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.


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

July 31, 2013

New litigation against the former trustee and former investment service provider of four pension plans reminds employer or other employee benefit plan sponsors, business owners or management, investment advisors and others serving as fiduciaries or advisors of employee benefit plans of the need to ensure that employee benefit plans are only used for the benefit of participants and beneficiaries, and prudently and properly invested and administered.  Businesses sponsoring plans and their leaders, as well as others serving as fiduciaries or investment advisors are cautioned that mishandling of plan assets or investments can create significant liability both for those who improperly handle plan responsibilities and the employer or other plan sponsor, business owner or management, and others who are involved in their selection, oversight and retention.  Consequently, parties should ensure act prudently to ensure plan assets are only invested prudently and for the sole benefit of the plan and its members, as well as to appropriately monitor the actions of other plan fiduciaries or personnel, investment managers, advisors, and others handing investments or other plan transactions, and be prepared to prove it.

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky on July 26 granted in part the U.S. Department of Labor’s motion for a preliminary injunction against George S. Hofmeister and Bernard Tew, former fiduciaries of four Lexington-based pension plans: the Hillsdale Salaried, Hillsdale Hourly, Revstone Casting Fairfield GMP Local 359, and Fourslides Inc. The injunctions stem from ongoing litigation against the defendants filed by the Labor Department under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA). See Perez v. George Hofmeister, et al. Civil Action File Number 5:12-cv-00250-KKC, Perez v. George Hofmeister, et al. Civil Action File Number 5:13-cv-00156-KKC and Perez v. Robert La Courciere, et al. Civil Action File Number 5:13-cv-00158-KKC.

The Labor Department previously filed lawsuits in the same court that named Hofmeister and Tew, among others. Hofmeister was the trustee of the four pension plans, and Tew was managing director of their investment service provider, Bluegrass Investment Management LLC. The court’s order removes Hofmeister as a fiduciary of the plans and prohibits him from taking any actions with respect to the pensions plans or their assets. Tew resigned as fiduciary of the plans a few days before a hearing regarding the Labor Department’s motion. The lawsuits alleged that the defendants engaged in a series of prohibited transactions resulting in the misuse of approximately $12.1 million from the Hillsdale Salaried pension plan, approximately $22.5 million from the Hillsdale Hourly pension plan, approximately $4.4 million from the Revstone Casting Fairfield GMP Local 359 pension plan, and approximately $500,000 from the Fourslides Inc. pension plan. The four plan sponsors are closely affiliated with Lexington-based Revstone Industries LLC and Spara LLC.

The suits follow an EBSA investigation that found violations of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, including prohibited loans to related companies, prohibited use of plan assets for the purchase and lease of employer property, prohibited purchase of customer notes from affiliated companies, prohibited transfer of assets in favor of parties-in-interest, payment of excessive fees to services providers, and payment of fees on behalf of the companies.

ERISA’s fiduciary responsibility rules compel individuals named as employee benefit plan fiduciaries, or who functionally exercise or have discretion or control over plan assets or their investments, or certain other plan actions to act prudently and for the exclusive benefit of participants and beneficiaries.  Plan fiduciaries must act “solely in the interest” of the plan and its members.  ERISA also expressly prohibits fiduciaries from dealing with the plan or its assets for the benefit of themselves or any third party.  Meanwhile, ERISA’s prohibited transaction rules identify a list of parties and transactions that are per se prohibited and violate ERISA’s fiduciary responsibility rules unless the fiduciary demonstrates that an applicable exception applies.  These transactions commonly are referred to as “prohibited transactions.”

According to the Labor Department brief Hofmeister, Tew and Bluegrass have repeatedly violated ERISA, using nearly $40 million in pension plan assets to benefit themselves or related parties.  The department’s investigation of these pension plans revealed a pattern of prohibited transactions involving the use of these plans’ assets by Hofmeister, Tew and investment adviser firms. Alleged improper use of the plans’ assets began within days or months of Hofmeister assuming control of the pension plans. The department contends that Hofmeister has placed millions of dollars in pension plan assets at risk and has consistently failed to act to protect these assets when required.

