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

August 1, 2016

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.

 


Stamer Kicks Off Dallas HR 2015 Monthly Lunch Series With 2015 Federal Legislative, Regulatory & Enforcement Update

November 10, 2014

Human resources and other management leaders are watching Washington to see if the change in Congressional control resulting from the November 4, 2014 mid-term election ushers in a more management friendly federal legal environment. Since President Obama took office, the Democrats aggressive pursuit of health care, minimum wage and other federal pro-labor legislation, regulations and enforcement has increased management responsibilities, costs and liabilities.

Nationally recognized management attorney, public policy advisor and advocate, author and lecturer Cynthia Marcotte Stamer will help human resources and other management leaders prepare for 2015 when she speaks on “2015 Federal Legislative, Regulatory & Enforcement Update: What HR & Benefit Leaders Should Expect & Do Now” at the 2015 Dallas HR monthly luncheon series kickoff meeting on January 13, 2014.

About The Program

While November 4, 2014 Republican election victories gave Republicans a narrow majority in both the House and Senate when the new Congress takes office January 3, 2015, the new Republican Majority may face significant challenges delivering on their promises to move quickly to enact more business-friendly health care, guest worker, tax and other key reforms Republicans say will boost the employment and the economy.

While President Obama and Democrat Congressional leaders say they plan to work with the new majority, President Obama already is threatening to use vetoes, regulations and executive orders to block Republicans from obstructing or rolling back his pro-labor policy and enforcement agenda.   When the new Congress takes office, the narrowness of the Republican Majority in the Senate means Republicans can’t block a Democratic filibuster or override a Presidential veto without recruiting some Democratic support.

As the Democrats and Republicans head into battle again, Board Certified Labor & Employment attorney and public policy advocate Cynthia Marcotte Stamer will help human resources and other management leaders get oriented for the year ahead by sharing her insights and predictions on the legislative, regulatory and enforcement agendas that HR, benefit and other business leaders need to plan for and watch in 2015.  Among other things, Ms. Stamer will:

  • Discuss how management can benefit from monitoring and working to influence potential legislative, regulatory and enforcement developments when planning and administering HR and related workforce policies;
  • Discuss the key workforce and other legislative, regulatory and enforcement priorities and proposals Democrats and Republicans plan to pursue during 2015;
  • Share her insights and predictions about how the narrow Republican majority, Mr. Obama’s lame duck presidency and other factors could impact each Party’s ability to pursue its agenda
  • Share tips management leaders can use to help monitor developments and to help shape legislation, regulation and enforcement through Dallas HR, SHRM and other organizations as well as individually;
  • Learn tips for anticipating and maintaining flexibility to respond to legislative, regulatory and enforcement developments; and
  • More

To register or get more details about the program, DallasHR, or both, see http://www.dallashr.org.

About Ms. Stamer

Board certified labor and employment attorney, public policy leader, author, speaker Cynthia Marcotte Stamer is nationally and internationally recognized and valued for her more than 25 years of work advising and representing employers, insurers, employee benefit plans, their fiduciaries and advisors, business and community leaders and governments about workforce, employee benefits, social security and pension, health and insurance, immigration and other performance and risk management, public policy and related regulatory and public policy, management and other operational concerns.

Throughout her career, Ms. Stamer continuously both has helped businesses and their management to monitor and respond to federal and state legislative, regulatory and enforcement concerns and to anticipate and shape federal, state and other laws, regulations, and enforcement in the United States and internationally.

