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.


ESOP, Other Employee Plan Investments In Company Stock Land Plans, Fiduciaries, Sponsors & Others In Hot Water

December 10, 2012

 Companies that sponsor employee benefit plans that have purchased or own stock in their sponsor beware.  Declines in the stock value of company stock purchased by employee stock ownership plans (ESOP) or other employee benefit plans in their plan sponsor have a growing number of plans and the plan sponsors, sponsoring company owners and management, plan trustees and other plan fiduciaries in hot water with the Department of Labor.  ESOP or other employee plans that have purchased or allow investments in company stock and their sponsors, fiduciaries and advisors should carefully review for defensibility the current stock value, the purchase price and analysis supporting that purchase and other aspects of these investments of plan assets and take carefully documented action to prove the prudence and other appropriateness of the investment and continued retention of the investment in these assets.

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 the fiduciary responsibility rules of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA).  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.

Stock Drops Create Rising Exposures For Plans Invested In Company Stock

Amid economic downturns or other situations where the stock value of company held by plans significantly lower than the price the plan paid for the stock, the Labor Department, plaintiffs in private lawsuits or both may bring “stock drop” or other lawsuits against the plan, its sponsor and its officers and board members, its fiduciaries and others for breach of fiduciary duties under these rules. See e.g., Enron v. Tittle, 463 F.3d 410 (5th Cir. 2006); In Re: BP p.l.c. ERISA Litig., No. 4:10-cv-4214 (S.D. Texas); Vivian v. Worldcom (N.D. Cal. 2002).  Since the sponsoring company is a party-in-interest of the plan, 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).

The filing of stock drop cases tends to rise and fall in reflection to the economic times. Following the economic downturn in 2002, federal courts saw a surge in stop drop case challenges as well as Labor Department enforcement actions.  The number of these cases dropped as the economy improved later in the decade only to rise again between 2010 and the present in response to the current economic crisis.  

Tough Economic Times Fueled Stock Drops Creating Rising Risks & Enforcement

The latest economic downturn is fueling resurgence in these “stock drop” challenges.  Fifteen stop drop lawsuits were filed during 2010 and 2011.  Additional suits and Labor Department stop drop challenges have emerged this year.

In Griffin v. Flagstar Bancorp, Inc., No. 11-1497 (6th Cir. 2012), for instance, plaintiffs alleged various fiduciaries allegedly breached their duties under ERISA by allowing employer stock to be offered as a 401(k) plan investment option while the company was facing a precarious financial situation.  The Griffin court overruled the lower court’s dismissal of the plaintiff’s lawsuit.  The Court of Appeals held that the defendants offering of company stock to plan participants made ERISA’s “safe harbor” (Section 404(c)) provision for participant self-directed investments inapplicable.  The Sixth Circuit ruled “[a]fter reviewing the factual allegations in the complaint – which go far beyond documenting a simple drop in stock price to recite announcements from Flagstar itself, statements by analysts and financial media publications, and actions taken by Flagstar suggesting a precarious financial situation– we must conclude that the complaint raises a plausible claim for breach of fiduciary duty.”

In addition to private class action lawsuits like Griffin, plans holding company stock, their sponsors, owners, management and fiduciaries also need to be ready to defend against investigations and enforcement by the Labor Department, which often zealously investigates and takes enforcement action against plans, their fiduciaries, sponsors, company boards and management and others for losses to plan asset values resulting due to the investment or retention of investments by their plans in company stock. See also Labor Department Backs M&I Employees In Stock-Plan Suit.

Labor Department Suits Show Particular Risks For ESOPs

Over the past year, the Labor Department has been particularly aggressive in taking action when the value of company stock purchased or held by employee stock purchase plans or “ESOPS” drops significantly.  

  • Rembar

For instance, the purchase by the Rembar Inc. Employee Stock Ownership Plan (“Rembar Plan”) of all the stock of its sponsor, Rembar Inc. has landed the trust company that served as the Plan’s independent fiduciary and Rembar Inc.’s owner and Chief Executive Officer in hot water.

The Labor Department is suing Rembar Inc.’s Chief Executive Officer and owner, Frank Firor, First Bankers Trust Services Inc. and the Rembar Plan to recover losses that the Labor Department charges Rembar Plan participants suffered because the Rembar Plan paid too much when it purchased all of the stock of Rembar Inc.