Under ERISA, fiduciaries that commit prohibited transactions or breach other fiduciary duties rules of ERISA generally are liable personally to the employee benefit plan for the greater of damages resulting from the breach or profits realized, plus attorneys’ fees and other costs of recovery.  In addition, the Labor Department also can impose penalties of up to 20 percent of the amount of the fiduciary breach, seek to enjoin the breaching fiduciaries from serving in a fiduciary capacity, and refer them to the Department of Justice for criminal prosecution.  Bankruptcy often does not provide any protection against the obligation to repay.

Employers, members of management, and others with discretion or control over plan assets or the selection, appointment, oversight or retention for those providing fiduciary or other plan services should be careful to act prudently when performing these duties to avoid becoming exposed to liability for bad actors.  Beyond avoiding committing its own breach of fiduciary duties, a plan sponsor, member of management or other party who is a named fiduciary or possesses fiduciary power or authority over the plan also sometimes can be liable for the prohibited transactions or other fiduciary breaches of another fiduciary under ERISA’s co-fiduciary responsibility rules.  These rules generally allow co-fiduciary liability to attach when an otherwise innocent fiduciary either enabled the breach by failing to appropriately fulfill its own fiduciary responsibilities, knew or should have have known of the breach but failed to properly act to prudently intervene to protect the plan and its assets, or later discovers the breach and fails to prudently act to intervene to protect the plan and its assets.

 

In addition to prudently overseeing those handling investments or other plan assets or performing other fiduciary functions, parties engaging these individuals should ensure that all fiduciaries, investment advisors and service providers of the plan handing plan matters are carefully credentialed.  A documented background check should be conducted to confirm that the individuals or their organizations are not disqualified from serving as fiduciaries and have appropriate credentials and reputations to perform those duties.  This analysis should be periodically rechecked and that documentation and its review also carefully preserved.

Furthermore, employers and plan fiduciaries also should confirm and retain documentation that the parties serving as fiduciaries, involved in the handling of plan assets or funds, or acting in certain other capacities are bonded as required by ERISA.  ERISA’s fiduciary responsibility rules require appropriate bonding.  In addition to overlooking the necessity of bonding, many plan sponsors and vendors underestimate the amount and required terms of the bonding and the scope of individuals required to be bonded.

Failing to meet this requirement can broaden the scope of fiduciary liability to a plan sponsor or member of management who selected or appointed the fiduciary or service provider that engages in the prohibited transaction or other inappropriate conduct.  Consequently, in the event of a plan loss, Labor Department investigators typically request documentation of this credentialing and bonding early in the investigation.

Employee benefit plan vendor selection and compensation arrangements made by association and other employee benefit plan sponsors, fiduciaries and service providers are coming under increasing scrutiny by the EBSA.  While ERISA technically grants plan sponsors and fiduciaries wide latitude to make these choices, the exercise of these powers comes with great responsibility.  See e.g., Plan Sponsors. Their Owners & Management & Others Risk Personal Liability If Others Defraud Plans or Mismanage Employee Benefit Plan Responsibilities; New Rules Give Employee Benefit Plan Fiduciaries & Investment Advisors New Investment Advice Options; DOL Proposes To Expand Investment Related Services Giving Rise to ERISA Fiduciary Status As Investment Fiduciary.

Associations, employer and other plan sponsors, and other entities and individuals who in name or in function have or exercise discretionary responsibility or authority over the selection of plan fiduciaries, administrative or investment service providers or other services to the plan or the establishment of their compensation generally must make those decisions in accordance with the fiduciary responsibility and prohibited transaction rules of ERISA.

Since the earliest days of ERISA, the EBSA as well as private plaintiffs have aggressively enforced these and other fiduciary responsibility rules.  In recent years, EBSA has taken further steps to tighten and enforce these protections such as the new fee disclosure rules recently implemented by the EBSA and other fiduciary guidance. See, e.g., Western Mixers & Officers Ordered To Pay $1.2M+ For Improperly Using Benefit Plan Funds For Company Operations, Other ERISA Violations; Plan Administrator Faces Civil & Criminal Prosecution For Allegedly Making Prohibited $3.2 Million Real Estate Investment; Tough times are no excuse for ERISA shortcuts.