Well known for her leadership on workforce, health and pension policy through her extensive work with clients as well as through her high profile involvements as the Founder and Executive Director of the Coalition for Responsible Healthcare Policy and its PROJECT COPE: the Coalition on Patient Empowerment, a founding Board member of the Alliance for Health Care Excellence, a Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, the American Bar Association (ABA), and the State Bar of Texas leadership and other involvements with the ABA including her annual service leading the annual agency meeting of Joint Committee on Employee Benefits (JCEB) representatives with the HHS Office of Civil Rights and participation in other JCEB agency meetings, past involvements with legislative affairs for the Texas Association of Business and Dallas HR and others, and many speeches, publications, and other educational outreach efforts, Ms. Stamer has worked closely with Congress and federal and state regulators on the Patient Protection & Affordable Care Act and other health care, pension, immigration, tax and other workforce-related legislative and regulatory reforms for more than 30 years. One of the primary drafters of the Bolivian Social Security reform law and a highly involved leader on U.S. workforce, benefits, immigration and health care policy reform, Ms. Stamer’s experience also includes working with U.S. and foreign government, trade association, private business and other organizations to help reform other countries’ and U.S. workforce, social security and severance, health care, immigration, privacy and data security, tax, ethics and other laws and regulations. Ms. Stamer also contributes her policy, regulatory and other leadership to many professional and civic organizations including as Vice President of the North Texas Healthcare Compliance Professionals Association; Immediate Past Chair of the American Bar Association RPTE Employee Benefits & Other Compensation Committee and its current Welfare Benefit Plans Committee Co-Chair, a Substantive Groups & Committee Member; a member of the leadership council of the ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits; Past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group and a current member of its Healthcare Coordinating Council; the current Vice Chair of the ABA TIPS Employee Benefit Committee, and the past Coordinator of the Gulf Coast TEGE Council TE Division.

The publisher and editor of Solutions Law Press, Inc. who serves on the Editorial Advisory Boards of Employee Benefit News, HR.com, InsuranceThoughtLeadership.com and many other publications, Ms. Stamer also is a prolific and highly respected author and speaker,  National Public Radio, CBS, NBC, and other national and regional news organization, Atlantic Information Services, The Bureau of National Affairs, HealthLeaders, Telemundo, Modern Healthcare, Business Insurance, Employee Benefit News, the Employee Benefits News, World At Work, Benefits Magazine, InsuranceThoughtLeadership.com, the Wall Street Journal, the Dallas Morning News, the Dallas Business Journal, CEO Magazine, CFO Magazine, CIO Magazine, the Houston Business Journal, and many other prominent news and publications.  She also serves as a planning faculty member and regularly conducts training and speaks on these and other management, compliance and public policy concerns for these and a diverse range of other organizations. For additional information about Ms. Stamer, see www.cynthiastamer.com.

For Added Information and 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:

For Help Or More Information

If you need assistance in auditing or assessing, updating or defending your organization’s compliance, risk manage or other  internal controls practices or actions, please contact the author of this update, attorney Cynthia Marcotte Stamer here or at (469)767-8872.

Board Certified in Labor & Employment Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, management attorney and consultant Ms. Stamer is nationally and internationally recognized for more than 24 years of work helping employers and other management; employee benefit plans and their sponsors, administrators, fiduciaries; employee leasing, recruiting, staffing and other professional employment organizations; and others design, administer and defend innovative workforce, compensation, employee benefit  and management policies and practices. Her experience includes extensive work helping employers implement, audit, manage and defend union-management relations, wage and hour, discrimination and other labor and employment laws, privacy and data security, internal investigation and discipline and other workforce and internal controls policies, procedures and actions.  The Chair of the American Bar Association (ABA) RPTE Employee Benefits & Other Compensation Committee, a Council Representative on the ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits, Government Affairs Committee Legislative Chair for the Dallas Human Resources Management Association, and past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group, Ms. Stamer works, publishes and speaks extensively on management, reengineering, investigations, human resources and workforce, employee benefits, compensation, internal controls and risk management, federal sentencing guideline and other enforcement resolution actions, and related matters.  She also is recognized for her publications, industry leadership, workshops and presentations on these and other human resources concerns and regularly speaks and conducts training 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, and many other national and local publications. For additional information about Ms. Stamer and her experience or to access other publications by Ms. Stamer see hereor contact Ms. Stamer directly.

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, data security and privacy, insurance, health care and other key compliance, risk management, internal controls and operational concerns. If you find this of interest, you also be interested reviewing some of our other Solutions Law Press resources at www.solutionslawpress.com.

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 at here or e-mailing this information here.

©2014 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer.  Non-exclusive right to republish granted to Solutions Law Press.  All other rights reserved.


Plan’s Purchase of Company Stock Triggers $6.48 Million Award Against ESOP Sponsor, Shareholder, Board Members & Trustees

November 2, 2014

A $6.48 million judgment against Direct TV satellite television installer, Bruister and Associates Inc.(BAI) its sole owner, Herbert Bruister, and other trustees of  two BAI-sponsored employee stock ownership plans shows plan sponsors and trustees involved in stock purchase transactions where employee stock ownership plans commonly referred to as “ESOPs” and other employee benefit plan buy or hold investments in the stock of plan sponsors or other related businesses the risks of failing to conduct the transactions to ensure that the transactions are prudently performed and otherwise conducted in compliance with the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) fiduciary responsibility requirements.

