Fiduciaries Ultimately Prevail in Tibble v. Edison

On remand from the United States Supreme Court, which held in May 2015 that ERISA imposes on retirement plan fiduciaries an ongoing duty to monitor investments, even absent a change in circumstances, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals recently affirmed the district court’s original judgment in favor of the employer and its benefits plan administrator on claims of breach of fiduciary duty in the selection and retention of certain mutual funds for a benefit plan governed by ERISA.

The court of appeals had previously affirmed the district court’s holding that the plan beneficiaries’ claims regarding the selection of mutual funds in 1999 were time-barred. The Supreme Court vacated the court of appeals’ decision, observing that federal law imposes on fiduciaries an ongoing duty to monitor investments even absent a change in circumstances.

On remand, the panel held that the beneficiaries forfeited such ongoing-duty-to-monitor argument by failing to raise it either before the district court or in their initial appeal. While the fiduciaries ultimately prevailed in this case, the lesson for fiduciaries remains clear: You have an ongoing duty to monitor the investment options in your retirement plans.

Tibble v. Edison International (9th Cir., 2016)

Full Text of the Supreme Court Decision in Tibble v. Edison International (2015)

7th Circuit Holds Only a Church Can Establish an ERISA-Exempt Church Plan

On March 17, 2016 the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals joined the 3rd Circuit in holding that a network of hospitals and health care locations that is affiliated with a church cannot establish an ERISA-exempt church plan. Stapleton v. Advocate Health Care Network (7th Cir. 2016).

In Stapleton, several current and former employees of the church-affiliated hospital claimed that the organization failed to comply with ERISA’s vesting, reporting and disclosure, funding, trust, and fiduciary rules. The 7th Circuit Curt of Appeals agreed.

This issue is bubbling up all over the country. District Court cases have decided the question both ways. There is a case pending before the Ninth Circuit that held at the District Curt level that an affiliate cannot establish a church plan. Rollins v. Dignity Health, 19 F. Supp. 3d 909, 917 (N.D. Cal. 2013), appeal filed, No. 15-15351 (9th Cir. Feb. 26, 2016). The employer in Rollins faces up to $1.2 billion in funding obligations if it loses the case.

District court cases in several other states have help the other way – that affiliated organizations can establish a church plan.  The only two Court of Appeals cases to decide the question have ruled that the affiliated organization cannot establish a church plan. See Stapleton and Kaplan v. St. Peter’s Healthcare Sys., 810 F.3d 175 (3d Cir. 2015).

If you an organization affiliated with a church that is relying on the church plan exemption from ERISA’s vesting, reporting, disclosure, funding, trust, and fiduciary rules, you ought to review that decision with ERISA counsel.

Plan Imposed Limitations Period Must be in Benefit Denial Notice

The First Circuit recently ruled that it will not enforce a plan-imposed deadline for filing a lawsuit because the deadline was not set forth in the plan’s benefit denial notices. Santana-Diaz v. Metropolitan Life Ins. Co. (1st Cir. 2016).  This case reiterates the importance of including any plan specific limitations period for filing suit in the Summary Plan Description and in all benefit denial notices and appeal determinations.

DOL and IRS Releases Updated Form 5500 Series for 2015

DOL and IRS recently posted the new 2015 Form 5500, Form 5500-SF, and a draft of the 2015 Form 5500-EZ. Of significance is the “IRS Compliance Questions” added to the various forms and schedules:

  • Schedules H and I add two new compliance questions about unrelated business taxable income and in-service distributions.
  • Schedule R adds ten new compliance questions in five areas: (1) ADP and ACP testing; (2) coverage testing and plan aggregation; (3) recently adopted plan amendments; (4) the type of plan (whether individually designed or preapproved); and (5) plans maintained in U.S. territories.
  • Form 5500-SF adds the above compliance questions and one additional question about whether required minimum distributions were properly made to 5% owners who are still employed and are were 70-1/2  or older.
  • Form 5500-EZ adds most of the above questions, except the testing and coverage questions, which do not apply to single person plans.

