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 email@example.com.
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