BAI Lawsuit & Judgment Highlights

The BAI judgment stems from a Department of Labor lawsuit that charged BAI, along with BAI board members and plan trustees Bruister and Amy Smith, and plan trustee Jonda Henry  engaged in prohibited transactions and breached other fiduciary duties under ERISA by causing the plans to purchase 100 percent of BAI’s shares for $24 million in three sales transactions conducted between December 2002 to December 2005.

According to court documents, Bruister, Smith and Henry, as plan fiduciaries, engaged in prohibited transactions by causing the plans to pay excessive prices for BAI stock purchased from Bruister. For each purchase, the Labor Department charged the fiduciaries used flawed valuations prepared by Matthew Donnelly and his firm, Business Appraisal Institute.

The court also found that the three fiduciaries breached their duty of loyalty from start to finish. Additionally, Bruister and his attorney David Johanson went so far as to fire the initial attorney representing the plans because that attorney was too thorough. Moreover, the court found that Bruister and Johanson exercised undue influence over Donnelly’s valuations, and that as a result, Donnelly was not sufficiently independent to provide valuations for the plans.

The court concluded that Bruister, Henry and Smith, in their role as plan fiduciaries, failed to properly represent plan participants’ interests, and that they unreasonably relied on an appraiser who so obviously lacked independence. The court reasoned, “An informed trustee would not have remained idle while the seller communicated directly with the employee stock ownership trust’s independent appraiser and financial advisor to elevate the price at the participants’ expense.”

Although Johanson was not a fiduciary, the court found his conduct worthy of comment because he both was the attorney for the seller and structured each sale.   The court noted that Johanson attempted to influence the valuations in Bruister’s favor, and the testimony Johanson gave at trial did not support his denials. The court even  noted that Johanson coached Donnelly during a break in his deposition to retract his testimony that Johanson represented Bruister individually. “History rebuts Johanson’s suggestion that he did not interfere with Donnelly’s valuations and raises doubts as to each of the subject transactions,” the court said.

The order requires Bruister, Smith and Henry to jointly pay $4.5 million in restitution to the plans and requires Bruister to pay an additional $1.98 million in prejudgment interest. The order also held Bruister Family LLC liable with all defendants for $885,065 and jointly liable with Bruister for $390,604.

Company Stock Investments Carry Special ERISA Risks

Purchases of company stock by an ESOP or other employee benefit plan can create a wide range of risks under ERISA’s  fiduciary responsibility rules. When making investment or other decisions under an employee benefit plan, the general fiduciary duty standards of ERISA § 404 generally require plan fiduciaries to act prudently and solely in the interest of participants and beneficiaries. Meanwhile, except in certain narrow circumstances and subject to fulfillment of ERISA § 404,  the prohibited transaction rules of ERISA § 406 among other things prohibits plan fiduciaries from causing the plan to engage in a transaction, if he knows or should know that such transaction is a direct or indirect:

  • Sale or exchange, or leasing, of any property between the plan and a party in interest;
  • Furnishing of goods, services, or facilities between the plan and a party in interest;
  • Transfer to, or use by or for the benefit of a party in interest, of any assets of the plan; or
  • Acquisition, on behalf of the plan, of any employer security or employer real property in violation of section 1107 (a) of this title.

As for all plan investment transactions, detailed, unbiased valuation documentation showing the prudence of any decision to invest or hold the investments of the plan in company stock is critical when determining the initial purchase or sale prices for plan transactions involving company stock.  Since the sponsoring company is a party-in-interest of the plan, holding, must less using plan assets to purchase company stock or other activities resulting in the inclusion of company stock among the plan assets held by the plan creates presumptions of impropriety that impose higher than usual burdens upon the plan, its sponsor and fiduciaries to prove the appropriateness of the transaction.  See e.g., Pfeil v. State Street Bank & Trust Co., 671 F.3d 585 (6th Cir. 2012).  As ESOP transactions to purchase company stock inherently require a host of complicated party-in-interest and other conflict of interest concerns, these risks are particularly heightened.  Employee benefit plans, their fiduciaries and sponsors the need to continuously and prudently conduct documented monitoring and evaluations evaluate and monitor the investment of plan assets in company stock,the analysis and decisions about whether to continue to keep and offer this stock under the plan, as well as the qualifications, credentials and conduct of the fiduciaries and others empowered to influence these decisions. The Labor Department’s statement in announcing the Parrot litigation sums up the messages from these cases. “Plan officials are required by law to manage the ESOP in a careful, prudent manner and to act solely to benefit the plan’s participants,” said Jean Ackerman, director of the Employee Benefit Security Administration’s (EBSA’s) San Francisco Regional Office, which. “This action underscores the department’s commitment to protect the benefits that employers promise to their employees.”