2015 Form 5500 series and Instructions

Draft 5500-EZ and Instructions

IRS Updated Plan Limits for 2016

IRS has announced the retirement plan and employee benefits limits for 2016. Most of the limits are unchanged. The exception is the HSA Maximum Contribution for Family increased $100 to $6,750.  Here is a chart showing the limits for 2014 through 2016:

Type of Limitation 2016 2015 2014
415 Defined Benefit Plans $210,000 $210,000 $210,000
415 Defined Contribution Plans $53,000 $53,000 $52,000
401(k) Elective Deferrals, 457(b) and 457(c)(1) $18,000 $18,000 $17,500
401(k) Catch-Up Deferrals $6,000 $6,000 $5,500
SIMPLE Employee Deferrals $12,500 $12,500 $12,000
SIMPLE Catch-Up Deferrals $3,000 $3,000 $2,500
Annual Compensation Limit $265,000 $265,000 $260,000
SEP Minimum Compensation $600 $600 $550
SEP Annual Compensation Limit $265,000 $265,000 $260,000
Highly Compensated $120,000 $120,000 $115,000
Key Employee (Officer) $170,000 $170,000 $170,000
Income Subject To Social Security Tax  (FICA) $118,500 $118,500 $117,000
Social Security (FICA) Tax For ER & EE (each pays) 6.20% 6.20% 6.20%
Social Security (Med. HI) Tax For ERs & EEs (each pays) 1.45% 1.45% 1.45%
SECA (FICA Portion) for Self-Employed 12.40% 12.40% 12.40%
SECA (Med. HI Portion) For Self-Employed 2.9% 2.90% 2.90%
IRA Contribution $5,500 $5,500 $5,500
IRA catch-up Contribution $1,000 $1,000 $1,000
HSA Max Single/Family $3,350/6,750 $3,350/6,650 $3,300/6,550
HSA Catchup $1,000 $1,000 $1,000
HSA Min. Annual Deductible Single/Family $1,300/2,600 $1,300/2,600 $1,250/2,500

PBGC Issues Updated Final Rule on Reportable Events

On September 11, 2015, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) published final rules updating its existing regulations and guidance for pension plans and plan sponsors regarding when and how they need to report various corporate and plan events to the PBGC.  The updated rule is intended to make reporting more efficient and effective, to avoid unnecessary reporting requirements, and to conform PBGC’s reportable events regulation to changes in the law.

Changing the waiver structure

Under the regulation’s long-standing waiver structure for reportable events, which primarily focused on the funded status of a plan, PBGC often did not get reports it needed; at the same time, it received many reports that were unnecessary. This mismatch occurred because the old waiver structure was not well tied to the actual risks and causes of plan terminations, particularly the risk that a plan sponsor will default on its financial obligations, ultimately leading to an underfunded termination of its pension plan.

The final rule provides a new reportable events waiver structure that is more closely focused on risk of default than was the old waiver structure. Some reporting requirements that poorly identify risky situations — like those based on a supposedly modest level of plan underfunding — have been eliminated; at the same time, a new low-default-risk “safe harbor” — based on company financial metrics — is established that the PBGC believes better measures risk to the pension insurance system. This sponsor safe harbor is voluntary and based on existing, readily-available financial information that companies already use for many business purposes.

The final rule also provides a safe harbor based on a plan’s owing no variable-rate premium (VRP) (referred to as the well-funded plan safe harbor).  Other waivers, such as public company, small plan, de minimis segment, and foreign entity waivers, have been retained in the final rule, and in many cases expanded, to provide additional relief to plan sponsors where the risk of an event to plans and the pension insurance system is low.

With the expansion in the number of waivers available in the final rule, PBGC estimates that 94 percent of plans covered by the pension insurance system will qualify for at least one waiver of reporting for events dealing with active participant reductions, controlled group changes, extraordinary dividends, benefit liability transfers, and substantial owner distributions.

Revised definitions of reportable events

The rule simplifies the descriptions of several reportable events and makes some event descriptions (e.g., active participant reduction) narrower so that compliance is easier and less burdensome. One event is broadened in scope (loan defaults), and clarification of another event has a similar result (controlled group changes). These changes, like the waiver changes, are aimed at tying reporting burden to risk.

Conforming to changes in the law

The Pension Protection Act of 2006 (PPA) made changes in the law that affect the test for whether advance reporting of certain reportable events is required. This rule conforms the advance reporting test to the new legal requirements.

Mandatory e-filing

The rule makes electronic filing of reportable events notices mandatory.

Final Reportable Events Rule

IRS Announces Significant Reduction in Determination Letter Program

On July 21, 2015, the IRS announced changes to the favorable determination letter program for qualified retirement plans. Employers that sponsor individually designed plans should take a close look at whether they can state their plans on a pre-approved plan document, particularly a volume submitter document, for the reasons explained in this post.

