Self-Dealing Or Other Mishandling of Employee Benefit Plan Funds Risky For Fiduciaries & Those Appointing Them


New litigation against the former trustee and former investment service provider of four pension plans reminds employer or other employee benefit plan sponsors, business owners or management, investment advisors and others serving as fiduciaries or advisors of employee benefit plans of the need to ensure that employee benefit plans are only used for the benefit of participants and beneficiaries, and prudently and properly invested and administered.  Businesses sponsoring plans and their leaders, as well as others serving as fiduciaries or investment advisors are cautioned that mishandling of plan assets or investments can create significant liability both for those who improperly handle plan responsibilities and the employer or other plan sponsor, business owner or management, and others who are involved in their selection, oversight and retention.  Consequently, parties should ensure act prudently to ensure plan assets are only invested prudently and for the sole benefit of the plan and its members, as well as to appropriately monitor the actions of other plan fiduciaries or personnel, investment managers, advisors, and others handing investments or other plan transactions, and be prepared to prove it.

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky on July 26 granted in part the U.S. Department of Labor’s motion for a preliminary injunction against George S. Hofmeister and Bernard Tew, former fiduciaries of four Lexington-based pension plans: the Hillsdale Salaried, Hillsdale Hourly, Revstone Casting Fairfield GMP Local 359, and Fourslides Inc. The injunctions stem from ongoing litigation against the defendants filed by the Labor Department under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA). See Perez v. George Hofmeister, et al. Civil Action File Number 5:12-cv-00250-KKC, Perez v. George Hofmeister, et al. Civil Action File Number 5:13-cv-00156-KKC and Perez v. Robert La Courciere, et al. Civil Action File Number 5:13-cv-00158-KKC.

The Labor Department previously filed lawsuits in the same court that named Hofmeister and Tew, among others. Hofmeister was the trustee of the four pension plans, and Tew was managing director of their investment service provider, Bluegrass Investment Management LLC. The court’s order removes Hofmeister as a fiduciary of the plans and prohibits him from taking any actions with respect to the pensions plans or their assets. Tew resigned as fiduciary of the plans a few days before a hearing regarding the Labor Department’s motion. The lawsuits alleged that the defendants engaged in a series of prohibited transactions resulting in the misuse of approximately $12.1 million from the Hillsdale Salaried pension plan, approximately $22.5 million from the Hillsdale Hourly pension plan, approximately $4.4 million from the Revstone Casting Fairfield GMP Local 359 pension plan, and approximately $500,000 from the Fourslides Inc. pension plan. The four plan sponsors are closely affiliated with Lexington-based Revstone Industries LLC and Spara LLC.

The suits follow an EBSA investigation that found violations of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, including prohibited loans to related companies, prohibited use of plan assets for the purchase and lease of employer property, prohibited purchase of customer notes from affiliated companies, prohibited transfer of assets in favor of parties-in-interest, payment of excessive fees to services providers, and payment of fees on behalf of the companies.

ERISA’s fiduciary responsibility rules compel individuals named as employee benefit plan fiduciaries, or who functionally exercise or have discretion or control over plan assets or their investments, or certain other plan actions to act prudently and for the exclusive benefit of participants and beneficiaries.  Plan fiduciaries must act “solely in the interest” of the plan and its members.  ERISA also expressly prohibits fiduciaries from dealing with the plan or its assets for the benefit of themselves or any third party.  Meanwhile, ERISA’s prohibited transaction rules identify a list of parties and transactions that are per se prohibited and violate ERISA’s fiduciary responsibility rules unless the fiduciary demonstrates that an applicable exception applies.  These transactions commonly are referred to as “prohibited transactions.”

According to the Labor Department brief Hofmeister, Tew and Bluegrass have repeatedly violated ERISA, using nearly $40 million in pension plan assets to benefit themselves or related parties.  The department’s investigation of these pension plans revealed a pattern of prohibited transactions involving the use of these plans’ assets by Hofmeister, Tew and investment adviser firms. Alleged improper use of the plans’ assets began within days or months of Hofmeister assuming control of the pension plans. The department contends that Hofmeister has placed millions of dollars in pension plan assets at risk and has consistently failed to act to protect these assets when required.

Under ERISA, fiduciaries that commit prohibited transactions or breach other fiduciary duties rules of ERISA generally are liable personally to the employee benefit plan for the greater of damages resulting from the breach or profits realized, plus attorneys’ fees and other costs of recovery.  In addition, the Labor Department also can impose penalties of up to 20 percent of the amount of the fiduciary breach, seek to enjoin the breaching fiduciaries from serving in a fiduciary capacity, and refer them to the Department of Justice for criminal prosecution.  Bankruptcy often does not provide any protection against the obligation to repay.

