9th Circuit Clarifies Service Provider’s Fiduciary Duties When Negotiating Fees and When Withdrawing Fees from Plan Assets

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has issued an opinion in Santomenno v. Transamerica LLC, clarifying the circumstances under which a retirement plan investment service provider  breaches (and does not breach) its fiduciary duties when negotiating its fees and when collecting the agreed fees from plan accounts.

The Case

The trial court in this case held that the plan investment service provider breached its fiduciary duties to plan beneficiaries first when negotiating with the employer about providing services to the plan and later when withdrawing predetermined fees from plan funds.

The 9th Circuit held that a plan administrator is not an ERISA fiduciary when negotiating its compensation with a prospective customer. The employer/plan sponsor doing the hiring is acting under a fiduciary duty when it negotiates these fees. Therefore, the prospective service provider did not breach its duties in negotiating for the fees it wanted to receive.

The Court also held that the service provider was not a fiduciary with respect to its receipt of revenue sharing payments from investment managers after it became a service provider to the Plan because the payments were fully disclosed before the provider agreements were signed and did not come from plan assets.

Finally, and most significantly, the Court held that the service provider also did not breach its fiduciary duty with respect to its withdrawal of the preset fees from plan funds. The Court concluded that when a service provider’s definitively calculable and nondiscretionary compensation is clearly set forth in a contract with the fiduciary-employer, collection of those fees out of plan funds in strict adherence to that contractual term is not a breach of the provider’s fiduciary duty. The withdrawal of its fees in such circumstances is a ministerial act that does not give rise to fiduciary liability.

The Take-Aways

This case highlights the importance of the fiduciary role played by the plan sponsor and administrator when hiring service providers to the Plan. Hiring and retention decisions are fiduciary acts on the part of the employer/plan sponsor, but are not fiduciary acts on the part of the service provider being hired.

In addition, while this case illustrates that it is not always a fiduciary act for a service provider to withdraw its fees directly from plan assets, that is not true in every case. For example, if the Plan sponsor or administrator disputed a charge before the service provider withdrew its fees, or if the fees withdrawn by the service provider were based on hours worked or some other non-ministerial measure of the service provided, the withdrawal may not be ministerial. This case therefore does not give service providers free reign to withdraw fees from plan assets without consideration of their fiduciary duties.

Santomenno v. Transamerica LLC

Updated Disability Claims Procedures Go Into Effect April 2, 2018

The Department of Labor’s final rules updating the procedures for disability claims goes into effect on April 2, 2018. This post summarizes the new rules; which plans are affected by the new rules; and the next steps affected plans should take.

Affected Plans

The Claims Procedure Regulations at C.F.R. §2560.503-1 affect all ERISA Plans, including pension plans such as defined benefit and 401(k) plans, welfare benefit plans like medical and disability insurance plans. As a practical matter, the changes to the rules for disability claims only impacts plans that actually make disability determinations. Therefore, if your pension or 401(k) Plan relies on disability determinations made by a third party, like the Social Security Administration, you should not need to make any changes to your plan documents or your claims procedures as a result of the new rules.

Next Steps

Affected plans have until December 31, 2018 to adopt the necessary plan amendments, but the amendment will need  to be effective, and Plans will need to comply with the revised rules, as of April 2, 2018. Affected Plans will also need to update their Summary Plan Descriptions to reflect the new rules.

Summary of the Changes

The new rules amend the claims procedure regulation at 29 C.F.R. §2560.503-1 for disability benefits to require that plans, plan fiduciaries, and insurance providers comply with additional procedural protections when dealing with disability benefit claimants. Specifically, the final rule includes the following changes in the requirements for the processing of claims and appeals for disability benefits:

