workplace health and safety, corporate ethics and compliance or other concerns or claims, please contact the author of this article, Curran Tomko Tarski LLP Labor & Employment Practice Group Chair Cynthia Marcotte Stamer.  The author of the “Health Plan Eligibility Toolkit,” Ms. Stamer is experienced with assisting employers, insurers, administrators, and others to design and administer group health plans cost-effectively in accordance with COBRA and other applicable federal regulations as well as advising and defending employers and others against tax, employment discrimination and other labor and employment, and other related audits, investigations and litigation, charges, audits, claims and investigations by the IRS, Department of Labor and other federal and state regulators.. Chair of the American Bar Association RPTE Employee Benefits & Other Compensation Group, a representative to the ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits Council, past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group and Board Certified in Labor & Employment Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, Ms. Stamer has advised and represented employers on these and other labor and employment, compensation, employee benefit and other personnel and staffing matters for more than 22 years. Ms. Stamer also speaks and writes extensively on these and other related matters.  For additional information about Ms. Stamer and her experience or to access other publications by Ms. Stamer see here or contact Ms. Stamer directly.   For additional information about the experience and services of Ms. Stamer and other members of the Curran Tomko Tarksi LLP team, see here.

Other Information & Resources

We hope that this information is useful to you. If you or someone else you know would like to receive future updates about developments on these and other concerns, please be sure that we have your current contact information – including your preferred e-mail – by creating or updating your profile here or e-mailing this information here or registering to participate in the distribution of our Solutions Law Press HR & Benefits Update distributions here.  Some other recent updates that may be of interested include the following, which you can access by clicking on the article title:

For important information concerning this communication click here.   If you do not wish to receive these updates in the future, send an e-mail with the word “Remove” in the Subject here.

©2009 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer. All rights reserved. 


Mishandling Employee Benefit Obligations Creates Big Liabilities For Distressed Businesses & Their Business Leaders

December 18, 2009

By Cynthia Marcotte Stamer

Business owners, executives, board members, and other business leaders of companies facing financial challenges should heed a mounting series of recent fiduciary liability settlement orders, judgments and prosecutions as strong reminders of the potential personal risk they may face if their health, 401(k) or other employee benefit programs are not appropriately funded and administered as required by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, as amended (ERISA). 

Businesses leaders struggling to deal with economic setbacks frequently may be tempted to use employee benefit plan contributions or funds for added liquidity or otherwise fail to take appropriate steps to protect and timely deposit plan contributions or other plan assets.  A long and ever-mounting series of decisions demonstrates the risks of yielding to these temptations for businesses that sponsor these plans and the business leaders that make these decisions.

EBSA Prosecutes Businesses & Executives That Bungle ERISA Obligations

The mishandling of employee benefit obligations by financially distressed companies during the ongoing economic downturn is fueling an increase in Department of Labor Employee Benefit Security Administration (EBSA) enforcement actions against distressed or bankrupt companies and their officers or directors for alleged breaches of fiduciary duties or other mishandling of medical, 401(k) or other pension, and other employee benefit programs sponsored by their financially distressed companies.

EBSA enforcement activities during 2009 continue to highlight the longstanding and ongoing policy of aggressive investigation and enforcement of alleged misconduct by companies, company officials, and service providers in connection with the maintenance, administration and funding of ERISA-regulated employee benefit plans. A review of the Labor Department’s enforcement record makes clear that where the Labor Department perceives that a plan sponsor or its management fails to take appropriate steps to protect plan participants, the Labor Department will aggressively pursue enforcement regardless of the size of the plan sponsor or its plan, or the business hardships that the plan sponsor may be facing.

EBSA reports enforcing $1.3 billion in recoveries related to pension, 401(k), health and other benefits during fiscal year 2009. EBSA has filed numerous lawsuits to compel distressed companies and/or members of their management to pay restitution or other damages for alleged breaches of ERISA fiduciary duties, to appoint independent fiduciaries, or both for plans sponsored by bankrupt or financially distressed companies.

Recent settlements and judgments obtained by the Labor Department and through private litigation document that officers and other members of management participating, or possessing authority to influence, the handling of heath, 401(k) and other pension, or other employee benefit plans regulated by ERISA may be exposed to personal liability if these benefit programs are not maintained and administered appropriately. This risk is particularly grave when the sponsoring company becomes financially distressed or goes bankrupt, as the handling of employee benefit and other responsibilities becomes particularly disrupted and the lack of company liquidity often leaves executives and service providers as the only or best source of recovery for government officials and private plaintiffs.