Despite these well-document fiduciary exposures and a well-established pattern of enforcement by the Labor Department and private plaintiffs, many companies and their business leaders fail to appreciate the responsibilities and liabilities associated with the establishment and administration of employee benefit plans.  Frequently, employer and other employee benefit plan sponsors fail adequately to follow or document their administration of appropriate procedures to be in a position to prove their fulfillment of these requirements when selecting plan fiduciaries and service providers, determining the compensation paid for their services, overseeing the performance of these parties, or engaging in other dealings with respect to plan design or administration.  In other instances, businesses and their leaders do not realize that the functional definition that ERISA uses to determine fiduciary status means that individuals participating in discretionary decisions about the employee benefit plan, as well as the plan sponsor, may bear liability under many commonly occurring situations if appropriate care is not exercised to protect participants or beneficiaries in these plans. For this reason, businesses and associations providing employee benefits to employees or dependents, as well as members of management participating in, or having responsibility to oversee or influence decisions about the establishment, maintenance, funding, and administration of their organization’s employee benefit programs need a clear understanding of their responsibilities with respect to such programs, the steps that they should take to prove their fulfillment of these responsibilities, and their other options for preventing or mitigating their otherwise applicable fiduciary risks.

In light of the significant liability risks, employer, association and other employee benefit plan sponsors and their management, plan fiduciaries, service providers and consultants should exercise care when selecting plan fiduciaries and service providers, establishing their compensation and making other related arrangements.  To minimize fiduciary exposures, parties participating in these activities should seek the advice of competent legal counsel on their potential fiduciary status and responsibilities on these activities and take appropriate steps to minimize potential exposures.

For Help or More Information

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

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

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

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

Other Resources

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

About Solutions Law Press

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

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

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


Company President, Officer Can’t Use Bankruptcy To Avoid Liability For Using Plan Money For Company Operations

December 27, 2012

John Dombek III and John Dombek Jr. cannot use personal bankruptcy to avoid complying with a federal court order to restore $69,521 in health-care premiums and retirement plan contributions withheld from the paychecks of employees at several companies that are part of the JJD Industries in violation of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA).  The recent judgement against the two men in Solis v. John Dombek Jr., John Dombek III, Wisconsin Tool & Stamping Co. 401(k) Profit Sharing Plan & Trust, J.D. Acquisition 401(k) Profit Sharing Plan and Trust, and the JJD Industries Group Health Plan is a reminder to business owners, management and others with discretionary control over employee contributions or other plan assets of the importance of ensuring that all employee contributions withheld from pay and other plan assets are used only for appropriate plan expenses and timely deposited in trust or otherwise appropriately  applied.  Businesses owners and managers should treat these and other similar judgmentsas a wake-up call to meet employee benefit funding obligations, not to use plan monies for company operations and to take other required steps to make sure that retirement, health and other employee benefit plans moneys and other responsibilities are properly handled.

Company Leaders Ordered To Restore Misdirected Monies

A Chicago federal court ordered the two men to make restitution of $69,521 of employee contributions withheld from employee pay that the court ruled the Dombeks mismanaged by failing to ensure the timely deposit of these funds with the plans.  See

Dombek III, who is president of the JJD Industries Group, and Dombek Jr. were co-fiduciaries of the Wisconsin Tool & Stamping Co. 401(k) plan and have been ordered to restore $22,164.45 in unremitted contributions and lost opportunity costs to the plan. Dombek III is also liable for an additional $2,222.78 in unremitted contributions and lost opportunity costs to the J.D. Acquisition 401(k) plan.