In light of these exposures, plan fiduciaries, sponsors and their management, service providers and consultants participating in these activities need to both act with care and carefully document their actions to position to defend potential challenges.

Plans, their sponsors and fiduciaries also should ensure that appropriate steps are taken in selecting the fiduciaries, management and service providers responsible for administering or overseeing the administration of their plans, the selection of vendors, and other critical details.  Appropriate background checks and other credentialing should be done both at commencement and periodically.  Bonding and fiduciary liability insurance should be arranged and reviewed periodically along with their activities.  Documentation of these and other steps should be carefully created and preserved.

When and if a change in stock value or other event that could compromise the investment occurs, consideration should be given as to the responsibilities that such events create under ERISA.  As company leaders often have dual responsibilities to both the company and the plan, it is important that the company sponsoring the plan, its management and owners learn in advance how these responsibilities impact each other so that they are aware of the issues and have a good understanding of responsibilities and options as situations evolve.

Businesses and business leaders that fail to conduct and maintain the necessary evidence that these requirements are met when involving the plan in these transactions risk significant liability.

“Plan fiduciaries have an obligation to work solely in the interest of plan participants,” said Assistant Secretary of Labor for Employee Benefits Security Phyllis C. Borzi.in the Labor Department’s October 31, 2014 announcement of the judgment. “When they fail to do so, the retirement security of workers is put in jeopardy, and we will take action to make plan participants whole.”

 For Help or More Information

If you need help reviewing and updating, administering or defending your employee benefit, human resources, insurance, health care matters or related documents or practices to monitor or respond to evolving laws and regulations,  drafting or administering programs,  resolving or defending audits, investigations or disputes or other  employee benefit, human resources, safety, compliance  or risk management concerns, please contact the author of this update, Cynthia Marcotte Stamer.

About Ms. 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 cutting edge 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  see here or contact Ms. Stamer via telephone at 469.767.8872 or via e-mail to  cstamer@solutionslawyer.net.

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, data security and privacy, insurance, health care and other key compliance, risk management, internal controls and operational concerns. If you find this of interest, you also be interested reviewing some of our other Solutions Law Press resources at www.solutionslawpress.com including:

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 at here or e-mailing this information here.

©2014 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer.  Non-exclusive right to republish granted to Solutions Law Press.  All other rights reserved.


IRS Releases Updated Healthcare Law Online Resources Publication

August 1, 2013

The Internal Revenue Service’s updated  IRS Healthcare Law Online Resources publication provides a helpful list of resources for employers and individuals to use to get access to laws, regulations and other information about the Patient Protection & Affordable Care Act (ACA) and its implementing rules and regulations.  The resource publication issued as Department of Treasury Publication 5093 (6-2013), Catalog Number 63920H presents as follows:

For Help or More Information

ACA and other federal group health plan rules are complex and ever-evolving.  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 Counsel, 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.


IRS Extends Remedial Amendment On Cycle Opinion Deadline For Some Defined Benefit Plans

August 1, 2013

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is extending the deadline for sponsors and practitioners of defined benefit mass submitter lead plans to submit on-cycle applications.

Announcement 2013-37 extends to January 31, 2014, the deadline to submit on-cycle applications for opinion and advisory letters for sponsors and practitioners maintaining defined benefit mass submitter lead plans for the plans’ second six-year remedial amendment cycle.

Announcement 2013-37 will be in IRB 2013-34, dated August 19, 2013.

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 Counsel, 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.


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

July 31, 2013

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.