Executives Ordered To Pay To Make Things Right

In the December 2, 2009 decision in Solis v. Struthers Industries Inc., for instance, a federal district judge ordered business leader Jomey B. Ethridge liable to pay $303,084.61 to restore assets belonging to the 401(k) plan of bankrupt Struthers Industries in an ERISA fiduciary responsibility action filed by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA). Filed by the EBSA in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi, the Struthers Industries lawsuit alleged that Ethridge and Struthers Industries allowed employee contributions to be used for purposes other than providing benefits resulting in losses of $310,084.57.  According to court documents, Struthers Industries designed and built heat transfer and pressure vessels at its Gulfport facility. In 2001, its 401(k) plan had 278 participants and assets totaling $8,279,083. The company filed for bankruptcy in 2003, and its assets were auctioned off in 2005. An independent fiduciary was appointed by the court in 2007 to manage the plan’s assets.  The ordered Ethridge personally to pay $303,084.61 in restitution to the plan for his involvement in the mishandling of the plan’s assets. The order also bars Ethridge from acting as a benefit plan fiduciary in the future.

The Struthers Industries decision comes on the heels of EBSA’s success in Solis v. T.E. Corcoran Co. Inc. last month in recovering more than $89,000 from business owners and operators found to have breached fiduciary duties to the participants of the T.E. Corcoran Co. Inc. Profit Sharing Plan by improperly loaning plan assets to he plan sponsor and an affiliated company. The Labor Department sued T.E. Corcoran Co. and its owners, John F. Corcoran and Thomas E. Corcoran Jr., alleging that the company and its owners caused the plan to lend money to the two companies at below market interest rates, without terms of payment and without documentation in violation of ERISA. The suit filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts, also named as a defendant Coran Development Co. Inc., a company co-owned by the Corcorans.  T.E. Corcoran Co. Inc. was the sponsor and administrator of the plan, while John and Thomas Corcoran were trustees of the plan, making all three fiduciaries and parties in interest with respect to the plan. ERISA specifically prohibits the use of employee benefit plan funds to benefit parties in interest.

The Corcoran judgment requires that the plan account balances of defendants John F. Corcoran and Thomas E. Corcoran Jr. be offset in the amount of $89,273 plus interest to be allocated to the accounts of the other plan participants. The offset will make whole all of the accounts of the non-trustee participants. In addition, the court order appoints an independent trustee to oversee the final distribution of the plan’s assets and the proper termination of the plan, requires the defendants to cooperate fully with the independent trustee in this process, and then prohibits them from serving as fiduciaries to any ERISA-covered plan for 10 years.

A complex maze of ERISA, tax and other rules make the establishment, administration and termination of employee benefit plans a complicated matter. When the company sponsoring a plan goes bankrupt or becomes distressed, the rules, as well as the circumstances can make the administration of these responsibilities a powder keg of liability for all involved. Companies and other individuals that in name or in function possess or exercise discretionary responsibility or authority over the maintenance, administration or funding of employee benefit plans regulated by ERISA frequently are found to be accountable for complying with the high standards required by ERISA for carrying out these duties based on their functional ability to exercise discretion over these matters, whether or not they have been named as fiduciaries formally.

Despite these well-document fiduciary exposures and a well-established pattern of enforcement by the Labor Department and private plaintiffs, many companies and their business leaders fail to appreciate the responsibilities and liabilities associated with the establishment and administration of employee benefit plans. Frequently, companies sponsoring their employee benefit plans and their executives mistakenly assume that they can rely upon vendors and advisors to ensure that their programs are appropriately established the establishment and maintenance of these arrangements with limited review or oversight by the sponsoring company or its management team.

In other instances, businesses and their leaders do not realize that the functional definition that ERISA uses to determine fiduciary status means that individuals participating in discretionary decisions relating to the employee benefit plan, as well as the plan sponsor, may bear liability under many commonly occurring situations if appropriate care is not exercised to protect participants or beneficiaries in these plans.

For this reason, businesses providing employee benefits to employees or dependents, as well as members of management participating in, or having responsibility to oversee or influence decisions concerning the establishment, maintenance, funding, and administration of their organization’s employee benefit programs need a clear understanding of their responsibilities with respect to such programs, the steps that they should take to demonstrate their fulfillment of these responsibilities, and their other options for preventing or mitigating their otherwise applicable fiduciary risks.

If you have questions about or need assistance evaluating, commenting on or responding to these or other employment, health or other employee benefit, workplace health and safety, corporate ethics and compliance or other concerns or claims, please contact the author of this article, Curran Tomko Tarski LLP Labor & Employment Practice Group Chair Cynthia Marcotte Stamer.  Board Certified in Labor & Employment Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and Chair of the American Bar Association RPTE Employee Benefits & Other Compensation Group, Ms. Stamer is experienced with assisting employers and others about compliance with federal and state equal employment opportunity, compensation and employee benefit, workplace safety, and other labor and employment, as well as advising and defending employers and others against tax, employment discrimination and other labor and employment, and other related audits, investigations and litigation, charges, audits, claims and investigations by the IRS, Department of Labor and other federal and state regulators. Ms. Stamer has advised and represented employers on these and other labor and employment, compensation, employee benefit and other personnel and staffing matters for more than 20 years. Ms. Stamer also speaks and writes extensively on these and other related matters. For additional information about Ms. Stamer and her experience or to access other publications by Ms. Stamer see here or contact Ms. Stamer directly.   For additional information about the experience and services of Ms. Stamer and other members of the Curran Tomko Tarksi LLP team, see here.