Most significantly, the IRS will eliminate the staggered 5-year determination letter remedial amendment cycles for individually designed plans as of January 2017. This means that, effective as of January 1, 2017, sponsors of individually designed plans will only be permitted to submit a determination letter application for qualification in two circumstances:

  • upon initial plan adoption; and
  • upon plan termination.

In addition, effective immediately, the IRS will no longer accept determination letter applications for individually designed plans that are submitted off-cycle, except for new plans and for terminating plans.

Implications for Plan Sponsors

These changes to the determination letter program increase the risk that document failures may get into, and remain for a long period of time in, plan sponsor’s qualified retirement plans.  For example, a failure to adopt a required amendment to the plan document, which ordinarily would have been discovered and corrected in connection with the staggered 5-year determination letter remedial amendment cycle, could now persist for years or even decades before being discovered. Plan terminations will likely become more difficult, time consuming and costly if such errors are not discovered until the Plan submits for a favorable determination upon termination.

Plans that are stated on a pre-approved document (such as a volume submitter or prototype plan document) will continue to receive IRS opinion letters on the language in those plans. In addition, plan sponsors who adopt a volume submitter plan and make limited modifications to the approved specimen plan, which does not create an individually designed plan, will still be able to get a favorable determination on their plans every six years.  These plans will thereby avoid the above risks.

For this reason, employers that sponsor individually designed plans should closely evaluate whether they can convert their plans to a pre-approved plan document, with a goal of completing the transition by January 1, 2017. Many individually designed plans may be able to fit onto a volume submitter plan with minor modifications, which will allow those sponsors to continue receiving a favorable determination lettre on their plan every six years.

Additional Guidance Expected from the IRS

The IRS has asked for comments, and expects to issue further guidance, regarding how it can assist plan sponsors that wish to convert individually designed plans to pre-approved plans.

We should also expect some changes to the IRS’s EPCRS correction program, to help correct errors that inevitably will increase as a result of this curtailment in the favorable determination letter program.

In addition, the IRS is considering ways to make it easier for plan sponsors that continue to sponsor individually designed plans to comply with the qualified plan document requirements, including:

  • providing model amendments,
  • not requiring certain plan provisions or amendments to be adopted if and for so long as they are not relevant to a particular plan (for example, because of the type of plan, employer, or benefits offered),
  • or expanding plan sponsors’ options to document qualification requirements through incorporation by reference.

icon IRS Announcement 2015-19

IRS Ends Lump Sum Risk Transferring Programs in Defined Benefit Plans

Treasury Department and the IRS announced today in Notice 2015-49 that they intend to amend the required minimum distribution regulations under Code Section 401(a)(9) to address the use of lump sum payments to replace annuity payments being paid by a qualified defined benefit pension plan.

The revised regulations will provide that qualified defined benefit plans generally are not permitted to replace any joint and survivor, single life, or other annuity currently being paid with a lump sum payment or other accelerated form of distribution. These amendments to the regulations will apply as of July 9, 2015.

Background

Section 401(a)(9) prescribes required minimum distribution rules for a qualified plan under Code Section 401(a).  Under the regulations, a defined benefit pension plan cannot permit a current annuitant to convert their annuity payments to a lump sum or otherwise accelerate those payments, except in a narrow set of circumstances specified in the regulations, such as in the case of retirement, death, or plan termination.  In addition, the regulations permit annuity payments to increase “[t]o pay increased benefits that result from a plan amendment.”

A number of defined benefit plan sponsors have amended their plans pursuant to this “plan amendment” exception to provide a limited period during which certain retirees who are currently receiving joint and survivor, single life, or other life annuity payments from those plans may elect to convert that annuity into a lump sum that is payable immediately. These arrangements are sometimes referred to as lump sum risk-transferring programs because longevity risk and investment risk are transferred from the plan to the retirees.

In 2012, the IRS issued Private Letter Rulings to General Motors and Ford specifically approving such programs for those companies.  See PLR 201228045 and PLR 201228051.  While Private Letter Rulings do not apply to anyone other than the person to whom they are issued, many employers found support in those PLRs for their risk transfer programs.  With the change in the regulations announced today, those PLRs no longer provide any support.

Conclusion

The Treasury Department and the IRS have concluded that a broad exception for increased benefits that would permit lump sum payments to replace rights to ongoing annuity payments (of the kind approved in the two 2012 PLRs) would undermine the intent of the required minimum distribution regulations.  Therefore, the exception for changes to the annuity payment period provided in the regulations (as intended to be amended) will not permit acceleration of annuity payments to which an individual receiving annuity payments was entitled before the amendment, even if the plan amendment also increases annuity payments.

icon Notice 2015-49