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

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©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).


Mishandling Employee Benefit Obligations Creates Big Liabilities For Distressed Businesses & Their Business Leaders

December 18, 2009

By Cynthia Marcotte Stamer

Business owners, executives, board members, and other business leaders of companies facing financial challenges should heed a mounting series of recent fiduciary liability settlement orders, judgments and prosecutions as strong reminders of the potential personal risk they may face if their health, 401(k) or other employee benefit programs are not appropriately funded and administered as required by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, as amended (ERISA). 

Businesses leaders struggling to deal with economic setbacks frequently may be tempted to use employee benefit plan contributions or funds for added liquidity or otherwise fail to take appropriate steps to protect and timely deposit plan contributions or other plan assets.  A long and ever-mounting series of decisions demonstrates the risks of yielding to these temptations for businesses that sponsor these plans and the business leaders that make these decisions.

EBSA Prosecutes Businesses & Executives That Bungle ERISA Obligations

The mishandling of employee benefit obligations by financially distressed companies during the ongoing economic downturn is fueling an increase in Department of Labor Employee Benefit Security Administration (EBSA) enforcement actions against distressed or bankrupt companies and their officers or directors for alleged breaches of fiduciary duties or other mishandling of medical, 401(k) or other pension, and other employee benefit programs sponsored by their financially distressed companies.

EBSA enforcement activities during 2009 continue to 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. A review of the Labor Department’s enforcement record 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.

EBSA reports enforcing $1.3 billion in recoveries related to pension, 401(k), health and other benefits during fiscal year 2009. EBSA has filed numerous lawsuits to compel distressed companies and/or members of their management to pay restitution or other damages for alleged breaches of ERISA fiduciary duties, to appoint independent fiduciaries, or both for plans sponsored by bankrupt or financially distressed companies.

Recent settlements and judgments obtained by the Labor Department and through private litigation document that officers and other members of management participating, or possessing authority to influence, the handling of heath, 401(k) and other pension, or other employee benefit plans regulated by ERISA may be exposed to personal liability if these benefit programs are not maintained and administered appropriately. This risk is particularly grave when the sponsoring company becomes financially distressed or goes bankrupt, as the handling of employee benefit and other responsibilities becomes particularly disrupted and the lack of company liquidity often leaves executives and service providers as the only or best source of recovery for government officials and private plaintiffs.

Executives Ordered To Pay To Make Things Right

In the December 2, 2009 decision in Solis v. Struthers Industries Inc., for instance, a federal district judge ordered business leader Jomey B. Ethridge liable to pay $303,084.61 to restore assets belonging to the 401(k) plan of bankrupt Struthers Industries in an ERISA fiduciary responsibility action filed by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA). Filed by the EBSA in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi, the Struthers Industries lawsuit alleged that Ethridge and Struthers Industries allowed employee contributions to be used for purposes other than providing benefits resulting in losses of $310,084.57.  According to court documents, Struthers Industries designed and built heat transfer and pressure vessels at its Gulfport facility. In 2001, its 401(k) plan had 278 participants and assets totaling $8,279,083. The company filed for bankruptcy in 2003, and its assets were auctioned off in 2005. An independent fiduciary was appointed by the court in 2007 to manage the plan’s assets.  The ordered Ethridge personally to pay $303,084.61 in restitution to the plan for his involvement in the mishandling of the plan’s assets. The order also bars Ethridge from acting as a benefit plan fiduciary in the future.

The Struthers Industries decision comes on the heels of EBSA’s success in Solis v. T.E. Corcoran Co. Inc. last month in recovering more than $89,000 from business owners and operators found to have breached fiduciary duties to the participants of the T.E. Corcoran Co. Inc. Profit Sharing Plan by improperly loaning plan assets to he plan sponsor and an affiliated company. The Labor Department sued T.E. Corcoran Co. and its owners, John F. Corcoran and Thomas E. Corcoran Jr., alleging that the company and its owners caused the plan to lend money to the two companies at below market interest rates, without terms of payment and without documentation in violation of ERISA. The suit filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts, also named as a defendant Coran Development Co. Inc., a company co-owned by the Corcorans.  T.E. Corcoran Co. Inc. was the sponsor and administrator of the plan, while John and Thomas Corcoran were trustees of the plan, making all three fiduciaries and parties in interest with respect to the plan. ERISA specifically prohibits the use of employee benefit plan funds to benefit parties in interest.

The Corcoran judgment requires that the plan account balances of defendants John F. Corcoran and Thomas E. Corcoran Jr. be offset in the amount of $89,273 plus interest to be allocated to the accounts of the other plan participants. The offset will make whole all of the accounts of the non-trustee participants. In addition, the court order appoints an independent trustee to oversee the final distribution of the plan’s assets and the proper termination of the plan, requires the defendants to cooperate fully with the independent trustee in this process, and then prohibits them from serving as fiduciaries to any ERISA-covered plan for 10 years.

A complex maze of ERISA, tax and other rules make the establishment, administration and termination of employee benefit plans a complicated matter. When the company sponsoring a plan goes bankrupt or becomes distressed, the rules, as well as the circumstances can make the administration of these responsibilities a powder keg of liability for all involved. Companies and other individuals that in name or in function possess or exercise discretionary responsibility or authority over the maintenance, administration or funding of employee benefit plans regulated by ERISA frequently are found to be accountable for complying with the high standards required by ERISA 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.

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, 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.

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 relating to 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 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.

If you have questions about or need assistance evaluating, commenting on or responding to these or other employment, health or other employee benefit, workplace health and safety, corporate ethics and compliance or other concerns or claims, please contact the author of this article, Curran Tomko Tarski LLP Labor & Employment Practice Group Chair Cynthia Marcotte Stamer.  Board Certified in Labor & Employment Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and Chair of the American Bar Association RPTE Employee Benefits & Other Compensation Group, Ms. Stamer is experienced with assisting employers and others about compliance with federal and state equal employment opportunity, compensation and employee benefit, workplace safety, and other labor and employment, as well as advising and defending employers and others against tax, employment discrimination and other labor and employment, and other related audits, investigations and litigation, charges, audits, claims and investigations by the IRS, Department of Labor and other federal and state regulators. Ms. Stamer has advised and represented employers on these and other labor and employment, compensation, employee benefit and other personnel and staffing matters for more than 20 years. Ms. Stamer also speaks and writes extensively on these and other related matters. For additional information about Ms. Stamer and her experience or to access other publications by Ms. Stamer see here or contact Ms. Stamer directly.   For additional information about the experience and services of Ms. Stamer and other members of the Curran Tomko Tarksi LLP team, see here.

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©2009 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer. All rights reserved.