Other Information & Resources

We hope that this information is useful to you. If you or someone else you know would like to receive future updates about developments on these and other concerns, please be sure that we have your current contact information – including your preferred e-mail – by creating or updating your profile here or e-mailing this information here or registering to participate in the distribution of our Solutions Law Press HR & Benefits Update distributions here.  Some other recent updates that may be of interested include the following, which you can access by clicking on the article title:

 

For important information concerning this communication click here.   If you do not wish to receive these updates in the future, send an e-mail with the word “Remove” in the Subject here.

©2009 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer. All rights reserved.


DOL Plans To Tighten Employment Protections For Disabled Veterans & Other Disabled Employees Signals Need For Businesses To Tighten Defenses

December 18, 2009

By Cynthia Marcotte Stamer

U.S. businesses need to tighten their disability discrimination defenses in light of announced U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) plans to plans to tighten regulatory protections for and step up enforcement of laws protecting disabled veterans and other disabled employees.

Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis on December 7, 2009 announced plans to revise and tighten regulations implementing the disability discrimination provisions of Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended, and the Vietnam Era Veterans’ Readjustment Assistance Act of 1974, as amended (VEVRAA) as part of the DOL Regulatory Agenda for the upcoming year.  These laws require Federal contractors to take affirmative action to employ individuals with disabilities and disabled veterans. Both laws are enforced by the Department’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) and generally apply to federal government contractors and subcontractors. 

In furtherance of these goals, OFCCP recently published:

  • An Advance Notices of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM) concerning “The Evaluation of Recruitment and Placement Results under Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended, (Section 503).” (ANPRM); and
  • The Evaluation of Recruitment and Placement Results under the Vietnam Era Veterans’ Readjustment Assistance Act of 1974, as amended (VEVRAA) Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM).

In preparation for these regulatory changes, the OFCCP will be inviting public comment proposals to tighten these affirmative action requirements, holding town hall meetings, and inviting other input.

SECTION 503 ANPRM

As part of the ANPRM concerning disability discrimination in violation of Section 503, OFCCPE is compiling research and information barriers to employment that individuals with disabilities face.  Toward that end, it plans to review data that may be used for establishing numerical goals. The agency plans to conduct several Town Hall meetings through Spring 2010.  The ANPRM will invite the public to comment on ways to improve employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities. The ANPRM will seek comments on issues such as:

  • How affirmative action requirements can be strengthened so that employment opportunities for people with disabilities are measurably increased;
  • How federal contractors and subcontractors can improve monitoring of their employment practices to identify barriers to the employment of individuals with disabilities and improve employment opportunities; and
  • What specific employment practices have been verifiably effective in the recruitment.

VERRA NPRM

Concurrently, the VEVRRA NPRM is targeted at supporting the successful transition of servicemen and women into the civilian workforce, especially disabled veterans and those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. OFCCP plans to design the proposed VEVRRA regulation to:

  • Increase employment opportunities for protected veterans with federal contractors and subcontractors; and
  • Strengthen affirmative action requirements so that federal contractors and subcontractors will be required to increase monitoring of employment practices in order to improve recruitment, hiring, training and other employment opportunities for veterans.

EMPLOYER STRATEGIES FOR MITIGATING DISABILITY DISCRIMINATION EXPOSURES

The OFCCP’s announcement of plans to seek to tighten affirmative action protections for veterans and other employees with disabilities reflects the heightened emphasis that the OFCCP and other federal agencies are placing the enactment and enforcement of protections for persons with disabilities under the Obama Administration. 

Following on the heels of Congress’ recent expansion of the availability of the employment disability discrimination protections of the Americans With Disabilities Act and new genetic information nondiscrimination requirements under the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, the OFCCP’s plans to tighten existing OFCCP affirmative action requirements for persons with disabilities reflect the heightened disability discrimination risks for employers. 