Employers, members of management, and others with discretion or control over plan assets or the selection, appointment, oversight or retention for those providing fiduciary or other plan services should be careful to act prudently when performing these duties to avoid becoming exposed to liability for bad actors.  Beyond avoiding committing its own breach of fiduciary duties, a plan sponsor, member of management or other party who is a named fiduciary or possesses fiduciary power or authority over the plan also sometimes can be liable for the prohibited transactions or other fiduciary breaches of another fiduciary under ERISA’s co-fiduciary responsibility rules.  These rules generally allow co-fiduciary liability to attach when an otherwise innocent fiduciary either enabled the breach by failing to appropriately fulfill its own fiduciary responsibilities, knew or should have have known of the breach but failed to properly act to prudently intervene to protect the plan and its assets, or later discovers the breach and fails to prudently act to intervene to protect the plan and its assets.

 

In addition to prudently overseeing those handling investments or other plan assets or performing other fiduciary functions, parties engaging these individuals should ensure that all fiduciaries, investment advisors and service providers of the plan handing plan matters are carefully credentialed.  A documented background check should be conducted to confirm that the individuals or their organizations are not disqualified from serving as fiduciaries and have appropriate credentials and reputations to perform those duties.  This analysis should be periodically rechecked and that documentation and its review also carefully preserved.

Furthermore, employers and plan fiduciaries also should confirm and retain documentation that the parties serving as fiduciaries, involved in the handling of plan assets or funds, or acting in certain other capacities are bonded as required by ERISA.  ERISA’s fiduciary responsibility rules require appropriate bonding.  In addition to overlooking the necessity of bonding, many plan sponsors and vendors underestimate the amount and required terms of the bonding and the scope of individuals required to be bonded.

Failing to meet this requirement can broaden the scope of fiduciary liability to a plan sponsor or member of management who selected or appointed the fiduciary or service provider that engages in the prohibited transaction or other inappropriate conduct.  Consequently, in the event of a plan loss, Labor Department investigators typically request documentation of this credentialing and bonding early in the investigation.

Employee benefit plan vendor selection and compensation arrangements made by association and other employee benefit plan sponsors, fiduciaries and service providers are coming under increasing scrutiny by the EBSA.  While ERISA technically grants plan sponsors and fiduciaries wide latitude to make these choices, the exercise of these powers comes with great responsibility.  See e.g., Plan Sponsors. Their Owners & Management & Others Risk Personal Liability If Others Defraud Plans or Mismanage Employee Benefit Plan Responsibilities; New Rules Give Employee Benefit Plan Fiduciaries & Investment Advisors New Investment Advice Options; DOL Proposes To Expand Investment Related Services Giving Rise to ERISA Fiduciary Status As Investment Fiduciary.

Associations, employer and other plan sponsors, and other entities and individuals who in name or in function have or exercise discretionary responsibility or authority over the selection of plan fiduciaries, administrative or investment service providers or other services to the plan or the establishment of their compensation generally must make those decisions in accordance with the fiduciary responsibility and prohibited transaction rules of ERISA.

Since the earliest days of ERISA, the EBSA as well as private plaintiffs have aggressively enforced these and other fiduciary responsibility rules.  In recent years, EBSA has taken further steps to tighten and enforce these protections such as the new fee disclosure rules recently implemented by the EBSA and other fiduciary guidance. See, e.g., Western Mixers & Officers Ordered To Pay $1.2M+ For Improperly Using Benefit Plan Funds For Company Operations, Other ERISA Violations; Plan Administrator Faces Civil & Criminal Prosecution For Allegedly Making Prohibited $3.2 Million Real Estate Investment; Tough times are no excuse for ERISA shortcuts.

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, employer and other employee benefit plan sponsors fail adequately to follow or document their administration of appropriate procedures to be in a position to prove their fulfillment of these requirements when selecting plan fiduciaries and service providers, determining the compensation paid for their services, overseeing the performance of these parties, or engaging in other dealings with respect to plan design or administration.  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 about 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 and associations providing employee benefits to employees or dependents, as well as members of management participating in, or having responsibility to oversee or influence decisions about 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 prove their fulfillment of these responsibilities, and their other options for preventing or mitigating their otherwise applicable fiduciary risks.

In light of the significant liability risks, employer, association and other employee benefit plan sponsors and their management, plan fiduciaries, service providers and consultants should exercise care when selecting plan fiduciaries and service providers, establishing their compensation and making other related arrangements.  To minimize fiduciary exposures, parties participating in these activities should seek the advice of competent legal counsel on their potential fiduciary status and responsibilities on these activities and take appropriate steps to minimize potential exposures.

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.

©2013 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, P.C.  Non-exclusive license to republish granted to Solutions Law Press.  All other rights reserved.

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