  • Basic Disclosure Requirements. Benefit denial notices must contain a more complete discussion of why the plan denied a claim and the standards used in making the decision. For example, the notices must include a discussion of the basis for disagreeing with a disability determination made by the Social Security Administration if presented by the claimant in support of his or her claim.
  • Right to Claim File and Internal Protocols. Benefit denial notices must include a statement that the claimant is entitled to receive, upon request, the entire claim file and other relevant documents. Previously, this statement was required only in notices denying benefits on appeal. Benefit denial notices also have to include the internal rules, guidelines, protocols, standards or other similar criteria of the plan that were used in denying a claim or a statement that none were used. Previously, instead of including these internal rules and protocols, benefit denial notices have the option of including a statement that such rules and protocols were used in denying the claim and that a copy will be provided to the claimant upon request.
  • Right to Review and Respond to New Information Before Final Decision. The new rule prohibits plans from denying benefits on appeal based on new or additional evidence or rationales that were not included when the benefit was denied at the claims stage, unless the claimant is given notice and a fair opportunity to respond.
  • Avoiding Conflicts of Interest. Plans must ensure that disability benefit claims and appeals are adjudicated in a manner designed to ensure the independence and impartiality of the persons involved in making the decision. For example, a claims adjudicator or medical or vocational expert could not be hired, promoted, terminated or compensated based on the likelihood of the person denying benefit claims.
  • Deemed Exhaustion of Claims and Appeal Processes. If plans do not adhere to all claims processing rules, the claimant is deemed to have exhausted the administrative remedies available under the plan, unless the violation was the result of a minor error and other specified conditions are met. If the claimant is deemed to have exhausted the administrative remedies available under the plan, the claim or appeal is deemed denied on review without the exercise of discretion by a fiduciary and the claimant may immediately pursue his or her claim in court. The revised rule also provides that the plan must treat a claim as re-filed on appeal upon the plan’s receipt of a court’s decision rejecting the claimant’s request for review.
  • Certain Coverage Rescissions are Adverse Benefit Determinations Subject to the Claims Procedure Protections. Rescissions of coverage, including retroactive terminations due to alleged misrepresentation of fact (e.g. errors in the application for coverage) must be treated as adverse benefit determinations, thereby triggering the plan’s appeals procedures. Rescissions for non-payment of premiums are not covered by this provision.
  • Notices Written in a Culturally and Linguistically Appropriate Manner. The final rule requires that benefit denial notices have to be provided in a culturally and linguistically appropriate manner in certain situations.

Cadillac Tax Delayed to 2022

The legislation passed by Congress and signed by President Trump on January 23, 2018 to continue funding the government through February 8, 2018 also delays the “Cadillac Tax” another two years.

The Cadillac Tax is now not scheduled to become effective until 2022. While it is likely future Congresses will continue to delay, or perhaps eliminate the tax entirely, employers and others that sponsor Cadillac plans should continue to monitor the situation and have contingencies to deal with it if the tax does in fact go into effect.

See our prior post on this related topic: IRS Proposes Various Approaches to Cadillac Tax Implementation

Tax Cuts and Jobs Act Includes Employee Benefits Changes and Elimination of ACA Individual Mandate Penalty

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which the President signed into law on December 22, 2017 enacts significant tax reforms that include a number of employee benefits changes. Significant employee benefits changes include:

Individual Mandate Repeal. 

Effective in 2019, the Act will reduce to zero the individual shared responsibility (individual mandate) penalty. This will inevitably lead to more people deciding not to purchase health insurance. Coupled with guaranteed issue, which remains the law, this will contribute to the potential “death spiral” in the individual insurance market.

Extended Rollover Period for Qualified Plan Loans. 

If a participant’s account balance in a qualified retirement plan is reduced to repay a plan loan and the amount of that offset is considered an eligible rollover distribution, the offset amount can be rolled over into an eligible retirement plan. Under current law, the  rollover must occur within 60 days. The legislation extends the 60-day deadline until the due date (including extensions) for the participant’s tax return for the year in which the amount is treated as distributed. Plan loan offset amounts qualifying for this extended deadline are limited to loan amounts that are treated as distributed solely by reason of either termination of the plan or failure to meet the loan’s repayment terms because of a severance from employment.

New Employer Tax Credit for Paid Family and Medical Leave. 

The Act creates a new tax credit for eligible employers providing paid family and medical leave to their employees. To be eligible, employers must have a written program that pays at least 50% of wages to qualified employees for at least two weeks of annual paid family and medical leave.