Dombek III must also restore $45,134.08 in unremitted contributions and lost opportunity costs to the JJD Industries sponsored group health plan. The company contracted with Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois to provide health and dental benefits to the employees of its related companies, including Wisconsin Tool & Stamping Co., J.D. Acquisition Corp., Akorat Metal Fabricators Inc./Smithco Fabricators Inc. and Pavo Inc./Injection Plastics Corp. The companies paid their premiums separately, and premiums were partially funded through weekly employee payroll deductions.

The judgment also bars Dombek Jr. and Dombek III from serving as fiduciaries or service providers to any employee benefit plan subject to ERISA for a period of five years. An independent fiduciary will oversee the termination of the 401(k) plans of both Wisconsin Tool & Stamping and J.D. Acquisition, as well as the distribution of plan assets to eligible participants.

The Dombeks will not be able to claim bankruptcy protection to avoid liability for the judgments.  Dombek Jr. and Dombek III both previously had filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection. The Labor Department filed separate complaints to determine the dischargeability of these obligations and seek the enforcement of any monetary judgment against both individuals to restore the funds to the employee benefit programs. On October 5 and October 16, 2012, the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of Illinois granted the Labor Department’s motions for default judgment, finding that the debts Dombek Jr. and Dombek III owed to the plans were not dischargeable in bankruptcy.

Business Leaders Risk Personal Liability When Employee Contributions Used In Company Operations

The judgement is another reminder to business owners and leaders not to allow employee contributions or other plan assets to be used to pay company expenses or otherwise misdirected.  The judgment is one many enforcement actions that the Department of Labor regularly takes against businesses and business leaders that allow plan assets to be used for company operations or other improper purposes.

“Failing to administer health insurance premiums properly demonstrates a total lack of concern for employees and their families,” said Steve Haugen, director of the Chicago Regional Office of the Labor Department’s Employee Benefit Security Administration. “Incorporating employees’ voluntary salary contributions into the general assets of a company and failing to forward them to the retirement plan are violations of both the law and the trust workers have placed in their employers.”

The judgement shows that owners, operators and managers of businesses that exercise discretion and control over the funding, investment or administration of employee benefit plans or their assets face significant liability for failing to properly fulfill their responsibilities with respect to their employee benefit plans.  Businesses, their owners, board members, officers, and other members of management making decisions about the maintenance, funding, administration, termination, hiring or appointment of fiduciaries or service providers or other matters impacting the employee benefit plan should ensure that they understand the potential implications and responsibilities associated with these activities for themselves and their companies.  Individuals who have authority or responsibility for employee benefit plans who also perform or take part in the performance of other company management functions also should pre-educate themselves about when ERISA may require that their plan responsibilities be put before otherwise applicable responsibilities to their company, appropriate processes for documenting decisions and activities, and other procedures to help position activities to mitigate exposures and promote defensibility.

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 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 registerto 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.

©2012 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, P.C.  Non-exclusive license 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.


Stamer Speaks 11/15 About Things Plan Committees Must Do Differently In 2012 At SWBA Meeting

July 10, 2012

Stamer Speaks About Things Plan Committees Must Do Differently In 2012 At SWBA Meeting In November

Cynthia Marcotte Stamer will be among the featured panelists speaking about “The Flood of Things a Plan Committee Must Do Differently in 2012” at the Southwest Benefits Association (SWBA) 23rd Annual Employee Benefits Conference for Practitioners and Plan Sponsors scheduled for November 15-16, 2012 at the Doubletree Galleria Hotel in Dallas, Texas

During “The Flood of Things a Plan Committee Must Do Differently in 2012” program,  scheduled to begin at 4:00 PM on November 15, Ms. Stamer and other panelists will discuss the grow emerging challenges and responsibilities that employee benefit plan committees and other fiduciaries must deal with in 2012 such as new provider disclosures and participant disclosures about internal retirement plan fees, to new processes for handling claims and appeals arising under health plans now (and other types of plans soon), to identifying and documenting who really are the other fiduciaries of its plan, to avoiding stock drop exposure (especially after Pfiel), excessive fees exposure, securities lending exposure and others. 

The program is part of two days of educational programs that the SWBA will provide during the Conference.  To register or for additional details, see here.