Id & Manage Hidden Employee Benefit Exposures In Business Insolvency Or Other Transactions

June 5, 2013

The June 4, 2013 announcement of the Employee Benefit Security Administration (EBSA) provides a timely reminder to businesses sponsoring employee benefit plans, their owners and management, plan fiduciaries, banks, administrative service providers and other plan vendors, employee benefit plan and bankruptcy trustees, corporate receivers, creditors, and others looking to expedite the windup of abandoned  401(k), profit-sharing and other individual account pension plans of the challenges that can result when employee benefit plan responsibilities are mishandled when companies fail or experience other significant events, as well as the availability of tools to help mitigate or prevent these challenges through responsible proactive action.

Hidden Employee Benefit Exposures For Unwary Abound For Parties In Business Insolvency Or Other Transactions

A complex maze of ERISA, tax and other rules make, administration and termination of employee benefit plans a complicated matter. When the company sponsoring a plan experiences a significant workforce or other restructuring, becomes distressed, goes bankrupt or liquidates, merges, sells assets or engages in other significant business transaction impacting the plans or its workforce, the rules, as well as the circumstances, can create a liability and operational quagmire for everyone from the sponsoring business, its management, buyers, vendors, plan fiduciaries, plan participants and beneficiaries, related entities, asset purchasers and others.  While tough economic times may tempt business leaders to cut corners, more than 3o years of litigation and enforcement precedent make clear that cutting corners on the assessment and handling of employee benefit and other workforce responsibilities amid business distress or in other business transactions or events presents risks for all parties involved.  See e.g., Tough Times Are No Excuse For ERISA Shortcuts;  Mishandling Employee Benefit Obligations Creates Big Liabilities For Distressed Businesses & Their Business LeadersWhile many business leaders and plan fiduciaries lack a strong understanding of these rules and their implications in times of business or benefit plan distress or other significant business transactions, even those experienced with these concerns need to use caution to understand and respond to the series of ongoing changes in these rules, regulations and precedent that impact on the handling of plan related responsibilities in these and other special situations. 

The Internal Revenue Code (Code) requires contains a maze of requirements that companies sponsoring pension, profit-sharing, health and other employee benefit plans, their plans, and plan administrators must follow when maintaining, administering, or terminating these plans including in many instances, special rules on the termination of the plans, distribution of assets, and the liabilities that attach to affiliated companies, successors, and assets resulting from transactions involving employee benefit plans or their sponsors.

In addition to the Code’s rules, companies and other individuals that in name or in function have or exercise discretionary responsibility or authority over the maintenance, administration or funding of employee benefit plans regulated by ERISA also generally must meet ERISA’s high standards  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. Under many circumstances these rules, or the handling of transactions can broaden the scope of responsibility or create exposures for a surprising range of parties dealing with the plan sponsor, related corporations or their stock, assets, benefit plans or workforce in corporate bankruptcies, mergers, asset or stock acquisitions, liquidations or other transactions.

Beyond these basic tax and fiduciary obligations, ERISA and the Internal Revenue Code (Code) create additional responsibilities and liabilities for when dealing with defined benefit or other pension plans subject to ERISA’s minimum funding and plan termination rules that when violated trigger a plethora of funding and notification obligations, penalties, liens on assets, and other obligations that can create significant traps for unwary plan fiduciaries and administrators, the sponsoring corporation, its management, affiliates and successors, as well as creditors or purchasers of stock or assets and others dealing with them.

Despite these well-documented responsibilities and a well-established pattern of enforcement by the Department of Labor, Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation, Internal Revenue Service and private plaintiffs, many businesses and business leaders fail to appropriately understand these and other basic responsibilities and liabilities associated with the establishment, administration, termination and windup of employee benefit plans and other details about how their or others mishandling of employee benefit plan related responsibilities can undermine business goals and create unanticipated liability exposures.

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 can be risky.

In other instances, businesses and their leaders do not realize that ERISA’s functional definition 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.

In yet other instances, purchasers, related entities, bankruptcy trustees and creditors or others don’t appreciate the way their own or others mishandling of employee benefit plan obligations or exposures can impact their transactions and associated risks.

Proactive Action Can Mitigate Exposures & Costs

For this reason, companies providing employee benefits and their management, service providers, and related entities and the businesses dealing with them need a clear understanding of the rules and responsibilities Federal law imposes on the funding, administration and termination of these programs, how these rules can impact their responsibilities and goals, and the steps necessary to avoid or mitigate exposures likely to result if they or others mishandle employee benefit plan related responsibilities or assets and how to avoid or mitigate these concerns.