Eligible employers paying 50% of wages may claim a general business credit of 12.5% of wages paid for up to 12 weeks of family and medical leave a year. The credit increases to as much as 25% if the rate of payment exceeds 50%. The provision is generally effective for wages paid in taxable years beginning after December 31, 2017, and before January 1, 2020. Leave provided as vacation, personal leave, or other medical or sick leave is not considered to be family and medical leave eligible for this credit.

Moving Expense Deduction Eliminated. 

For an eight-year period starting in 2018, most employees will not be able to exclude qualified moving expense reimbursements from income or deduct moving expenses. During that period, the exclusion and deduction are preserved only for certain members of the Armed Forces on active duty who move pursuant to a military order.

Qualified Transportation Plans Eliminated. 

The Act eliminates the employer deduction for qualified transportation fringe benefits and, except as necessary for an employee’s safety, for transportation, payments, or reimbursements in connection with travel between an employee’s residence and place of employment.

The tax exclusion for qualified transportation fringe benefits is generally preserved for employees, but the exclusion for qualified bicycle commuting reimbursements is suspended and unavailable for tax years beginning after 2017 and before 2026.

Other Fringe Benefits Deductions Eliminated. 

Effective for amounts paid or incurred after 2017, the Act repeals the rule under Code § 274 that previously allowed a partial deduction for certain entertainment, amusement, and recreation expenses (including expenses for a facility used in connection with such activities) if those expenses are sufficiently related to or associated with the active conduct of the taxpayer’s business.

Also, effective after 2017, the deductibility of employee achievement awards is limited by a new definition of “tangible personal property” that denies the deduction for cash, cash equivalents, and gift cards, coupons, or certificates, except when employees can only choose from a limited array pre-selected or pre-approved by the employer.

Other nondeductible awards include—vacations, meals, lodging, theater or sports tickets, and securities.

Inflation Adjustments. 

Beginning in 2018, many dollar amounts in the Code—including some benefit-related amounts—that are currently adjusted for inflation using the Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (“CPI-U”) will instead be adjusted using the Chained Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (“C-CPI-U”). According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (which determines and issues the CPI), the C-CPI-U is a closer approximation to a true cost-of-living index for most consumers, and it tends to increase at a lower rate than the CPI-U.

Updated Form 5500s Released for 2017

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Employee Benefits Security Administration, the IRS, and the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) have releasedadvance informational copies of the 2017 Form 5500 annual return/report and related instructions. The “Changes to Note” section of the 2017 instructions highlight important modifications to the Form 5500 and Form 5500-SF and their schedules and instructions.

Modifications are as follows:

  • IRS-Only Questions. IRS-only questions that filers were not required to complete on the 2016 Form 5500 have been removed from the Form 5500, Form 5500-SF and Schedules, including preparer information, trust information, Schedules H and I, lines 4o, and Schedule R, Part VII, regarding the IRS Compliance questions (Part IX of the 2016 Form 5500-SF).
  • Authorized Service Provider Signatures. The instructions for authorized service provider signatures have been updated to reflect the ability for service providers to sign electronic filings on the plan sponsor and Direct Filing Entity (DFE) lines, where applicable, in addition to signing on behalf of plan administrators.
  • Administrative Penalties. The instructions have been updated to reflect an increase in the maximum civil penalty amount under ERISA Section 502(c)(2), as required by the Federal Civil Penalties Inflation Adjustment Act Improvements Act of 2015. Department regulations published on Jan. 18, 2017, increased the maximum penalty to $2,097 a day for a plan administrator who fails or refuses to file a complete or accurate Form 5500 report. The increased penalty under section 502(c)(2) is applicable for civil penalties assessed after Jan. 13, 2017, whose associated violation(s) occurred after Nov. 2, 2015 – the date of enactment of the 2015 Inflation Adjustment Act.
  • Form 5500/5500-SF-Plan Name Change. Line 4 of the Form 5500 and Form 5500-SF have been changed to provide a field for filers to indicate the name of the plan has changed. The instructions for line 4 have been updated to reflect the change. The instructions for line 1a have also been updated to advise filers that if the plan changed its name from the prior year filing(s), complete line 4 to indicate that the plan was previously identified by a different name.
  • Schedule MB. The instructions for line 6c have been updated to add mortality codes for several variants of the RP-2014 mortality table and to add a description of the mortality projection technique and scale to the Schedule MB, line 6 – Statement of Actuarial Assumptions/Methods.
    Form 5500-SF-Line 6c. Line 6c has been modified to add a new question for defined benefit plans that answer “Yes” to the existing question about whether the plan is covered under the PBGC insurance program. The new question asks PBGC-covered plans to enter the confirmation number – generated in the “My Plan Administration Account system” – for the PBGC premium filing for the plan year to which the 5500-SF applies. For example, the confirmation number for the 2017 premium filing is reported on the 2017 Form 5500-SF.