Rembar Inc. manufactures and distributes precision parts made from refractory metals. The Labor Department lawsuit alleges that, in June 2005, First Bankers Trust Services allowed the Rembar Plan to purchase 100 percent of the company’s stock from Firor and Firor’s relatives for $15.5 million. A Labor Department investigation found that First Bankers Trust Services failed to comply with its duty to understand the valuation report that set the purchase price, identify and question assumptions in the report, and verify that the conclusions in the report were consistent with the company’s financial data. As a result of First Bankers Trust Services’ failure to comply with its fiduciary duties, the Labor Department claims the Rembar Plan overpaid for the stock and suffered losses.  The suit seeks, among other things, to recover jointly from First Bankers Trust Services and Firor all losses suffered by the Rembar Plan.

  • Maran

Similarly, the Labor Department also has filed an ERISA stock drop lawsuit against the Maran Inc. Employee Stock Ownership Plan (Maran Plan), First Bankers Trust Services Inc. and others to recover losses suffered by participants. 

According to the pleadings, First Bankers Trust Services was hired as an independent fiduciary and trustee in connection with the company’s ESOP to decide whether, and at what price, to purchase shares of Maran Inc. from majority shareholders.  The suit charges First Bankers Trust Services violated ERISA in 2006 when it approved the ESOP’s purchase of 49 percent of the outstanding stock of Maran Inc. for about $71 million, which was more than the fair market value. The Labor Department claims that as a result of the purchase of overvalued stock, the Maran Plan participants suffered significant losses.  The suit seeks to recover all losses and have First Bankers Trust Services enjoined from serving as a fiduciary to ESOP plans.  

  • Parrot

Likewise, the Labor Department in April sued in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California seeking to recover losses suffered by participants in the Parrot Cellular Employee Stock Ownership Plan (Parrot Plan).

The suit names as a defendant Dennis Webb, the principal owner of Entrepreneurial Ventures Inc. (EVI), which operates Parrot Cellular telephone retail stores in northern and central California, and is the sponsor of the Parrot Plan; EVI executives Matthew Fidiam and J. Robert Gallucci; Consulting Fiduciaries Inc., an Illinois company that served as the independent fiduciary and investment manager for the Parrot Plan in 2002 when the Parrot Plan bought 90 percent of EVI stock. 

According to the pleadings, the Parrot Plan paid for more than $28 million to buy approximately 90 percent of EVI’s stock in 2002. Around the same time as the stock purchase, EVI also set aside $4 million pursuant to a deferred compensation agreement with Webb and entered into a second executive compensation agreement with Webb for $12 million.

The Labor Department charges defendants allegedly violated ERISA by rejecting their fiduciary duties of loyalty and prudence to the plan, engaging in self-dealing, permitting or engaging in prohibited transactions, and failing to monitor the performance of the plan’s appraiser when they caused or permitted the Parrot Plan to purchase EVI stock for more than fair market value.  The suit also charges that Webb enriched himself by millions of dollars at the expense of the plan and its participants because a reasonable value for the company as of November 2002 was far less than the amounts the Parrot Plan paid for the stock and the total deferred compensation agreements entered into with Webb.

In addition to seeking the recovery of all losses to the Parrot Plan resulting from the above violations, the Labor Department’s suit seeks the disgorgement of unjust profits from Webb that he received from the two deferred compensation agreements and from his sale of EVI stock to the Parrot Plan.

Plans, Sponsors and Fiduciaries Must Act Continously To Manage Risks

These and other actions send a stong message for ESOP and other employee benefit plans, their fiduciaries and sponsors about the need to continuously and prudently 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 EBSA’s San Francisco Regional Office, which conducted the investigation. “This action underscores the department’s commitment to protect the benefits that employers promise to their employees.”  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.

 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.

©2012 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer.  Non-exclusive right to republish granted to Solutions Law Press.  All other rights reserved.


Plan Administrator Faces Civil & Criminal Prosecution For Allegedly Making Prohibited $3.2 Million Real Estate Investment

May 22, 2012

The U.S. Department of Labor has filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the District of Idaho against Matthew D. Hutcheson alleging that he violated the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) by imprudently investing retirement plan assets in a now-failed real estate venture.  Hutcheson also faces a separate criminal indictment, which was filed in the same court on April 10, in connection with the same transaction.

 The Labor Department civil complaint alleges that, toward the end of 2010, Hutcheson used more than $3.2 million representing the retirement plan savings of workers from multiple employers for his own personal expenses and in an attempt to buy an interest in the Tamarack Resort – a failed ski and golf resort in Idaho.