The challenges of winding up an abandoned plan discussed in the EBSA news release yesterday highlights just one of these complications, the problem of dealing with abandoned plans.

When companies and their management abandon plans, they leave their plans, participants and beneficiaries, service providers and others in limbo, without the authority or funds to wind up the plans.  When employers abandon their individual account pension plans, custodians such as banks, insurers and mutual fund companies are left holding the assets of these abandoned plans but without the authority to terminate such plans and make benefit distributions even in response to participant demands. Service providers often find themselves in the legally awkward situation of having continuing plan responsibilities without necessary direction or compensation for performance.  Meanwhile, participants and beneficiaries can’t manage, access or often even get information about their funds until the situation resolves.  Dealing with these issues usually requires cumbersome, time-consuming and costly processes often requiring complex, lengthy, highly formalistic and expensive judicial and administrative procedures to resolve while fiduciary, tax and other liabilities mount.  Meanwhile, participants and beneficiaries often lose access to their accounts or benefits or even see plan value decline as plan assets that could go to benefits are diverted to cover administrative costs of winding up the plan.

The EBSAs abandoned plan program is just one of many examples of tools that parties struggling with these issues can use to mitigate these challenges and exposures.  EBSA uses its abandoned plan program to facilitate a voluntary efficient process for winding up the affairs of abandoned individual account plans so that benefit distributions are made to participants and beneficiaries when this occurs.

The EBSA Abandoned Plan News Release  and the EBSA’s related response Response to ADP/JP Morgan published June 4, 2013 show an example of how EBSA used its abandoned plan program to give critical relief to JP Morgan Chase Bank NA and ADP Inc. to use to wind up certain abandoned plans without exhausting the 90-day waiting period that ordinarily applies before the termination of a retirement plan based on the best interest of participants pursuant to 29 CFR §2578.1.  By exercising its discretion to waive the 90-day notice period, the EBSA allowed JP Morgan Chase Bank NA and ADP Inc. to terminate immediately and wind up approximately 180 defined contribution pension plans abandoned due to corporate crises or neglect.

Requesting relief from the EBSA like that granted to JP Morgan Chase Bank NA and ADP Inc. in the announcement made yesterday is just one of various types of relief that legal counsel experienced with dealing with workforce and employee benefit plan challenges that can arise when companies or their plans become inadequately funded, bankrupt, or experience other significant transactions or events, can use to help debtors, and other plan sponsors, their management, affiliates, successors, buyers, plan fiduciaries, vendors, bankruptcy creditors and trustees.

Experienced counsel can help companies understand and negotiate the complex rules of the EBSA, the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation and the Internal Revenue Service governing dealings with these plans and where appropriate and available by taking advantage of relief or other options to mitigate these challenges.  Involving experienced counsel to explore and use these options early can help all parties get participants and beneficiaries their benefits while minimizing legal risks, time and expenses associated with the wind up of these troubled or abandoned plans.  Even where special dispensation is not available, the early involvement of experienced legal counsel as early as possible after the possibility that a business or its plans or assets will be impacted by underfunding, insolvency, a bankruptcy or liquidation, workforce reduction, sale, merger or other significant event can help plan and administer the steps necessary to handle cost effectively employee benefit related responsibilities and impacts.

For Help or More Information

If you need help with assessing or handing employee benefit or workforce challenges arising from business or employee benefit plan insolvency, stock or asset sales, mergers, bankruptcy or liquidation, reductions or other workforce changes or other significant business transactions or events, or other employee benefit, human resources, insurance, health care matters or related documents or practices, 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 25 years of work, advocacy, education and publications on cutting edge health and managed care, employee benefit, human resources and related workforce, insurance and financial services, and health care matters including extensive experience handling workforce and employee benefit challenges arising from plan underfunding, company restructurings, workforce change,  insolvencies, bankruptcies, mergers, stock or asset acquisitions, or other significant business or plan transactions.

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, and insurers, bankruptcy trustees and receivers, asset purchasers, creditors and others dealing with plans and their sponsors, 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.  Her experience includes involvement in the planning, execution and resolution of workforce and employee benefit related details of a multitude of high and low profile restructurings, bankruptcies and other significant transactions throughout her more than 25 year career.

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:

For important information about this communication click 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.

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


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