Criminal Conviction Of Plan Trustee, Outside Legal Counsel Shows Risks of Retaliating Against Whistleblowers For Reporting ERISA Violations


The U.S. Department of Labor’s just announced successful whistleblower prosecution in Perez v. Scott Brain, et al of an employee benefit plan trustee, and an individual lawyer and her law firm that served as the employee benefit plan’s outside legal counsel of violating the fiduciary responsibility and whistleblower rules of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) illustrates why employee benefit plan sponsors, trustees or other fiduciaries, their management, legal counsel, auditors and other service providers must both prudently investigate whistleblower allegations or other evidence of potential wrongdoing involving their employee benefit plans and resist the temptation to retaliate against employees or others for reporting or cooperating in the investigation of alleged improprieties involving an employee benefit plan.

The Brain decision highlights the care that employee benefit plan sponsors, fiduciaries, advisors and service providers and their management must use when responding to allegations or other evidence of wrongdoing relating to an employee benefit plan or its administration, investigating and addressing alleged misconduct or other performance or disciplinary concerns involving parties whose report or involvement in investigations of ERISA or other misconduct could form the basis of a potential ERISA 510 or other retaliation complaint.

The decision also makes clear that outside legal counsel advising an employee benefit plan or its fiduciaries in relation to the investigation or response to charges of ERISA misconduct involving an employee benefit plan must use care to avoid actions that could render them liable for participation in acts of illegal retaliation, violating their duty of loyalty to the plan by allowing themselves to become involved in a conflict of interest when investigating or defending potential wrongdoing involving an employee benefit plan, or engaging in other discretionary actions that could constitute a breach of fiduciary duty in violation of ERISA.

In Perez v. Scott Brain, et al., the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California ruled that Cement Masons Southern California Trust Fund’s trustee and Cement Masons Local 600 business manager, Scott Brain (Brain) and outside trust fund legal counsel, Melissa Cook, violated sections 510 and 404 of ERISA by causing the firing a trust fund employee Cheryle Robbins (Robbins) and an employee of the plan’s third party administrator, Cory Rice (Rice), in retaliation for their involvement in filing an internal complaint about and cooperating with the Labor Department’s Employee Benefit Security Administration’s federal criminal investigation of reports of Brain’s wrongful interference as a trustee with collections and contributions from unionized employers.

In 2011, Robbins, director of the trust funds’ audit and collections department, responded to a federal criminal investigation into Brain’s activities with contractors. The same year, she and Rice, who worked for the third-party administrator to the trust fund, American Benefit Plan Administrators, now, Zenith American Solutions (Zenith), participated in an effort to complain about Brain’s interference with efforts to collect delinquent contributions from contractors. Within weeks of this conduct, Robbins was suspended from her employment with the trust fund. Less than six months later, both Robbins and Rice were fired.

The court’s 71-page decision chronicles the coordinated retaliatory campaign orchestrated by Brain and Cook that led to Robbins’ suspension and firing by the employee benefit plan as well as the termination of Cook by his employer, Zenith..

With respect to Robbins’ suspension, the court found that the evidence showed Brain and Cook “were very upset with Robbins due to her contact with the [Department of Labor],” and that Brain and Cook “used their positions and influence to cause the other trustees to vote in favor of” suspending Robbins. To do so, the court explained, Brain and Cook “took the lead at the . . . [b]oard meeting with respect to the discussion of Robbins’ contact with the [Department of Labor]” and “created an environment that was hostile to her,” which “caused the trustees to vote to place her on leave.” The court noted that the two “‘set in motion’ the decision by the Joint Board to put Robbins on leave [.]”

As for Rice’s firing, the court explained how Brain and Cook retaliated against Rice by pressuring his employer, Zenith, into firing Rice and manipulating the Zenith relationship to deter Zenith from rehiring Rice in retaliation for his involvement in efforts to make an internal complaint about Brain.