 Labor Department officials charge this imprudent prohibited transaction has left affected retirement plans without sufficient funds to pay participants all the benefits owed to them.

The Labor Department also has filed an application for a temporary restraining order seeks to remove Hutcheson and other named defendants as fiduciaries of the affected plans, and seeks to appoint an independent fiduciary to administer the plans. In addition to Hutcheson, defendants include Hutcheson Walker Advisors LLC; Green Valley Holdings LLC; and the Retirement Security Plan and Trust, formerly known as the Pension Liquidity Plan and Trust.

Appropriate management of retirement and other employee benefit plan assets is a key obiligation of employee benefit plan investment advisors and other fiduciaries that have authority over plan assets.  Plan fiduciaries generally are required by ERISA 404 to invest prudently and for the exclusive benefit of plan participants and beneficiaries.  Additionally, ERISA generally prohibits plan fiduciaries from investing in or involving the plan or its assets in certain prohibited transactions or dealing with plan assets for the benefit of themselves or other third parties. 

Because violations of ERISA’s fiduciary responsibility rules can create personal liability, employer and other plan sponsors, plan fiduciaries and others participating in decisions or administration of a rebate exercise care in dealing with any rebate.  Many plan sponsors also may want to consider reviewing and tightening as warranted existing plan, trust, insurance policy, plan communications and other documentation to lower risks and promote desired characterization of rebates and other amounts paid into or with respect to their plans. 

For Help or More Information

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

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

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

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

Other Resources

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

About Solutions Law Press

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

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

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


Borzi Tells House Committee Current Fiduciary Regs Flawed; Must Fix Loopholes In Investment Advisor Definition To Protect Plans

July 28, 2011

Assistant Secretary of Labor, Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA) Phyllis C. Borzi testified Tuesday, July 26, 2011 to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce Subcommitte on Health, Employment, Labor, and Pensions that EBSA a proposed fiduciary regulation  that would update EBSA regulations defining when a person is considered a “fiduciary” by reason of giving investment advice for a fee with respect to assets of an employee benefit plan or IRA will help protect employee benefit plan participants by correcting “loopholes” in a “flawed 35-year-old rule” that allow many parties providing advice about the investment of retirement plan assets to escape coverage by ERISA’s fiduciary responsibility rules.  The proposed regulations and other stepped up regulations and enforcement of ERISA’s fiduciary protections by the EBSA means that plan sponsors, fiduciaries, investment advisors and other plan service providers and others involved in the sponsorship, design, and administration of an employee benefit plan need to act to manage expanding fiduciary responsibilities and exposures.

  • Borzi Says Loopholes & Other Flaws In Existing Regulations Hurt Plans & Their Participants

Borzi told the Committee that EBSA believes its rules about the types of advisory relationships that give rise to fiduciary status under the ERISA on the part of those providing investment advice services need to change because “technicalities” and “loopholes” in the current EBSA fiduciary regulations definition of “investment advisor” in effect since 1975 harms participants and beneficiaries by allowing many advisers to easily dodge fiduciary status.

Borzi testified that the five-part regulatory test used under the current regulations to determine when ERISA’s fiduciary requirements apply to “investment advice” and when the advisor is a “fiduciary” significantly narrowed the plain language of the ERISA statute so that much of what plainly is advice about plan investments is not treated as investment advice as fiduciary conduct under ERISA and the person paid to render that advice is not treated as an ERISA fiduciary.

Under current fiduciary regulation, an investment adviser is not treated as a fiduciary accountable for complying with ERISA’s prudence, exclusive benefit, prohibited transaction and other fiduciary responsibility safeguards if and when providing advice that meets each element of a five part test.

Under the current regulation, a person is a fiduciary under ERISA and/or the tax code with respect to their advice only if and when he or she:

  • Make recommendations on investing in, purchasing or selling securities or other property, or give advice as to their value;
  • On a regular basis;
  • Pursuant to a mutual understanding that the advice;
  • Will serve as a primary basis for investment decisions; and
  • Will be individualized to the particular needs of the plan.

Borzi told members of Congress this narrow definition of investment advisor exempts a wide range of parties receiving compensation for providing advice about the investment of employee benefit funds from coverage by ERISA’s fiduciary responsibility requirements.  Borzi testified that the narrowness of the existing regulation opened the door to serious problems, and changes in the market since the regulation was issued in 1975 have allowed these problems to proliferate and intensify. Borzi says the narrowness of the regulation has harmed some plans, participants, and IRA holders. Research has linked adviser conflicts with underperformance. SEC reviews of certain financial sales practices may also reflect these influences. Finally, EBSA’s own enforcement experience has demonstrated specific negative effects of conflicted investment advice.

