Executive Compensation

Financial institutions and advisers that manage retirement plan assets and are subject to the regulations of the Department of Labor (“DOL”) under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, as amended, (“ERISA”) regarding fiduciary duties (the “Fiduciary Rule”) may also be subject to state law violations for failure to comply with the Fiduciary Rule. The Enforcement Section of the Massachusetts Division of the Office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth (the “Massachusetts Enforcement Section”) filed an administrative complaint (the “Complaint”) on February 15, 2018 against Scottrade, Inc. (“Scottrade”) claiming violations of a Massachusetts statute due to alleged violations of the Fiduciary Rule.  Given the relief requested in the Complaint and the potential precedent for other states, this action has the potential to be significant, not only for Scottrade, but for other advisers and financial institutions.

Current Status of the Fiduciary Rule

In November 2017, the DOL announced an extension of the applicability date of certain prohibited transaction exemptions under the Fiduciary Rule from January 1, 2018 to July 1, 2019. However, the extension did not apply to the Fiduciary Rule’s “impartial conduct standards” in dealing with retirement investors.  The impartial conduct standards require advisers and financial institutions to give advice that is in the “best interest” of the retirement investor, charge no more than reasonable compensation, and refrain from making misleading statements.

The DOL’s November 2017 announcement also addressed the extension of its temporary enforcement policy through July 1, 2019. Pursuant to the temporary enforcement policy, the DOL will not to pursue claims against fiduciaries who are working diligently and in good faith to comply with the Fiduciary Rule and related exemptions or treat those fiduciaries as being in violation of the Fiduciary Rule and related exemptions.

Contents of the Complaint and Relief Requested

The Complaint alleges that, although Scottrade added new policies to comply with the impartial conduct standards, Scottrade expanded the scale and scope of the sales practices that the new policies were designed to curtail. The new policies stated that “the firm does not use or rely upon . . . contests . . . or other actions or incentives that are intended or reasonably expected to cause associates to make recommendations that are not in the best interests of Retirement Account clients or prospective Retirement Account clients.”  Nevertheless, Scottrade launched two sales contests that ran in violation of these new policies that were designed to ensure compliance with the Fiduciary Rule.  One of the contests placed explicit emphasis on generating retirement assets, which are covered by the Fiduciary Rule.  The Complaint notes that Scottrade “failed to take any meaningful steps to remove retirement assets from the scope of the contests or ensure compliance with the Fiduciary Rule.”

Accordingly, the Complaint charges that Scottrade, by “knowingly violating its own internal policies related to the Fiduciary Rule” and failing to act in good faith to comply with the Fiduciary Rule, violated Section 204(a)(2)(G) of the Massachusetts Uniform Securities Act and the regulations thereunder (the “Act”).  The section of the Act authorizes the imposition of an administrative fine, the suspension or revocation of registration or any other appropriate action if an investment adviser has “engaged in any unethical or dishonest conduct or practices in the securities, commodities or insurance business.”  The Complaint further alleges that Scottrade violated Section 204(a)(2)(J) of the Act because Scottrade “failed reasonably to supervise  . . . investment adviser representatives . . . to assure compliance with this chapter [of the Act].”

The relief requested in the Complaint is extensive. The Massachusetts Enforcement Section requests that an order be entered that, among other things, requires Scottrade  to cease and desist from further conduct in violation of the Act, censures Scottrade, compels Scottrade to disgorge all profits and other remuneration from the alleged violation, and imposes an administrative fine on Scottrade.

Takeaways from the Complaint

The Complaint puts Massachusetts advisers and financial institutions that manage retirement plan assets on notice that state regulators are monitoring compliance with the impartial conduct standards and that the regulators will take action under Massachusetts law to stop conduct that they view as non-compliant. The Complaint should also serve as a warning to all advisers and financial institutions, as regulators in other states may begin to take actions under state law similar to that taken by the Massachusetts Enforcement Section.  Any such actions will be pursuant to state law because the DOL, and not the states, has the authority to enforce ERISA.

To mitigate the risk of a state enforcement action, advisers and financial institutions should first review their internal compliance manuals to ensure that they are consistent with the impartial conduct standards. Second, advisers and financial institutions should review actual practices and procedures to ensure that they comply with the Fiduciary Rule, as well as internal compliance manuals.  Non-conforming manuals and non-compliant practices should be corrected as soon as possible.

Our colleagues at Epstein Becker Green have released a Take 5 newsletter focused on the financial services industry.  Following are the introduction and links to the stories:

For this edition of the Take 5 for financial services, we focus on a number of very well-publicized issues. The tidal wave of sexual harassment allegations that followed the Harvey Weinstein revelations has drawn the attention of companies, their human resources departments, and employment lawyers. The rule on chief executive officer (“CEO”) pay ratio disclosure, which goes into effect in 2018, is a required focal point that garners significant interest in an industry that is all about money. The hyper-charged political climate has brought social activism and heated political discussions into the workplace with increasing frequency—and with potential employment law implications. A heightened legislative focus on eliminating at least one recognized source of the gender pay gap has resulted in new rules that prohibit very common inquiries about past compensation during the interview process. Finally, data leaks are a mounting threat and cybersecurity is a growing concern throughout an industry that is saturated with the highly sensitive, and sometimes personal, financial information of its clients.