Based upon evidence introduced during a five-day trial, the District Court ruled that Brain, Cook and Cook’s law firm violated ERISA section 510 by suspending and then discharging Robbins, and causing Zenith to refuse to hire Robbins and to discharge Rice in retaliation for their participation in reporting Brian’s misconduct to the General President of the Operative Plasterers’ and Cement Masons’ International Association and because Robbins participated in a federal criminal investigation of Brain.  Specifically, the District Court ruled:

  • Brain, Cook and Cook’s law firm wrongfully retaliated against Robbins in violation of ERISA 510 for her communications with the DOL by placing her on administrative leave; causing the work performed by the department that Robbins previously managed to be outsourced to Zenith and by causing Zenith not to hire Robbins to participate in its work;
  • Brain, Cook and Cook’s law firm wrongfully retaliated against Rice in violation of ERISA 510 by causing Zenith to terminate Cook;
  • Brain breached his fiduciary duty under ERISA 404 by retaliating against Robbins and causing her to be placed on administrative leave and that Cook knowingly participated in that breach.

The court held that Brain and Cook’s retaliatory conduct violated section 510 of ERISA, which prohibits retaliation against whistleblowers for complaining of ERISA violations or cooperating with a governmental investigation of such violations. The court also held that the couple’s retaliation against Robbins breached Brain’s fiduciary duties under ERISA section 404 to the trust funds and that Cook participated knowingly in that breach.

In reaching its decision, the court rejected attorney Cook’s argument that she was somehow immunized from her unlawful conduct because she was an attorney to the trust funds.  Among other things, the court noted the “apparent conflict of interest” Cook had in representing the trust funds while being in an undisclosed “romantic relationship” with Brain, which existed as defendants carried out their retaliatory scheme. Reminding lawyers of their ethical duties in California, the court cited California Rule of Professional Conduct 3-310(B), which the court explained “requires that an attorney disclose to a client any personal relationship or interest that he or she knows, or with the exercise of reasonable diligence should know, could substantially affect her his or her professional judgment in advising the client.”

As punishing for these criminal violations of ERISA, the District Court ordered the permanent removal of Brain as a trustee. It also ordered the permanent barring of Brain, Cook and her law firm from serving the Cement Masons Southern California Trust Funds. In addition, the court ordered Cook and her law firm to repay all attorneys’ fees she billed the trust funds for the actions she took in retaliating against whistleblowers Robbins and Rice.  These criminal sanctions were in addition to the $630,000 civil damage award that the Labor Department previously secured in lost wages and damages for Robbins, Rice and another worker victimized by Brain and Cook in August 2015.

In addition to its successful prosecution of Brain, Cook and Cook’s law firm on these charges, the DOL also had sought, but failed to convince the District Court based on the evidence presented at trial to find Brain, Cook, Cook’s law firm and Brain’s fellow trust fund trustee Local 600 business agent and Joint Board of Trustees member Jaime Briceno guilty of wrongful retaliation against another alleged whistleblower or Briceno of breaching his fiduciary duties under ERISA by failing to prudently investigate Robbins’ allegations against Brain; or by voting to use assets of the Trust Funds to pay the cost of the settlement of the civil action brought by Robbins. The District Court also refused to consider a newly raised charge that Brain breached his fiduciary duty by failing to collect all monies owed to the Trust Funds on the grounds that the Labor Department had failed to timely raise the charge. While the court refused to convict Briceno, Brain, Cook or Cook’s law firm on the additional charges, the Labor Department’s prosecution of these claims illustrates that along with abstaining from retaliating against ERISA whistleblowers, employee benefit plan fiduciaries also should position themselves to defend against potential breach of fiduciary duty claims based on alleged inadequacies in their investigation or response to reports or other evidence of misconduct involving the plan by prudently investigating and acting to redress allegations or other evidence of potential wrongdoing in the administration of employee benefit plans or their assets.

About The Author

A Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, the American Bar Foundation and the Texas Bar Foundation, Board Certified in Labor & Employment Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, the author of this update, attorney Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, is AV-Preeminent (the highest) rated attorney repeatedly recognized as a Martindale-Hubble as a “LEGAL LEADER™” and “Texas Top Rated Lawyer” in Health Care Law, Labor and Employment Law, and Business & Commercial Law and among the “Best Lawyers In Dallas” in ERISA, Labor and Employment and Healthcare Law by D Magazine for her nearly 30 years of experience and knowledge representing and advising employers, employee benefit plans, their sponsors, fiduciaries, service providers and vendors and others on these and other planning, business transaction and contracting, administration, compliance, risk management, audits, investigations, government and private litigation and other enforcement and other related matters.

past Chair and current committee Co-Chair of the American Bar Association (ABA) RPTE Section Employee Benefits Group, Vice Chair of the ABA Tort & Insurance Practice Section Employee Benefits Committee, former Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group, a former ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits Council Representative ,

Ms. Stamer’s legal and management consulting work throughout her nearly 30-year career has focused on helping management manage.  Highly valued for her rare ability to find pragmatic client-centric solutions by combining her detailed legal and operational knowledge and experience with her talent for creative problem-solving,  she de[;pus jer her extensive legal and operational knowledge and experience to help organizations and their management use the law and process to manage people, process, compliance, operations and risk.