About Ms. Stamer

A Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefits Counsel, recognized in International Who’s Who, and Board Certified in Labor & Employment Law, attorney and health benefit consultant Cynthia Marcotte Stamer has 25 years experience advising and representing private and public employers, employer and union plan sponsors, employee benefit plans, associations, their fiduciaries, administrators, and vendors, group health, Medicare and Medicaid Advantage, and other insurers, governmental leaders and others on health and other employee benefit. employment, insurance and related matters. Her experience includes extensive work on advising employee benefit plans, their fiduciaries and advisors, employers, creditors, debtors, trustees, financial services organizations about employee benefit and other rerengineering, performance management, risk management, compliance, public policy and other concerns and opportunities.

A well-known and prolific author and popular speaker Board Certified in Labor & Employment Law, Ms. Stamer presently serves as Co-Chair of the ABA RPTE Section Welfare Plan Committee, Vice Chair of the ABA TIPS Employee Benefit Committee, an ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits Representative, an Editorial Advisory Board Member of the Institute of Human Resources (IHR/HR.com) and Employee Benefit News, and various other publications.  A primary drafter of the Bolivian Social Security privatization law with extensive domestic and international regulatory and public policy experience, Ms. Stamer also has worked extensively domestically and internationally on public policy and regulatory advocacy on health and other employee benefits, human resources, insurance, tax, compliance and other matters and representing clients in dealings with the US Congress, Departments of Labor, Treasury, Health & Human Services, Federal Trade Commission, HUD and Justice, as well as a state legislatures attorneys general, insurance, labor, worker’s compensation, and other agencies and regulators. A prolific author and popular speaker, Ms. Stamer regularly authors materials and conducts workshops and professional, management and other training on employee benefits, human resources, health care, privacy and data security, technology and other compliance and management topics.  Her publications and insights appear in the Health Care Compliance Association, American Bar Association, Atlantic Information Service, Bureau of National Affairs, World At Work, SHRM, The Wall Street Journal, Government Institutes, Inc.,Business Insurance, the Dallas Morning News, HR.Com, Modern Health Care, Managed Healthcare, Health Leaders, and a many other national and local publications.   An Editorial Advisory Board member and author for HR.com, Insurance Thought Leaders and many other publications, Ms. Stamer also regularly serves on the faculty and planning committees of a multitude of symposium and other educational programs.  For more details about Ms. Stamer’s services, experience, presentations, publications, and other credentials or to inquire about arranging counseling, training or presentations or other services by Ms. Stamer, see www.CynthiaStamer.com or contact Ms. Stamer at (469) 767-8872 or via e-mail 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.


$27M+ Settlement Highlights Fiduciary Risks Plan Sponsors & Fiduciaries Risk If Plan Vendors, Compensation Improperly Set

July 7, 2012

A $27 million settlement announced by the Department of Labor on July 7 shows the big liability that employer, union or association plan sponsors and their fiduciaries risk by failing to take appropriate steps when deciding who will serve as fiduciaries or other plan sponsors or setting the compensation paid by the plan for those services.

The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) will restore $27,272,727 to three association-sponsored employee benefit plans covered by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) to settle U.S. Department of Labor Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA) charges that the association violated ERISA by selecting itself as a service provider to the plans, determining its own compensation and making payments to itself that exceeded NRECA’s direct expenses in providing services to the employee benefit plans.  EBSA announced the settlement on July 5, 2012.

Following an EBSA investigation, EBSA accused NRECA of violating NRECA by selecting itself to act as the administrator of various association employee benefit plans and arranging for the NRECA to receive unreasonable compensation for these services which NRECA set without the use of independent parties to prudently verify the appropriateness of the selection or compensation arrangements.  EBSA said these arrangements violated the self-dealing and other fiduciary responsibility requirements of ERISA.

Headquartered in Arlington, NRECA is a nonprofit trade association for electric power cooperatives. The sponsored plans are open to members of the trade association as well as the association’s employees. As of 2010, the latest information available, the NRECA 401(k) Plan had 68,970 participants, the NRECA Retirement Security Plan had 64,286 participants and the NRECA Group Benefits Plan had 73,644 participants.