Information copies of the forms, schedules and instructions are available online

Proposed Tax Reform: Ignore The Noise

While I usually do not post about proposed legislation, because it is so speculative, I am going to make an exception in the case of the House Republicans’ proposed Tax Cuts and Jobs Act for several reasons.

The first reason is that, the much-hyped potential reduction to $2,400 in pre-tax deferral limits to 401(k) and 403(b) Plans is not in the actual proposed legislation. In any event, given the popularity of 401(k) Plans, I would rate the chances of this particular proposal ever making it into law at about as close to zero as one could get. My advice is: don’t spend any time worrying about how to deal with it.

The second reason is that there has been virtually no press coverage of the proposed evisceration of non-qualified deferred compensation plans and other employee benefits changes, which are part of the proposed legislation. More on that below, if you are interested.

The third, and bigger point, is that it is way too early to start spending your precious time figuring out how to deal with this this proposed legislation. Recent history tells us that, even with Republican control of all three branches of government, major legislation is very difficult to pass. I can count this year’s major legislative accomplishments on no hands. And even if tax reform legislation does pass, it will likely look quite different from the initial House proposal once it has gone through the House, the Senate and a joint committee. So again, my advice is: don’t spend any time worrying about how to deal with the potential changes in the tax code. You have better things to do with your precious time.

If you are still interested in more details on these proposals you can read the proposed legislation, the House Committee on Ways and Means section-by-section summary, or the short summary below.

Summary of employee benefits tax proposals

The most significant proposal, in my view, is to eliminate the ability to defer taxation of compensation earned and vested in one year into a subsequent year, which is generally governed by Code Sections 409A and 457(b). If enacted, this would essentially eliminate future non-qualified deferred compensation arrangements.

In addition, proposed changes to qualified plans would repeal the special rule permitting recharacterization of Roth IRA contributions as traditional IRA contributions, expand the source accounts from which hardship distributions could be taken, and repeal the six month prohibition on making deferrals after taking a hardship distribution.

Other proposed benefits changes would repeal income exclusions for employee achievement awards, dependent care assistance programs, qualified moving expense re-imbursement, and adoption assistance programs.

IRS Notice 2017-67 Provides Guidance On Qualified Small Employer Health Reimbursement Arrangements

IRS Notice 2017-67 provides guidance on the requirements for providing  qualified small employer health reimbursement arrangement (QSEHRA) under section 9831(d) of the Internal Revenue Code (Code), the tax consequences of the arrangement, and the requirements for providing written notice of the arrangement to eligible employees.

The guidance in Notice 2017-67 includes sections on the following topics:
A. Eligible employer
B. Eligible employee
C. Same terms requirement
D. Statutory dollar limits
E. Written notice requirement
F. MEC requirement
G. Proof of MEC requirement
H. Substantiation requirement
I. Reimbursement of medical expenses
J. Reporting requirement
K. Coordination with PTC
L. Failure to satisfy the requirements to be a QSEHRA
M. Interaction with HSA requirements
N. Effective date

In addition, Executive Order 13813 (82 Fed. Reg. 48385, Oct. 17, 2017), directed the Secretaries of the Treasury, Labor, and Health and Human Services to consider revising guidance, to the extent permitted by law and supported by sound policy, to increase the usability of health reimbursement arrangements (HRAs), expand employers’ ability to offer HRAs to their employees, and to allow HRAs to be used in conjunction with non-group coverage. The guidance provided in Notice 2017-67 addresses each of those objectives. The Treasury Department and IRS are expected to issue additional guidance in the future in response to Executive Order 13813.