As a key part of this work, Ms. Stamer helps public and private, domestic and international businesses, governments, and other organizations and their leaders manage their employees, vendors and suppliers, and other workforce members, customers and other’ performance, compliance, compensation and benefits, operations, risks and liabilities, as well as to prevent, stabilize and cleanup workforce and other legal and operational crises large and small that arise in the course of operations.

Ms. Stamer works with businesses and their management, employee benefit plans, governments and other organizations deal with all aspects of human resources and workforce, internal controls and regulatory compliance, change management and other performance and operations management and compliance. She supports her clients both on a real time, “on demand” basis and with longer term basis to deal with daily performance management and operations, emerging crises, strategic planning, process improvement and change management, investigations, defending litigation, audits, investigations or other enforcement challenges, government affairs and public policy.

Well known for her extensive work with health care, insurance and other highly regulated entities on corporate compliance, internal controls and risk management, her clients range from highly regulated entities like employers, contractors and their employee benefit plans, their sponsors, management, administrators, insurers, fiduciaries and advisors, technology and data service providers, health care, managed care and insurance, financial services, government contractors and government entities, as well as retail, manufacturing, construction, consulting and a host of other domestic and international businesses of all types and sizes. Common engagements include internal and external workforce hiring, management, training, performance management, compliance and administration, discipline and termination, and other aspects of workforce management including employment and outsourced services contracting and enforcement, sentencing guidelines and other compliance plan, policy and program development, administration, and defense, performance management, wage and hour and other compensation and benefits, reengineering and other change management, internal controls, compliance and risk management, communications and training, worker classification, tax and payroll, investigations, crisis preparedness and response, government relations, safety, government contracting and audits, litigation and other enforcement, and other concerns.

Ms. Stamer uses her deep and highly specialized health, insurance, labor and employment and other knowledge and experience to help employers and other employee benefit plan sponsors; health, pension and other employee benefit plans, their fiduciaries, administrators and service providers, insurers, and others design legally compliant, effective compensation, health and other welfare benefit and insurance, severance, pension and deferred compensation, private exchanges, cafeteria plan and other employee benefit, fringe benefit, salary and hourly compensation, bonus and other incentive compensation and related programs, products and arrangements. She is particularly recognized for her leading edge work, thought leadership and knowledgeable advice and representation on the design, documentation, administration, regulation and defense of a diverse range of self-insured and insured health and welfare benefit plans including private exchange and other health benefit choices, health care reimbursement and other “defined contribution” limited benefit, 24-hour and other occupational and non-occupational injury and accident, expat and medical tourism, onsite medical, wellness and other medical plans and insurance benefit programs as well as a diverse range of other qualified and nonqualified retirement and deferred compensation, severance and other employee benefits and compensation, insurance and savings plans, programs, products, services and activities. As a key element of this work, Ms. Stamer works closely with employer and other plan sponsors, insurance and financial services companies, plan fiduciaries, administrators, and vendors and others to design, administer and defend effective legally defensible employee benefits and compensation practices, programs, products and technology. She also continuously helps employers, insurers, administrative and other service providers, their officers, directors and others to manage fiduciary and other risks of sponsorship or involvement with these and other benefit and compensation arrangements and to defend and mitigate liability and other risks from benefit and liability claims including fiduciary, benefit and other claims, audits, and litigation brought by the Labor Department, IRS, HHS, participants and beneficiaries, service providers, and others. She also assists debtors, creditors, bankruptcy trustees and others assess, manage and resolve labor and employment, employee benefits and insurance, payroll and other compensation related concerns arising from reductions in force or other terminations, mergers, acquisitions, bankruptcies and other business transactions including extensive experience with multiple, high-profile large scale bankruptcies resulting in ERISA, tax, corporate and securities and other litigation or enforcement actions.