We address these important issues and what financial services employers should know about them:

  1. The Weinstein Effect: #MeToo Allegations in the Financial Services Industry
  2. CEO Pay Ratio: It’s Not Too Late to Calculate!
  3. Managing Employees’ Political and Social Activism in the Workplace
  4. Equal Pay Update: The New York City and California Salary History Inquiry Bans
  5. Insider Threats to Critical Financial Services Technologies and Trade Secrets Are Best Addressed Through a Formalized Vulnerability and Risk Assessment Process

Read the full Take 5 newsletter here and download the PDF.

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.

A month into the Trump presidency, there have been a number of important statements from the executive branch on the regulation of executive compensation impacting the financial services industry. On February 3, 2017, President Trump issued a statement on the core principles for regulating the U.S. financial system (“Core Principles”). The statement requires the Treasury and all heads of member agencies of the Financial Stability Oversight Council to report within 120 days (by June 3, 2017) all existing laws, treaties, guidance, regulations, etc., that promote the Core Principles, and all such laws, etc., that inhibit the Core Principles. The Core Principles provide some insight into future regulation or repeal efforts by the Trump administration impacting executive compensation.

The Core Principles

The Core Principles include empowering Americans to make independent financial decisions and informed choices in the marketplace, save for retirement, and build individual wealth. This statement appears to favor a more hands-off approach to individual investment decisions. The Core Principles also require regulations that foster economic growth through more rigorous regulatory impact analysis addressing “systemic risk and market failures, such as moral hazard and information asymmetry.” This would presumably require a more extensive review of the regulatory cost of compliance favoring deregulation. However, the focus on systemic risk arising from moral hazard and information asymmetry could impact executive compensation to the extent compensation practices are seen to further individual conduct that could lead to systemic risk. The Core Principles further require regulations to enable American companies to be competitive with foreign firms in domestic and foreign markets and to advance American interests in international financial regulatory negotiations and meetings. The other Core Principles include preventing taxpayer-funded bailouts; making regulations more efficient, effective, and appropriately tailored; and restoring public accountability within federal financial regulatory agencies and rationalizing the regulatory framework, arguably all in favor of deregulation or possibly regulation by stated principles rather than by strict construction.

Potential Impact on Executive Compensation

Based on review of the Core Principles and recent regulatory statements from the Trump administration, including the reduction of two regulations for every one regulation added, the re-proposed rules under Section 956 of Dodd-Frank are not likely to be approved in their final form given the scope and breadth of the regulations. Arguably, these rules would go against the Core Principles favoring deregulation and could inhibit American competitiveness with foreign firms in domestic and foreign markets as to the recruitment and retention of talent. Also, given that the re-proposed regulations were based on international executive compensation standards (particularly, regulatory guidance promulgated in Europe), adopting the re-proposed rules might not be viewed as advancing American interests in international financial regulatory negotiations.

Presumably in furtherance of these Core Principles, on February 6, 2017, the Acting Chairman of the SEC, Michael S. Piwowar, issued a statement requesting comments from the public within the next 45 days (by March 23, 2017) on the challenges that issuers are facing with compliance with the CEO pay ratio disclosure rule under Dodd-Frank. The CEO pay ratio disclosure rule requires public companies to disclose the ratio of the median of the annual total compensation of all employees to the annual total compensation of the CEO. Gathering data to prepare the calculation has been challenging for large employers with a diverse domestic and global workforce, and the ratio itself has been criticized as not providing meaningful information. Based on comments, the SEC Acting Chairman stated that SEC staff will be directed to determine whether additional relief is appropriate. As to the review of other executive compensation provisions under Dodd-Frank that are currently in effect, such as say-on-pay and clawback requirements, they likely will be subject to the overall regulatory review, but their repeal might not be first on the agenda.

The final area of interest is President Trump’s pre-election criticisms of the treatment of carried interests, which generally are tax-favored partnership interests that, when sold, frequently generate profits that are paid to private equity fund managers as compensation. However, that compensation may be taxed at a long-term capital gains rate of 20 percent or less, rather than as ordinary income. Thus far under the new presidency, there have been no official statements in this area, but the discussion of carried interests could become part of the broader tax reform agenda expected from the Trump administration.

This year, financial services organizations can expect a new direction on executive compensation to take shape.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Take 5 newsletter Five Employment Issues Under the New Administration That Financial Services Employers Should Monitor.”

My colleague Jason Kaufman and I put together “Five Hot Topics for Financial Services Industry Employers” in this month’s Take 5 newsletter.  Below is an excerpt:

The economy may be improving, but challenges remain for employers in the financial services industry. From ever-increasing whistleblower claims to new diversity and inclusion regulations and recent IRS determinations affecting bonus payments, financial services industry employers will have to navigate a number of new developments and potential pitfalls in 2014. Here are five issues to keep an eye on in the new year. …

  1. Dodd-Frank and Sarbanes-Oxley Whistleblower Programs
  2. Dodd-Frank Diversity Standards Proposed for the Financial Services Industry
  3. Pay Disputes in the Financial Services Industry
  4. IT Personnel: Independent Contractors or Employees
  5. Employer Deductions for Bonus Compensation

Read the full newsletter here.

Section 953(b) of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (“Dodd-Frank”) requires certain public companies to disclose how the compensation of the company’s chief executive officer (“CEO”) compares to the compensation of employees generally. The disclosure must include (i) the CEO’s annual total compensation, (ii) the median of the annual total compensation of all employees other than the CEO, and (iii) the ratio of (i) over (ii).

Like many of Dodd-Frank’s requirements, disclosure of the CEO pay ratio was not required until implementing regulations were issued. On September 18, 2013, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) published the applicable proposed regulations.

For more information, see the Client Alert from our Executive Compensation colleagues here.