Brokerage Firm To Pay $630,000+ To Benefit Plans To Settle DOL Charges It Wrongfully Steered Clients To Investments


News that Memphis-based brokerage firm Morgan Keegan and Co., Inc. will pay more than $600,000 to settle charges it violated the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) reminds employee benefit plan fiduciaries and brokerage or other providers of investment advice or services to employee benefit plans.

The Employee Benefit Security Administration (EBSA) announced April 16, 2012 that Morgan Keegan has agreed to pay $633,715.46 to 10 ERISA-covered pension plans to settle EBSA charges that it violated ERISA when it recommended certain hedge funds of funds as investments to its ERISA-covered employee benefit plan clients. These recommendations resulted in the hedge funds of funds paying Morgan Keegan revenue-sharing and other fees.   

Following an investigation by EBSA’s Atlanta Regional Office as part of EBSA’s “Consultant/Adviser Project,” EBSA charged Morgan Keegan violated ERISA between April 2001 and November 2008 by accepting undisclosed compensation to steer employee benefit plan investments. The Consultant/Advisor Project focuses on the receipt of improper or undisclosed compensation by employee benefit plan consultants and other investment advisers.

Under the terms of the settlement, Morgan Keegan has agreed to disclose to its ERISA plans clients whether the company will act as a fiduciary to those plans. If the company is acting as a fiduciary, Morgan Keegan has agreed to specify the services that it is providing as a fiduciary and to provide the ERISA plan clients a description of all compensation and fees received, in any form, from any source, involving any investment or transaction related to them. Morgan Keegan also agrees not to collect commissions or, if it does collect them, to refund to its ERISA plans clients 100 percent of the amount collected from third parties.

Meanwhile, EBSA also increasingly has focused regulatory and enforcement attention on broker or other service provider arrangements involving compensation arrangements that might involve a brokerage or other fiduciary service provider in a conflict of interest in contravention of these ERISA duty of loyalty requirements. 

ERISA Section 404 generally requires that plan fiduciaries act prudently and for the exclusive benefit of plan participants and beneficiaries when dealing with plan assets or conducting other plan related responsibilities.  

As part of this general fiduciary duty, plan fiduciaries selecting service providers for the plan generally are required to conduct due diligence and prudently review the fees and other compensation received by a service provider.  To help support the ability of plan fiduciaries to carry out these responsibilities, EBSA fee disclosure regulations also generally require plan consultants and investment advisors to disclose compensation they receive as a result of plan related transactions and activities.  

Along side their fee disclosure obligations, where investment advisor and other service provider acts as employee benefit plan fiduciary, ERISA Section 404 also requires that service provider to conduct its duty prudently and “for the exclusive benefit” of the plans and their beneficiaries.  Additionally, ERISA Section 406 generally prohibits plan fiduciaries and other parties in interest from acting for the benefit of a party other than the plan and from engaging in certain other enumerated “party-in-interest” transactions except in certain narrowly proscribed circumstances.  

The Morgan Keegan investigation and settlement highlights the readiness of the EBSA to enforce these requirements against broker or other service providers who abuse these rules. “The law is very clear: If you accept a fee to give investment advice to a retirement plan, you are a fiduciary and must therefore act solely in the best interests of the participants in that plan,” said Phyllis C. Borzi, assistant secretary of labor for employee benefits security. “Third-party payments should never be the motivating factor behind which investments brokers and advisers steer retirement clients into.”

To mitigate liability risks arising from fee related violations like those charged against Morgan Keegan, employee benefit plan fiduciaries and brokerage other service providers to employee benefit plans should carefully review and update existing fee and other practices to ensure that the fee disclosure, fiduciary responsibility, prohibited transaction and other requirements of ERISA and other applicable federal law are met.  Documented analysis should be conducted and retained to position the parties to demonstrate that the service provider and its fees were prudently determined and disclosed, and that the transaction is free from any prohibited conflicts of interests.

For Help or More Information

If you need help reviewing and updating, administering or defending your group health or other employee benefit, human resources, insurance, health care matters or related documents or practices or with other employee benefits, human resources, health care or insurance matters, please contact the author of this update, Cynthia Marcotte Stamer.

A Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Council, immediate past Chair of the American Bar Association (ABA) RPTE Employee Benefits & Other Compensation Group and current Co-Chair of its Welfare Benefit Committee, Vice-Chair of the ABA TIPS Employee Benefits Committee, a council member of the ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits, and past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group, Ms. Stamer is recognized, internationally, nationally and locally for her more than 24 years of work, advocacy, education and publications on leading health and managed care, employee benefit, human resources and related workforce, insurance and financial services, and health care matters. 

A board certified labor and employment attorney widely known for her extensive and creative knowledge and experienced with these and other employment, employee benefit and compensation matters, Ms. Stamer continuously advises and assists employers, employee benefit plans, their sponsoring employers, fiduciaries, insurers, administrators, service providers, insurers and others to monitor and respond to evolving legal and operational requirements and to design, administer, document and defend medical and other welfare benefit, qualified and non-qualified deferred compensation and retirement, severance and other employee benefit, compensation, and human resources, management and other programs and practices tailored to the client’s human resources, employee benefits or other management goals.  A primary drafter of the Bolivian Social Security pension privatization law, Ms. Stamer also works extensively with management, service provider and other clients to monitor legislative and regulatory developments and to deal with Congressional and state legislators, regulators, and enforcement officials about regulatory, investigatory or enforcement concerns. 

Recognized in Who’s Who In American Professionals and both an American Bar Association (ABA) and a State Bar of Texas Fellow, Ms. Stamer serves on the Editorial Advisory Board of Employee Benefits News, the editor and publisher of Solutions Law Press HR & Benefits Update and other Solutions Law Press Publications, and active in a multitude of other employee benefits, human resources and other professional and civic organizations.   She also is a widely published author and highly regarded speaker on these matters. Her insights on these and other matters appear in the Bureau of National Affairs, Spencer Publications, the Wall Street Journal, the Dallas Business Journal, the Houston Business Journal, Modern and many other national and local publications.   You can learn more about Ms. Stamer and her experience, review some of her other training, speaking, publications and other resources, and register to receive future updates about developments on these and other concerns from Ms. Stamer here.

Other Resources

If you found this update of interest, you also may be interested in reviewing some of the other updates and publications authored by Ms. Stamer available including:

About Solutions Law Press

Solutions Law Press™ provides business risk management, legal compliance, management effectiveness and other resources, training and education on human resources, employee benefits, compensation, data security and privacy, health care, insurance, and other key compliance, risk management, internal controls and other key operational concerns. If you find this of interest, you also be interested reviewing some of our other Solutions Law Press resources available at ww.solutionslawpress.com

THE FOLLOWING DISCLAIMER IS INCLUDED TO COMPLY WITH AND IN RESPONSE TO U.S. TREASURY DEPARTMENT CIRCULAR 230 REGULATIONS.  ANY STATEMENTS CONTAINED HEREIN ARE NOT INTENDED OR WRITTEN BY THE WRITER TO BE USED, AND NOTHING CONTAINED HEREIN CAN BE USED BY YOU OR ANY OTHER PERSON, FOR THE PURPOSE OF (1) AVOIDING PENALTIES THAT MAY BE IMPOSED UNDER FEDERAL TAX LAW, OR (2) PROMOTING, MARKETING OR RECOMMENDING TO ANOTHER PARTY ANY TAX-RELATED TRANSACTION OR MATTER ADDRESSED HEREIN.

©2011 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, P.C.  Non-exclusive license to republish granted to Solutions Law Press.  All other rights reserved.

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