Under the terms of the agreement, NRECA will not provide administrative services to the NRECA Retirement Security Plan, the NRECA 401(k) Plan and the NRECA Group Benefits Plan without entering into a written contract or agreement with the plans that must be approved by an independent fiduciary. The independent fiduciary must determine whether the use of NRECA to provide administrative services to the plans is prudent and reasonable, determine the categories of direct expenses that NRECA may charge to the plans and the methods of calculating those expenses, and monitor NRECA’s compliance with certain terms of the agreement. The agreement also provides that during a 60-month period following the implementation date, NRECA shall discount the amount of permissible direct expenses for which it seeks reimbursement from all three plans in the amount of $22,727,272.  The balance of the settlement payment, $4,545,455, already has been paid directly to the NRECA 401(k) Plan.  In addition to the amounts returned to the plans, NRECA will pay $2,727,276 in civil penalties.

“This settlement sends a clear message to plan fiduciaries that they cannot profit from selecting themselves to provide services to plans,” said Phyllis Borzi, assistant secretary of labor for employee benefits security in announcing the settlement.

Employee benefit plan vendor selection and compensation arrangements made by association and other employee benefit plan sponsors, fiduciaries and service providers are coming under increasing scrutiny by the EBSA.  While ERISA technically grants plan sponsors and fiduciaries wide latitude to make these choices, the exercise of these powers comes with great responsibility.  See e.g., Plan Sponsors. Their Owners & Management & Others Risk Personal Liability If Others Defraud Plans or Mismanage Employee Benefit Plan Responsibilities; New Rules Give Employee Benefit Plan Fiduciaries & Investment Advisors New Investment Advice Options;DOL Proposes To Expand Investment Related Services Giving Rise to ERISA Fiduciary Status As Investment Fiduciary

Associations, employer and other plan sponsors, and other entities and individuals who in name or in function possess or exercise discretionary responsibility or authority over the selection of plan fiduciaries, administrative or investment service providers or other services to the plan or the establishment of their compensation generally must make those decisions in accordance with the fiduciary responsibility and prohibited transaction rules of ERISA.  Among other things, these rules generally require that fiduciaries exercising discretion over these and other plan matters:

ü    Must act prudently for the exclusive benefit of plan participants and beneficiaries;

ü    Must not involve the plan or its assets in any arrangement that is listed as a prohibited transaction under ERISA § 406; and

ü    Must not act for the benefit of themselves or any third party.

Fiduciaries that violate these rules risk personal liability to the plans for the greater of profits realized or losses sustained by the plan, plus attorneys’ fees and costs, as well as exposure to an EBSA-assessed ERISA civil penalty equal to 20% of the amount of the fiduciary breach. 

Since the earliest days of ERISA, the EBSA as well as private plaintiffs have aggressively enforced these and other fiduciary responsibility rules.  In recent years, EBSA has taken further steps to tighten and enforce these protections such as the new fee disclosure rules recently implemented by the EBSA and other fiduciary guidance. See, e.g., Western Mixers & Officers Ordered To Pay $1.2M+ For Improperly Using Benefit Plan Funds For Company Operations, Other ERISA Violations; Plan Administrator Faces Civil & Criminal Prosecution For Allegedly Making Prohibited $3.2 Million Real Estate Investment; Tough times are no excuse for ERISA shortcuts.

Despite these well-document fiduciary exposures and a well-established pattern of enforcement by the Labor Department and private plaintiffs, many companies and their business leaders fail to appreciate the responsibilities and liabilities associated with the establishment and administration of employee benefit plans.  Frequently, employer and other employee benefit plan sponsors fail adequately to follow or document their administration of appropriate procedures to be in a position to demonstrate their fulfillment of these requirements when selecting plan fiduciaries and service providers, determining the compensation paid for their services, overseeing the performance of these parties, or engaging in other dealings with respect to plan design or administration.  In other instances, businesses and their leaders do not realize that the functional definition that ERISA uses to determine fiduciary status means that individuals participating in discretionary decisions 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 and associations providing employee benefits to employees or dependents, as well as members of management participating in, or having responsibility to oversee or influence decisions 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.