U.S. businesses concerned about these developments may wish to pursue a variety of steps to help mitigate their risks.  For instance, government contractors and other employers may wish to consider:

  • Broadening efforts to recruit persons with disabilities where appropriate and document these efforts
  • Auditing existing employment, recruitment and other policies and practices for compliance with these evolving federal requirements concerning the employment rights of persons with disabilities;
  • Conducting well-documented training and other activities that demonstrate your company’s commitment/openness to the employment of veterans and others with disabilities;
  • Promptly conducting well-documented investigations into claims and other events that might suggest possible prohibited employment discrimination against persons with disabilities;
  • Monitoring OFCCP, EEOC and other regulatory and enforcement activities for the proposal or enactment of new requirements or enforcement positions;
  • Submitting comments or providing other input to federal regulators and legislators regarding regulations or legislation that might be of concern before it is enacted, where appropriate; and
  • Reviewing and tightening disability discrimination reporting and investigation procedures; and
  • Evaluating the adequacy of your company’s existing employment practices and other liability insurance in light of expanding liability exposures.

If you have questions about or need assistance evaluating, commenting on or responding to these or other employment, health or other employee benefit, workplace health and safety, corporate ethics and compliance or other concerns or claims, please contact the author of this article, Curran Tomko Tarski LLP Labor & Employment Practice Group Chair Cynthia Marcotte Stamer.  Board Certified in Labor & Employment Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and Chair of the American Bar Association RPTE Employee Benefits & Other Compensation Group, Ms. Stamer is experienced with assisting employers and others about compliance with federal and state equal employment opportunity, compensation and employee benefit, workplace safety, and other labor and employment, as well as advising and defending employers and others against tax, employment discrimination and other labor and employment, and other related audits, investigations and litigation, charges, audits, claims and investigations by the IRS, Department of Labor and other federal and state regulators. Ms. Stamer has advised and represented employers on these and other labor and employment, compensation, employee benefit and other personnel and staffing matters for more than 20 years. Ms. Stamer also speaks and writes extensively on these and other related matters. For additional information about Ms. Stamer and her experience or to access other publications by Ms. Stamer see here or contact Ms. Stamer directly.   For additional information about the experience and services of Ms. Stamer and other members of the Curran Tomko Tarksi LLP team, see here.

Other Information & Resources

We hope that this information is useful to you. If you or someone else you know would like to receive future updates about developments on these and other concerns, please be sure that we have your current contact information – including your preferred e-mail – by creating or updating your profile here or e-mailing this information here or registering to participate in the distribution of our Solutions Law Press HR & Benefits Update distributions here.  Some other recent updates that may be of interested include the following, which you can access by clicking on the article title:

GINA Discussion Topic At February HHS Advisory Committee on Genetics, Health & Society Meeting

Employee Benefit Plan Sponsors & Fiduciaries Urged To Review Bonding, Credentials of Staff & Service Providers Under ERISA

Added IRS Guidance For Correcting Employment Tax Overpayments Released

Labor Department To Expand Employee Benefits, Wage & Hour, OSHA & Other Reporting & Disclosure Requirements & To Implement Other New Employee Benefit Regulations

Preventive HR Strategies to Minimize Post Holiday Celebration Legal Hangovers

IRS Publishes Table For Determining Qualified Plan Covered Compensation for Purposes of Code § 401(l)(5)(E)

PBGC Expands Pension Benefit Protection For Military Service Members As Justice Department Files 22nd USERRA Military Leave Lawsuit Against An Employer Since January

Rising Defined Benefit Plan Underfunding & Changing Rules Create New Obligations & Risks For Business

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Employer H1N1 Virus Risk Management Requires Employer Care To Manage Virus Risks Without Violating Employment Discrimination or Other Laws

New GINA Genetic Information Based Employment Discrimination & Confidentiality Mandates Take Effect

SHRM Urges American’s To Oppose HR 3962, The Affordable Health Care For America Act

Businesses Cautioned To Strengthen Investigation & Employment Practices To Minimize Potential Exposure To Retaliation Claims In Light Of Recent Supreme Court Retaliation Decision

OFCCP To Apply Special Procedures, Heightened Scrutiny To Equal Employment Practices of Government Contractors, Subcontractors On ARRA Funded Projects

US and UK Agree to Share Information & Cooperate On Pension Security As US Defined Benefit Plan Sponsors Face Tough New Defined Benefit Plan Funding Requirements

Congress Considering Extending & Expanding Group Health Plan COBRA Subsidy Mandates On Heels of Enactment of Expanded Military Leave-Related Family Leave Mandates

EEOC Prepares To Broaden “Disability” Definition Under ADA Regulations

Tighten Employment, Ethics & Internal Controls Policies & Practices To Minimize DOJ & Other Antitrust Exposures

OSHA Final Rule Updates OSHA Personal Protective Equipment Standards

“Disability” Definition Not Retroactive, Employer Action Needed To Manage Post 1/1/2009 Risks

For important information concerning this communication click here.   If you do not wish to receive these updates in the future, send an e-mail with the word “Remove” in the Subject here.

©2009 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer. All rights reserved.


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