The US Department of Labor (the Department) on October 22 announced the publication of a proposed rule intended to serve as a supplement to the Department’s existing electronic disclosure regulations. The proposed rule leaves the existing electronic disclosure regulations (and options) in place but adds a new “notice and access” rule (29 CFR § 2520.104b-31) that would permit retirement plans (but not welfare plans) to satisfy certain ERISA disclosure requirements by posting those documents to a website established for that purpose and providing notice to participants that the documents are available on the website.   

Pension plans that are not fully funded for PBGC purposes have two parts to their PBGC premium. One part is a flat rate premium of $83 per participant in 2020 ($80 for 2019). The other is a variable rate premium that looks to the value of the plan’s “unfunded vested benefits,” which is the excess, if any, of the plan’s Premium Funding Target over the fair market value of plan assets. The Premium Funding Target is generally determined the same way as the plan’s funding target for ERISA Section 303 minimum funding requirements, with one important exception. The interest rate used to measure the Premium Funding Target is a “spot” rate, rather than an interest rate averaged over 24 months. In lieu of using the special premium discount rates, a plan sponsor may make an election (irrevocable for five years) to use smoothed discount rates, similar to, and in some cases identical to, the rates used to determine the minimum required contribution (the Alternative Premium Funding Target). The PBGC variable rate premium for 2020 is 4.5% of the plan’s unfunded vested benefits, subject to a headcount cap of $561 per participant.

With the recent decline in interest rates (and the possibility of further decline before yearend), plans may face an unexpected increase in their variable rate PBGC premium for 2020 because the value of the “unfunded vested benefits” may be quite a bit higher in 2020 compared to 2019. In this regard, each of the spot segment rates in December 2018, used for determining variable rate premiums for 2019 for calendar year plans, is at least 100 basis points higher than the comparable spot segment rates in October 2019. The spot segment rates in December 2019 will be used to determine variable rate premiums in 2020 for calendar year plans unless the Alternative Premium Funding Target has been elected. We recommend that plan sponsors check with their actuaries to determine estimated total PBGC premiums for 2020, and to evaluate whether it is advisable to undertake action to reduce the estimated premiums (e.g., by making additional contributions to the plan or electing the Alternative Premium Funding Target).

While the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement Act (the SECURE Act) and its promise of truly open multiple employer plans (MEPs) sat with the Senate this summer, the US Department of Labor (DOL) and Internal Revenue Service (IRS) both issued guidance addressing MEPs.

DOL Final Regulations – MEPs Open Up for Bona Fide Groups or Associations

Under ERISA, only an “employer” may sponsor a pension plan. ERISA defines the term “employer” to include certain groups or associations of employers. The DOL has interpreted this to mean that only a bona fide group or association of employers may sponsor an MEP, thereby limiting the ability of employers to group together to achieve economies of scale aimed at reducing the administrative costs of establishing and maintaining a retirement plan.

On July 31, 2019, the DOL published final regulations addressing the definition of “employer” under ERISA for purposes of its rules on who may sponsor MEPs. These final regulations supersede proposed regulations issued on October 23, 2018, and prior subregulatory guidance.

The final regulations provide a safe harbor definition of “bona fide group or association of employers.” If a group of employers satisfies this definition, the DOL will deem the group an “employer” for purposes of being able to sponsor an ERISA pension plan. This safe harbor definition requires the group to satisfy a seven-factor test.

The Internal Revenue Service on September 23 finalized proposed regulations relating to hardship distributions under an IRC 401(k) plan. The final regulations differ little from the proposed regulations published on November 14, 2018, and, like the proposed regulations, reflect changes made under the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 (BBA 2018), and provide updates reflecting changes (already in practice) made under the Heroes Earnings Assistance and Relief Tax Act of 2008 (HEART Act) and the Pension Protection Act of 2006 (PAP 2006). They also modify the existing “non-safe harbor” determination of whether a distribution is necessary to satisfy an immediate and heavy financial need. To learn about these changes, please read our LawFlash.

Enacted in 1974, ERISA celebrates its 45th birthday this year. A lot has changed in those 45 years. While ERISA has kept up with the changes at time, one area where ERISA has not stayed current is Section 404(b). Here we discuss this section in brief and offer a word of caution to ERISA fiduciaries pursuing global investment strategies.

ERISA Section 404(b) is a sneaky section, stuck between two arguably more prominent sections: Section 404(a), which sets forth the fiduciary duties, and Section 404(c), which helps fiduciaries protect themselves against claims of breach of those duties. But there between them—clocking in at a slim 44 words—is Section 404(b):

Indicia of Ownership of Assets Outside the Jurisdiction of District Courts.—Except as authorized by the Secretary by regulation, no fiduciary may maintain the indicia of ownership of any assets of a plan outside the jurisdiction of the district courts of the United States.

After more than two years without one, three ERISA cases will come before the US Supreme Court in 2019–2020. Exciting times for ERISA attorneys, to be sure, but each case also presents issues of practical consequence for plan sponsors, fiduciaries, and participants in ERISA plans across the country.

Intel Corp. Investment Policy Committee v. Sulyma, No. 18-1116

In a case that may end up being the most impactful, the Court will address how to apply ERISA’s three-year “actual knowledge” statute of limitations. ERISA Section 413 requires that a plaintiff file suit in the six years following an alleged breach or violation. But if a plaintiff has “actual knowledge” of a breach or violation, that period shrinks to three years. In this case, Intel argued that the plaintiff’s claims were time barred because plan disclosures gave the plaintiff “actual knowledge” of all information necessary to challenge the Intel plans’ investments and fees—even though the plaintiff claimed not to have read them or remember whether he had read them. The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that this was enough to create a factual dispute, preventing summary judgment and requiring a trial.

The Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (SECURE) Act of 2019 was passed in the US House of Representatives on May 23. While the act is still pending in the Senate, it contains many provisions that would affect sponsors of large defined contribution and 401(k) plans, as well as sponsors of traditional pension plans and retirement plan service providers. Please see our LawFlash summarizing the act’s key provisions and noting the legislative hurdles that it faces.

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has primary jurisdiction over the qualified status of retirement plans, and this jurisdiction includes examining plans. An IRS agent can notify a plan sponsor at any time that its plan has been selected for audit. A plan sponsor should thus consider a compliance self-review to minimize the pain of audit and ensure that the plan is operating correctly, that its plan documents comport with plan operation, and that plan records are complete and organized before the IRS comes knocking. Please see our recent LawFlash detailing the top 10 issues of IRS focus in its audit of qualified plans. Also, please see our prior LawFlash addressing the top 10 areas of focus in US Department of Labor (DOL) investigations of retirement plans.

If you have questions about IRS or DOL investigations of retirement plans, please reach out to the LawFlash authors or your Morgan Lewis contacts.

Partner Matthew Hawes was quoted in a recent Law360 article about strategies employers can use to safeguard their retirement plans against cybersecurity risks. Matt discusses how the lack of sufficient protections against cybersecurity breaches can been seen as a violation of fiduciary duty. Read the full article, 4 Tips For Handling Retirement Plans’ Cybersecurity Risks.

The US Department of Labor has been extremely active in recent years as the federal agency investigating compliance with and enforcing the fiduciary responsibility provisions of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, as amended (ERISA). These investigations have frequently resulted in findings of fiduciary breach and monetary recoveries for ERISA retirement plans. Please see our recent LawFlash on this topic, and reach out to the LawFlash authors or your Morgan Lewis contacts if you have additional questions.