Background on QSEHRAs

The 21st Century Cures Act (Cures Act), P.L. 114-255, 130 Stat. 1033, was enacted on December 13, 2016. Section 18001 of the Cures Act amends the Code, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), and the Public Health Service Act (PHS Act), to permit an eligible employer to provide a QSEHRA to its eligible employees.

Pursuant to section 9831(d)(1), a QSEHRA is not a group health plan, and as a result, is not subject to the group health plan requirements that apply under the Code and ERISA. Generally, payments from a QSEHRA to reimburse an eligible employee’s medical expenses are not includible in the employee’s gross income if the employee has coverage that provides minimum essential coverage (MEC) as defined in Code section 5000A(f). For this purpose, “medical expenses” means expenses for medical care, as defined in section 213(d) (which includes premiums for other health coverage, such as individual health insurance policies).

The Cures Act provides that a QSEHRA is an arrangement that meets the following criteria:

(a) The arrangement is funded solely by an eligible employer, and no salary reduction contributions may be made under the arrangement;

(b) The arrangement provides, after the eligible employee provides proof of coverage, for the payment or reimbursement of the medical expenses incurred by the employee or the employee’s family members (in accordance with the terms of the arrangement);

(c) The amount of payments and reimbursements for any year does not exceed $4,950 ($10,000 for an arrangement that also provides for payments or reimbursements of medical expenses of the eligible employee’s family members (family coverage)); and

(d) The arrangement is generally provided on the same terms (the “same terms requirement”) to all eligible employees of the eligible employer.

To be an eligible employer that may provide a QSEHRA, the employer must not be an applicable large employer (ALE), as defined in Code section 4980H(c)(2) and the regulations thereunder (and, thus, may not be an employer that, generally, employed at least 50 full-time employees, including full-time equivalent employees, in the prior calendar year), and must not offer a group health plan (as defined in section 5000(b)) to any of its employees. Pursuant to Code section 4980H(c)(2), an employer whose workforce increases to 50 or more full-time employees during a calendar year will not become an ALE before the first day of the following calendar year.

EEOC Wellness Regulations Sent to EEOC For Review (AARP v US EEOC)

The United States District Court for the District of DC has concluded in the case of AARP v. United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, that the EEOC’s final wellness regulations are arbitrary and capricious, and has therefore sent them back to the EEOC for review. The regulations address the impact of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) on employer-sponsored wellness programs.

The Plaintiff in the case, the AARP, argued that permitting incentives of up to 30% of the cost of coverage is an unreasonable interpretation of the term “voluntary” because the incentive is too high to give employees a meaningful choice whether to participate in programs requiring disclosure of ADA-protected information. It further argued that the EEOC’s reversal of its prior position on the meaning of “voluntary”, which precluded incentives, was unsupported, inadequately explained, and thus, arbitrary and capricious.

The court ruled that the EEOC has not justified its conclusion that the 30% incentive level is a reasonable interpretation of voluntariness. Rejecting the EEOC’s argument that 30% is appropriate because it harmonizes the EEOC regulations with HIPAA as amended by the ACA, the court explained that HIPAA’s 30% incentive cap is not intended to serve as an interpretation of the term “voluntary” since voluntariness of participation is not an issue under HIPAA. Moreover, the court pointed out, the EEOC regulations are inconsistent with the HIPAA regulations in other respects. For instance, the EEOC regulations extend the 30% cap to participatory wellness programs to which the HIPAA cap does not apply. While holding that the EEOC made its decision arbitrarily, the court did not vacate the regulations, noting that they have been applicable for eight months. Instead, the court remanded the regulations to the EEOC for reconsideration.  For now, the EEOC’s final wellness regulations will remain in effect, pending the EEOC’s review of the regulations.

Background

Wellness programs are regulated in part by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), as amended by the Affordable Care Act (ACA), as well as by HIPAA’s implementing regulations.

