When:  Thursday, September 14, 2017    8:00 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.

Where:  New York Hilton Midtown, 1335 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10019

Epstein Becker Green’s Annual Workforce Management Briefing will focus on the latest developments in labor and employment law, including:

  • Immigration
  • Global Executive Compensation
  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Internal Cyber Threats
  • Pay Equity
  • People Analytics in Hiring
  • Gig Economy
  • Wage and Hour
  • Paid and Unpaid Leave
  • Trade Secret Misappropriation
  • Ethics

We will start the day with two morning Plenary Sessions. The first session is kicked off with Philip A. Miscimarra, Chairman of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

We are thrilled to welcome back speakers from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.  Marc Freedman and Katie Mahoney will speak on the latest policy developments in Washington, D.C., that impact employers nationwide during the second plenary session.

Morning and afternoon breakout workshop sessions are being led by attorneys at Epstein Becker Green – including some contributors to this blog! Commissioner of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Chai R. Feldblum, will be making remarks in the afternoon before attendees break into their afternoon workshops. We are also looking forward to hearing from our keynote speaker, Bret Baier, Chief Political Anchor of FOX News Channel and Anchor of Special Report with Bret Baier

View the full briefing agenda and workshop descriptions here.

Visit the briefing website for more information and to register, and contact Sylwia Faszczewska or Elizabeth Gannon with questions.  Seating is limited.

Sharon L. LippettBased on recent guidance from the Department of Labor (the “DOL”), many sponsors of employee benefit plans subject to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, as amended (“ERISA Plans”) should have additional comfort regarding the impact of the conflict of interest rule released by the DOL in April 2016 (the “Rule”) on their plans. Even though it is widely expected that the Trump administration will delay implementation of the Rule, in mid-January 2017, the DOL released its “Conflict of Interest FAQs (Part II – Rule)”, which addresses topics relevant to ERISA Plan sponsors.  As explained below, these FAQs indicate that the Rule, as currently designed, should not require a large number of significant changes in the administration of most ERISA Plans.

Covered Fiduciary Investment Advice Clarified

The FAQs indicate that most of the communications between ERISA Plan sponsors and their employees and plan participants will not be considered fiduciary investment advice covered by the Rule. Under the Rule, a “recommendation” is defined as a communication that, based on its content, context, and presentation, would reasonably be viewed as a suggestion that the advice recipient (for example, an ERISA Plan participant) engage in or refrain from taking a particular investment-related course of action.  An investment-related course of action includes recommendations on transfers, distributions and rollovers from a plan or IRA.  This distinction between recommendations and other types of communication is important because, if the person making the recommendation receives a fee or other compensation (direct or indirect), then the recommendation is fiduciary investment advice that is covered by the Rule.

For example, the DOL confirms that a recommendation to an ERISA Plan participant from the plan sponsor to increase plan contributions is not investment advice, as long as the plan sponsor does not receive a fee or other compensation for the recommendation. The DOL further states that, when employees of an ERISA Plan sponsor develop reports, recommendations and other deliverables for their employer, those employees are not providing fiduciary investment advice that is covered by the Rule.

Several of the FAQs explain why information frequently provided by ERISA Plan sponsors or their delegates to plan participants can be considered investment education, which is non-fiduciary advice and not covered by the Rule.  The DOL provides the following information:

  • Product Feature Information. Information on product features, investor rights and obligations, fee and expense information, risk and return characteristics or historical return provided by representatives in the call center for a 401(k) plan (a type of ERISA Plan) is not investment advice, as long as the call center representatives do not address the appropriateness of the product for a particular ERISA Plan participant. The DOL indicates that this type of information is considered “plan information”, which is a type of investment education.
  • Increasing Contributions. Information provided to an ERISA Plan participant by a call center representative about the benefits of increasing contributions to a 401(k) plan to maximize the plan match is investment education and not investment advice.
  • Certain Interactive Investment Tools. Interactive investment tools that help ERISA Plan participants estimate future retirement needs and assess the impact of different asset allocations on retirement income may be treated as investment education, if the tools satisfy the conditions outlined in the Rule. These conditions include a requirement that the materials be based on generally accepted investment theories that take into account the historic returns of different asset classes.
  • An Asset Allocation Model. An asset allocation model offered by an ERISA Plan that is limited to the plan’s 15 designated core investments is investment education, even if the plan also has a brokerage window that offers an additional 2000 investment options. However, the model must provide information required by the Rule on the plan’s other designated investment alternatives with similar risk and return characteristics. The required information includes a statement identifying where information on these investment alternatives may be obtained.

Next Steps for Plan Sponsors

Based on these FAQs, many ERISA Plan sponsors will be able to conclude that most of their current plan administration policies and procedures will not run afoul of the Rule. Even if the DOL under the Trump administration modifies the Rule, it is unlikely that such modifications will impose significant additional restrictions or obligations on ERISA Plan sponsors.

Advisers and financial institutions that are compensated based on a fixed percentage of the value of assets under management may want to reconsider that compensation methodology as it could require compliance with a prohibited transaction exemption, such as the Best Interests Contract Exemption (the “BIC Exemption”), which is a component of the fiduciary rule issued by the Department of Labor (the “DOL”) in April 2016 (the “Final Rule”).  While stating in the recently published “Conflict of Interest FAQs” (the “FAQs”) that the ongoing receipt of a fixed percentage of the value of a customer’s assets under management, where such values are determined by readily available independent sources, typically does not require compliance with a prohibited transaction exemption, the DOL cautions that such compensation may still raise conflict of interest concerns and require that the adviser comply with a prohibited transaction exemption.  The FAQs, like the Final Rule, are generally limited to advice concerning investments in employee benefit plans covered by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, as amended (“ERISA”), individual retirement accounts (“IRAs”) and certain other plans.