  • Borzi Says Proposed Regulation Would Strengthen Protections For Plans & Their Participants

Borzi said the proposed regulation published in the Federal Register on October 22, 2010 would change the rules defining a person is considered to be a “fiduciary” by reason of giving investment advice for a fee with respect to assets of an employee benefit plan or IRA by modifying the current regulation in effect since 1975 would replace the five-part test of “investment advisor” with a broader definition more in keeping with the statutory language while providing clear exceptions for conduct that should not result in fiduciary status.

According to Borzi, types of advice and recommendations that generally would trigger fiduciary status under the proposed regulations include: (1) appraisals or fairness opinions concerning the value of securities or other property; (2) recommendations as to the advisability of investing in, purchasing, holding or selling securities or other property; or (3) recommendations as to the management of securities or other property.

To be a fiduciary for performing these or other activities treated as fiduciary investment advice, Borzi explained that a person engaging in one of these activities must receive a fee and also meet at least one of the following four conditions:

  • Represent to a plan, participant or beneficiary that the individual is acting as an ERISA fiduciary;
  • Already be an ERISA fiduciary to the plan by virtue of having any control over the management or disposition of plan assets, or by having discretionary authority over the administration of the plan;
  • Be an investment adviser under the Investment Advisers Act of 1940; or
  • Provide the advice pursuant to an agreement or understanding that the advice may be considered in connection with investment or management decisions with respect to plan assets and will be individualized to the needs of the plan.

At the same time, Borzi testified that the proposed regulation recognizes that activities by certain persons should not result in fiduciary status. Specifically, these are:

  • Persons who do not represent themselves to be ERISA fiduciaries, and who make it clear to the plan that they are acting for a purchaser/seller on the opposite side of the transaction from the plan rather than providing impartial advice;
  • Persons who provide general financial/investment information, such as recommendations on asset allocation to 401(k) participants under existing Departmental guidance on investment education;
  • Persons who market investment option platforms to 401(k) plan fiduciaries on a non-individualized basis and disclose in writing that they are not providing impartial advice; and
  • Appraisers who provide investment values to plans to use only for reporting their assets to the DOL and IRS.
  • EBSA Still Working To Address Expressed Concerns

The proposed regulation has prompted a large volume of comments and a vigorous debate. Borzi testified that the EBSA is working hard to hear and consider every stakeholder concern and shared some examples of how EBSA is considering addressing certain of these concerns.   Borzi said EBSA is taking multiple steps in its effort to respond to these and other concerns in its efforts to finalize the regulation including:

Borzi told the Committee EBSA is working to better understand how specific compensation arrangements would be affected by the proposed rule and whether clarifications of existing prohibited transactions exemptions would be appropriate. Borzi said EBSA has already begun to issue subregulatory guidance describing some of these clarifications and will continue to do so as necessary as it completes its analysis.

Borzi also said that as EBSA further develops its thinking in this rulemaking, EBSA is paying special attention to the two primary exceptions to fiduciary status under the proposed rule: (1) clarifying the difference between investment education that does not give rise to fiduciary status and fiduciary investment advice; and (2) clarifying the scope of the so-called “sellers’ exception” under which sales activity is not fiduciary advice. In both cases, Borzi said EBSA intends to analyze and address the comments and concerns that were raised during our extensive public comment period.

Finally, Borzi said EBSA is exploring a range of appropriate regulatory options for moving forward, taking into consideration public comments submitted for the record, EBSA’s economic analysis, and relevant academic research. In so doing, Borzi told the Committee EBSA is aiming to address conflicted investment advice while not unnecessarily disrupting existing compensation practices or business models.

  • Plan Sponsors, Fiduciaries, Service Providers Should Prepare For Tighter Rules While Continuing To Provide Input To EBSA

The proposed changes to the definition of investment advisor is one of many steps that EBSA is taking to tighten the regulations implementing ERISA’s fiduciary requirements and to enforce the protections of ERISA.  The proposal to expand the conditions that providing investment advice regarding retirement plan assets will trigger the fiduciary protections of ERISA is designed to expand the reach of those regulations.  Service providers involved in providing these or other related services generally will want to review and update their processes, documentation and training to manage new exposures likely to arise from these proposed regulations, while continuing to share feedback to EBSA and other rulemakers. 