HIPAA prevents health plans and insurers from discriminating on the basis of “any health status related factor,” but allows covered entities to offer “premium discounts or rebates” on a plan participant’s copayments or deductibles in return for that individual’s compliance with a wellness program. A “reward” or incentive may include a discount on insurance costs or a penalty that increases the plan participant’s costs because of non-participation in the wellness program. See 26 C.F.R. § 54.9802-1(f)(1)(i).

The ACA’s amendments to HIPAA, and the accompanying implementing regulations, allow plans and insurers to offer incentives of up to 30% of the cost of coverage in exchange for an employee’s participation in a health-contingent wellness program, a kind of wellness program in which the reward is based on an insured individual’s satisfaction of a particular health-related factor. See Incentives for Nondiscriminatory Wellness Programs in Group Health Plans (“the 2013 HIPAA regulations” or “2013 HIPAA rule”), 78 Fed. Reg. 33,158, 33,180. Neither the ACA nor the 2013 HIPAA regulations impose a cap on incentives that may be offered in connection with participatory wellness programs, which are programs that do not condition receipt of the incentive on satisfaction of a health factor. Id. at 33,167.

However, because employer-sponsored wellness programs often involve the collection of sensitive medical information from employees, including information about disabilities or genetic information, these programs often implicate the ADA and GINA as well. As both the ADA and GINA are administered by EEOC, this brings wellness programs within EEOC’s purview.

The ADA prohibits employers from requiring medical examinations or inquiring whether an individual has a disability unless the inquiry is both job-related and “consistent with business necessity.” 42 U.S.C. § 12112(d)(4)(A). But the ADA makes some allowances for wellness programs: it provides that an employer may conduct medical examinations and collect employee medical history as part of an “employee health program,” as long as the employee’s participation in the program is “voluntary”. Id. § 12112(d)(4)(B). The term “voluntary” is not defined in the statute.

Similarly, GINA prohibits employers from requesting, requiring, or purchasing “genetic information” from employees or their family members.  The definition of genetic information includes an individual’s genetic tests, the genetic tests of family members such as children and spouses, and the manifestation of a disease or disorder of a family member. Like the ADA, GINA contains an exception that permits employers to collect this information as part of a wellness program, as long as the employee’s provision of the information is voluntary. Again, the meaning of “voluntary” is not defined in the statute.

Thus, while HIPAA and its implementing regulations expressly permit the use of incentives in wellness programs, uncertainty existed as to whether the “voluntary” provisions of the ADA and GINA permit the use of incentives in those wellness programs that implicate ADA- or GINA-protected information.

The EEOC previously took the position that in order for a wellness program to be “voluntary,” employers could not condition the receipt of incentives on the employee’s disclosure of ADA- or GINA-protected information. However, in 2016 the EEOC promulgated new rules reversing this position. Those are the rules at issue in this case. The new ADA rule provides that the use of a penalty or incentive of up to 30% of the cost of self-only coverage will not render “involuntary” a wellness program that seeks the disclosure of ADA-protected information. See ADA Rule, 81 Fed. Reg. at 31,133–34. Likewise, the new GINA rule permits employers to offer incentives of up to 30% of the cost of self-only coverage for disclosure of information, pursuant to a wellness program, about a spouses’s manifestation of disease or disorder, which, as noted above, falls within the definition of the employee’s “genetic information” under GINA.2 See GINA Rule, 81 Fed. Reg. at 31,144.

Unlike the 2013 HIPAA regulations, which place caps on incentives only in health-contingent wellness programs, the incentive limits in the new GINA and ADA rules apply both to participatory and health-contingent wellness programs.

Attorney Erwin Kratz Named to the Best Lawyers in America© 2018

ERISA Benefits Law attorney Erwin Kratz was recently selected by his peers for inclusion in The Best Lawyers in America© 2018 in the practice area of Employee Benefits (ERISA) Law. Mr. Kratz has been continuously listed on The Best Lawyers in America list since 2010.

Since it was first published in 1983, Best Lawyers® has become universally regarded as the definitive guide to legal excellence. Best Lawyers lists are compiled based on an exhaustive peer-review evaluation. Lawyers are not required or allowed to pay a fee to be listed; therefore inclusion in Best Lawyers is considered a singular honor. Corporate Counsel magazine has called Best Lawyers “the most respected referral list of attorneys in practice.”