By way of example, the DOL reiterates the view set forth in the Final Rule that there is a conflict of interest when an adviser recommends that a retirement investor roll retirement savings out of a plan into a fee-based account that will generate on-going fees for the adviser that he would not otherwise receive, even if the fees do not vary based on assets recommended or invested.  The DOL guidance also states that investment advice to switch from a commission-based account to an account that charges a fixed percentage of assets under management on an on-going basis could be a prohibited transaction.  For purposes of the BIC Exemption, a retirement investor is generally a participant in a plan subject to ERISA or the owner of an IRA.   Under  the BIC Exemption:

  • an “adviser” is an individual who:
    •  is a fiduciary of a plan or an IRA by providing investment advice for a fee and an employee, independent contractor, agent, or registered representative of a financial institution; and
    • satisfies applicable federal and state regulatory and licensing requirements with respect to the covered transaction.
  • a “financial institution” is an entity that employs the adviser or retains him in another capacity and that is:
    •  registered as an investment adviser under the Investment Advisers Act of 1940, as amended;
    •  a bank or similar financial institution;
    • an insurance company that satisfies certain criteria;
    • a broker or dealer registered under the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, as amended; or
    • an entity that the DOL, in a prohibited transaction exemption granted after April 6, 2016, determines is a financial institution.

Because the types of prohibited transactions described above are relatively discrete and the adviser’s provision of subsequent advice generally does not involve a prohibited transaction, the DOL states in the FAQs that advisers and financial institutions need only comply with the streamlined conditions in the BIC Exemption to cover the discrete advice that requires the exemption.  Per question 13 of the FAQs, the streamlined conditions applicable to level-fee fiduciaries include:

  • a requirement that the financial institution provide a written acknowledgement of its and its advisers’ fiduciary status to the retirement investor; and
  • satisfaction by the financial institution and its advisers of the impartial conduct standards with documentation showing the reasons why the advice was considered to be in the best interest of the retirement investor.  The impartial conduct standards require fiduciaries to act in the best interest of their clients, charge no more than reasonable compensation and make no misleading statements.

These streamlined conditions apply to “level-fee fiduciaries” who will receive only a “level fee” in connection with advisory or investment management services provided to a plan or an IRA.  As discussed in the FAQs, a level fee is a fee or compensation that is provided on the basis of a fixed percentage of the value of the assets or a set fee that does not vary with the particular investment.

The DOL also states that, after an adviser recommends a rollover to a plan participant, the receipt of level-fee compensation does not violate ERISA’s prohibited transaction rules or require compliance with an exemption.

However, the DOL warns that certain abusive practices could result in a self-dealing prohibited transaction, for which no exemption is available.  The DOL supports this position by citing the October 2013 “Report on Conflicts of Interest” of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, which describes various circumstances in which advisers may make inappropriate recommendations intended to promote the advisers’ compensation at the expense of the investors.  For example, recommending a fee-based account to a retirement investor with low trading activity and little need for on-going monitoring or advice would be considered abusive conduct, as such advice would be designed to enhance the adviser’s compensation at the expenses of the investor.

In summary, to mitigate the risk of having to comply with certain provisions of the BIC Exemption or of engaging in a non-exempt self-dealing prohibited transaction, advisers and financial institutions should consider designing compensation programs that are not based on the value of plan assets under management.  Alternatively, if assets under management is key component of an adviser’s compensation plan, then the adviser and financial institution should be certain that they comply with the streamlined conditions of the BIC Exemption.

Epstein Becker Green and The ERISA Industry Committee (ERIC) have released a new issue of the Benefits Litigation Update.

Featured articles include:

Recent Supreme Court Decisions Revise Rules for Stock Drop Cases
By: Debra Davis, The ERISA Industry Committee

Hobby Lobby and the Questions Left Unanswered
By: John Houston Pope

Post-Amara Landscape Continues to Evolve
By: Scott J. Macey, The ERISA Industry Committee

Supreme Court to Decide Whether A Failed Class Action May Extend
Deadline to Bring Follow-on Claims By Individual Plaintiffs
By: John Houston Pope and Debra Davis

Supreme Court Indicates That It Will Review “Tibble
By: Kenneth J. Kelly

Challenges Could Threaten Individual Subsidies and Employer
Mandate Penalties in States with Federal Exchanges
By: Adam C. Solander

Read more about the Update here or download the full issue in PDF format.

Allen B. Roberts, a Member of Firm in the Labor and Employment practice and co-chair of the firm’s Whistleblowing and Compliance Subpractice Group, in the New York office, wrote an article titled “Impact: Employers Brace for Change – Top 5 Issues Facing Businesses, as appeared in Insurance Advocate.”

Following is an excerpt:

By popular account, the Affordable Care Act (“ACA”) would preserve the base of insureds and extend health insurance coverage to as many as another 32 million Americans. That estimate could be wrong if ACA disrupts patterns and experience of spouse and dependent coverage on employer-paid policies. Much of the political and media comment has focused on mandates, exchanges, and reasons that employers may maneuver to satisfy requirements concerning employee coverage, or drop it completely. Left out of the discussion has been the cost of covering family members of employees and the opportunity to shift employer dollars away from spouse and dependent premiums and place more dollars in premiums for individual employees. If that happens, spouses and dependent children will receive insurance coverage under employer-provided plans only if their premiums are paid by the employee, a household member, or some third party. Otherwise, those family members must obtain insurance elsewhere or join the ranks of the uninsured, something that might have been unimaginable for many of them—and perhaps for advocates of ACA who have considered it a move towards universal health care coverage.

Click here to read the article in its entirety.

The attached file is used by permission from Insurance Advocate – Vol. 124, No. 6 / March 18, 2013.