A former lead consultant to the Government of Bolivia on its Social Security reform law Ms. Stamer also is well-known for her leadership on U.S. health and pension, wage and hour, tax, workforce, tax, education, insurance and other policies critical to the workforce, benefits, and compensation practices and other key aspects of a broad range of businesses and their operations. She both helps her clients respond to and resolve emerging regulations and laws, government investigations and enforcement actions and helps them shape the rules through dealings with Congress and other legislatures, regulators and government officials domestically and internationally. Ms. Stamer works with U.S. and foreign businesses, governments, trade associations, and others on workforce, social security and severance, health care, immigration, privacy and data security, tax, ethics and other laws and regulations. Founder and Executive Director of the Coalition for Responsible Healthcare Policy and its PROJECT COPE: the Coalition on Patient Empowerment and a Fellow in the American Bar Foundation and State Bar of Texas, Ms. Stamer for many years acted as the scribe responsible for leading the Joint Committee on Employee Benefits (JCEB) HHS Office of Civil Rights annual agency meeting and regularly participates in the OCR and other JCEB annual agency meetings, and participates in the development and submission of comments and other input to the agencies on regulatory, enforcement and other concerns. She also works as a policy advisor and advocate to many business, professional and civic organizations.

Author of the thousands of publications and workshops these and other employment, employee benefits, health care, insurance, workforce and other management matters, Ms. Stamer also is a highly sought out speaker and industry thought leader known for empowering audiences and readers. Ms. Stamer’s insights on employee benefits, insurance, health care and workforce matters in Atlantic Information Services, The Bureau of National Affairs (BNA), InsuranceThoughtLeaders.com, Benefits Magazine, Employee Benefit News, Texas CEO Magazine, HealthLeaders, Modern Healthcare, Business Insurance, Employee Benefits News, World At Work, Benefits Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, the Dallas Morning News, the Dallas Business Journal, the Houston Business Journal, and many other publications. She also has served as an Editorial Advisory Board Member for human resources, employee benefit and other management focused publications of BNA, HR.com, Employee Benefit News, InsuranceThoughtLeadership.com and many other prominent publications. Ms. Stamer also regularly serves on the faculty and planning committees for symposia of LexisNexis, the American Bar Association, ALIABA, the Society of Employee Benefits Administrators, the American Law Institute, ISSA, HIMMs, and many other prominent educational and training organizations and conducts training and speaks on these and other management, compliance and public policy concerns.

Ms. Stamer also is active in the leadership of a broad range of other professional and civic organizations. For instance, Ms. Stamer serves on the Advisory Boards of InsuranceThoughtLeadership.com, HR.com, Employee Benefit News, and as an editorial advisor and contributing author of many other publications. Her leadership involvements with the American Bar Association (ABA) include year’s serving many years as a Joint Committee on Employee Benefits Council representative; ABA RPTE Section current Practice Management Vice Chair and Substantive Groups & Committees Committee Member, RPTE Employee Benefits & Other Compensation Committee Past Group Chair and Diversity Award Recipient, current Defined Contribution Plans Committee Co-Chair, and past Welfare Benefit Plans Committee Chair Co-Chair; Past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group and a current member of its Healthcare Coordinating Council; current Vice Chair of the ABA TIPS Employee Benefit Committee; International Section Life Sciences Committee Policy Vice Chair; and a speaker, contributing author, comment chair and contributor to numerous Labor, Tax, RPTE, Health Law, TIPS, International and other Section publications, programs and task forces. Other selected service involvements of note include Vice President of the North Texas Healthcare Compliance Professionals Association; past EO Coordinator and a Vice-Chair of the Gulf Coast TEGE Council TE Division; founding Board Member and President of the Alliance for Healthcare Excellence, as a Board Member and Board Compliance Committee Chair for the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas; the Board President of the early childhood development intervention agency, The Richardson Development Center for Children; Chair of the Dallas Bar Association Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation Committee; a former Southwest Benefits Association Board of Directors member, Continuing Education Chair and Treasurer; former Texas Association of Business BACPAC Committee Member, Executive Committee member, Regional Chair and Dallas Chapter Chair; former Society of Human Resources Region 4 Chair and Consultants Forum Board Member and Dallas HR Public Policy Committee Chair; former National Board Member and Dallas Chapter President of Web Network of Benefit Professionals; former Dallas Business League President and others. For additional information about Ms. Stamer, see CynthiaStamer.com or contact Ms. Stamer via email here or via telephone to (469) 767-8872.

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For important information concerning this communication see here. 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.

©2016 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, P.C. Non-exclusive license to republish granted to Solutions Law Press, Inc. All other rights reserved.

 

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