In light of the significant liability risks, employer, association and other employee benefit plan sponsors and their management, plan fiduciaries, service providers and consultants should exercise care when selecting plan fiduciaries and service providers, establishing their compensation and making other related arrangements.  To minimize fiduciary exposures, parties participating in these activities should seek the advice of competent legal counsel concerning their potential fiduciary status and responsibilities relating to these activities and take appropriate steps to minimize potential exposures.

For Help or More Information

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

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

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

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

Other Resources

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

About Solutions Law Press

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

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

©2012 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, P.C.  Non-exclusive license to republish granted to Solutions Law Press.  All other rights reserved.


Western Mixers & Officers Ordered To Pay $1.2M+ For Improperly Using Benefit Plan Funds For Company Operations, Other ERISA Violations

May 23, 2012

Businesses owners and managers should treat last week’s judgment against a California fruit and nut supplier Western Mixers Inc. and its officers as a wake-up call to meet employee benefit funding obligations, not to use plan monies for company operations and to take other required steps to make sure that retirement, health and other employee benefit plans moneys and other responsibilities are properly handled.

Under a judgment entered in Solis v. Frank L. Rudy et. al. and Western Mixers Inc. Money Purchase Pension Plan, Western Mixers Inc., its owners and officers will pay a total of $1,287,901 to the company’s pension plan, plus a 20 percent penalty to the Department of Labor.

Following an investigation by the Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA), the Department of Labor sued Western Mixers Inc. and two officers who served as trustees of the plan for failing to make approximately $952,511 in mandatory employer contributions for the benefit of participants and beneficiaries and improperly using plan monies in the company’s business operations. Investigators also found that the same two officers as well as the company’s chief financial officer made $565,000 in unauthorized withdrawals from the plan accounts, commingling those funds in the company’s general accounts and using them for the benefit of the business. 

Labor Department officials sued the company, and the officers for violation of the fiduciary responsibility rules of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA).  ERISA generally requires that plan trustees and other plan fiduciaries carry out duties with respect to an employee benefit plan assets prudently for the exclusive benefit of participants. 

Pursuant to the consent judgment, the company and its officers admitted to violation of ERISA.  During the course of the investigation leading up to the lawsuit, the company previously repaid to the plan $485,000 of the total funds identified as missing by the Labor Department.  According to an announcement of the U.S. Department of Labor on May 14, 2012, Midwest Mixers Inc.’s officers agreed to repay $802,901 to participants’ accounts within 10 day of the judgment.

In addition to repaying the missing funds with interest, defendants also must pay a penalty equal to 20 percent of the recovered amount.  The court also has appointed an independent fiduciary to terminate the plan and to collect, marshal, pay out and administer plan assets. Frank L. Rudy and David H. Bolstad, owners of the company, are removed as plan trustees and fiduciaries. Together with Robert J. Fischer, Western Mixers, Inc.’s chief financial officer, they are permanently enjoined and restrained from violating ERISA and from serving as fiduciary or service providers to any ERISA-covered plan in the future.

The Western Mixer’s judgement demonstrates that owners, operators and managers of businesses that exercise discretion and control over the funding, investment or administration of employee benefit plans or their assets face significant liability for failing to properly fulfill their responsibilities with respect to their employee benefit plans.  Businesses, their owners, board members, officers, and other members of management making decisions about the maintenance, funding, administration, termination, hiring or appointment of fiduciaries or service providers or other matters impacting the employee benefit plan should ensure that they understand the potential implications and responsibilities associated with these activities for themselves and their companies.  individuals who have authority or responsibility for employee benefit plans who also perform or take part in the performance of other company management functions also should pre-educate themselves about when ERISA may require that their plan responsibilities be put before otherwise applicable responsibilities to their company, appropriate processes for documenting decisions and activities and other procedures that can help position activities to mitigate exposures and promote defensibility.

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 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

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