Service providers are not the only parties that need to update practices and provide input about these rules.  Plan sponsors, fiduciaries, service providers, participants and beneficiaries also are impacted.  Employers and other plan sponsors, fiduciaries and others need to anticipate and respond effectively to the inevitable efforts by providers of investment advice and other services to avoid or shift liability.  Parties securing or relying on advice or services about investments or other responsibilities should:

  • Carefully, prudently conduct a documented investigation and critical analysis of existing and proposed advisors and other service providers credentials, analysis, performance, contract, recommendations and other conduct;
  • Carefully review contracts and other materials and secure appropriate constractual and other safeguards;
  • Require indemnification, insurance and other protections;
  • Ensure that appropriate action is taken to appoint parties intended to perform fiduciary advisory or other services to manage risks
  • Secure and maintain appropriate fiduciary and other liability insurance coverage;
  • Carefully conduct an appropriate, well-documented prudent review of performance, credentials and other relevant factors on a regular basis to preserve ongoing evidence of prudence; and
  • Other appropriate safeguards to manage risks and liabilities.

To help guard and position themselves to defend against fiduciary exposures plan sponsors, fiduciaries, service providers and others involved in the administration of health or other employee benefit plans should seek the advice of legal counsel with appropriate experience with employee benefit and other related matters to develop an understanding of ERISA and other laws and the duties and liabilities that these rules may create for their organizations and themselves personally.  For additional tips and information about managing these risks, see here.

For Help With These Or Other Risk Management Matters

If you need assistance in auditing or assessing, updating or defending your wage and hour or with other labor and employment, employee benefit, compensation or internal controls practices, 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 23 years of work helping employers; 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 wage and hour 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 wage and hour, worker classification and other human resources and workforce, employee benefits, compensation, internal controls 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 here or 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 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. To unsubscribe, e-mail here.

 

©2011 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer.  Non-exclusive right to republish granted to Solutions Law Press.  All other rights reserved.



Plan Sponsors. Their Owners & Management & Others Risk Personal Liability If Others Defraud Plans or Mismanage Employee Benefit Plan Responsibilities

April 4, 2011

Mitigate Risk With Appropriate Prevention, Monitoring & Response

Executives, board members, and other business leaders of companies providing health, 401(k) or other employee benefits under plans regulated by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, as amended (ERISA) should heed a series of recent fiduciary liability settlement orders and lawsuits of the U.S. Department of Labor (Labor Department) as important reminders of the potential personal liability exposures executives can may face if their company’s benefit programs are not appropriately maintained and administered.

Recent Enforcement Actions, Changing Regulations Highlight Fiduciary Risks

On March 29, 2011, the Labor Department sued the owner of Eyeglass Factory, Inc. (EGF), Stephen Schaffer, for breach of fiduciary duties under ERISA by failing to ensure that EGF timely forwarded health plan contributions collected from employees to pay health plan contributions to the plan and failing to ensure that he and other plan fiduciaries and service providers were bonded in accordance with ERISA’s fidelity bond requirements.[i]  The Labor Department suit charges that from July 1, 2000 to October 1, 2000, Schaffer and EGF withheld and failed to forward to the health plan contributions deducted from employee pay for health insurance coverage and contributions made to the flexible benefit plan sponsored by EGF from January 1, 2000 to December 4, 2000.  The employees’ paycheck withholdings were commingled with the company’s general assets and used for its general operating expenses. The Labor Department is asking the court to order that Schaffer and other defendants make restitution to the plan for the misapplied contributions, including lost opportunity costs, to correct prohibited transactions and to appoint an independent fiduciary to oversee the plans once Schaffer is removed as the plan fiduciary.

The Schaffer suit follows the Labor Department’s successful prosecution of a breach of fiduciary duty action against Larry Lauterback, the president and former owner of a Minnesota Cement Company, for his role in allowing his construction company to commingle with company assets and divert to company use employee health and 401(k) contributions withheld from employee’s pay.  In Solis v. Larry Lauterback, [ii] the District Court ordered Lauterback to restore $17,273.18 in unremitted employee contributions and lost opportunity costs to the company’s health and dental plan, and $747.20 in unremitted employee contributions to the company’s 401(k) plan and enjoins Lauterback from serving or acting as a fiduciary or service provider to any employee benefit plan for three years..  The order followed the entry of a consent judgment against Lauterback and the plan sponsor, Slate Cement, Inc., for failure to remit employee contributions, failure to forward employee contributions to medical and dental providers, co-mingling employee contributions of the general assets and using those assets for company operations.

The Schaffer and Lauterback actions taken in March, 2011 are only the most recent in a series of enforcement actions taken against business executives, board members, plan vendors and others for their role in committing or failing to take prudent steps to prevent or redress alleged misconduct relating to the maintenance, administration and funding of various employee benefit programs regulated by ERISA.  In recent months and years, the Labor Department has filed several lawsuits against business executives and businesses for alleged breaches of fiduciary duties.  While misuse of employee contributions by plan sponsors is a common focus of many of these actions, plan sponsors, plan service providers and members of their management with discretionary authority or responsibility over plan assets or administration or the election of those appointed to administer those responsibilities often arise out of the failure or these individuals to take prudent steps to prevent, monitor or address misconduct by other plan fiduciaries or service providers.[iii]

Plan sponsors, fiduciaries, service providers and their management should anticipate these risks and their attendant responsibilities will continue to rise as the Labor Department moves forward to adopt and implement revisions and enhancements to its fiduciary regulations such as those provided for in the new “Interim Final Regulation Relating to Improved Fee Disclosure for Pension Plans” scheduled to take effect in July, 2011 and the Proposed Regulation on the “Definition of the Term Fiduciary” published by the Labor Department in July and October, 2010 respectively.

Meanwhile, the Labor Department enforcement activities highlight the longstanding and ongoing policy of aggressive investigation and enforcement of alleged misconduct by companies, company officials, and service providers in connection with the maintenance, administration and funding of ERISA-regulated employee benefit plans.  In its Fiscal Year 2010, the Labor Department closed 3,112 civil investigations, of which 2,301 (73.94%) resulted in monetary recoveries or other corrective action.  The Labor Department referred 264 cases for civil litigation and filed 128 civil lawsuits.  Meanwhile on the criminal side, the Labor Department closed 281 criminal investigations and obtained indictments against 96 people.

In addition to prosecutions brought by the Labor Department, companies and individuals that exercise discretion and control of the administration or funding of employee benefit plans regulated by ERISA also may be sued personally by participants and beneficiaries for breach of fiduciary under ERISA.  A review of the Labor Department’s enforcement record and existing precedent makes clear that where the Labor Department perceives that a plan sponsor or its management fails to take appropriate steps to protect plan participants, the Labor Department will aggressively pursue enforcement regardless of the size of the plan sponsor or its plan, or the business hardships that the plan sponsor may be facing.

Plan Sponsors, Fiduciaries, Service Providers & Their Management Should Act To Manage Exposures

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

To help guard and position themselves to defend against these and other exposures, plan sponsors, fiduciaries, service providers and others involved in the administration of health or other employee benefit plans should seek the advice of legal counsel with appropriate experience with employee benefit and other related matters to develop an understanding of ERISA and other laws and the duties and liabilities that these rules may create for their organizations and themselves personally.  For additional tips and information about managing these risks, see here.

For Help With These Or Other Risk Management Matters

If you need assistance in auditing or assessing, updating or defending your wage and hour or with other labor and employment, employee benefit, compensation or internal controls practices, 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 23 years of work helping employers; 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 wage and hour 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 wage and hour, worker classification and other human resources and workforce, employee benefits, compensation, internal controls 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 here or 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 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. To unsubscribe, e-mail here.

 

©2011 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer.  Non-exclusive right to republish granted to Solutions Law Press.  All other rights reserved.


[i] Chao v. Stephen Schaffer, the Eyeglass Factory, Inc., No O2-CV-60197, as announced in EBSA Release No. 11-341-CHI (March 29, 2011).

[ii] Solis v. Larry Lauterback, as announced in EBSA Release No 11-322-CHI (March 14, 2011).

[iii] See, e.g.  Chao v. Associated Plan Administrators, as announced in EBSA Release No. 07-1265-BOS/BOS 2007-298 (October 16, 2007); Chao v. Starkey, as announced in EBSA Release No. 05-747-ATL (May 2, 2005); Chao v. Perry., as announced in EBSA Release BOS 2002-054 (March 21, 2002); Chao v. Mabry, as announced in EBSA Release No. 160 (March 20, 2002).  See also, e.g.,  Baker v. Kingsley, 2006 WL 2027606 (N.D.Ill.2007); In Re Enron Corp Securities Derivative & “ERISA” Litigation, 284 F.Supp. 511 (S.D.Tex. 2003); Varity Corp. v. Howe, 516 U.S. 489 (1996); Brink v. DeLesio, 496 F. Supp. 1350 (D.Md. 1980).