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Keeping Your (Top) Hat On

Keeping Your (Top) Hat On

April 27, 2016

Authored by: benefitsbclp

Top Hat“Top hat” plans are plans employers maintain for a “select group of management or highly compensated employees.” These plans are exempt from many of ERISA’s protections, including eligibility, vesting, fiduciary responsibility and funding. Thus, they are often used to provide benefits to management employees over and above those provided under the company’s broad-based retirement plans.

Choosing which employees may participate in a “top hat” plan is an important decision, as selecting employees who are ineligible for this type of arrangement may lead to violations of ERISA, penalties, increased taxes, and other liabilities. For years companies, courts, and even the Department of Labor (DOL) have struggled with defining the group of employees who can participate in a “top hat” plan. Two recent federal court cases provide insight into the current state of the law and the factors courts consider when assessing “top hat” status.

In Bond v. Marriott International, Inc., Nos. 15-1160, 15-1199 (4th Cir. 2016) (Unpublished Opinion), the Fourth Circuit held that the plaintiff’s claims were time barred, thus avoiding a decision on whether Marriott’s deferred stock bonus awards program was a “top hat” plan. The Maryland district court, however, had determined that the plan was indeed a “top hat” plan (Bond v. Marriott Int’l, Inc., 296 F.R.D. 403 (D. Md. 2014). Former employees of Marriott asserted that a retirement awards program was not a “top hat” plan

How a CFO May Be Subject to 162(m)

How a CFO May Be Subject to 162(m)

November 17, 2015

Authored by: Chris Rylands

CFOAfter the change in securities disclosure laws back in 2006, it was a common statement that the CFO of a public company was no longer covered by the $1 million deduction limit on non-performance based compensation under 162(m) of the tax code. This was (and is) because of a disconnect between the securities laws and the tax code.

The tax code says that the chief executive officer and each of the next four most highly compensated officers whose compensation is required to be disclosed pursuant to the securities rules are “covered employees” for purposes of the $1 million limit. The 2006 changes in the securities rules changed the disclosure rules to require disclosure of compensation of the principal executive officer (usually the CEO), the principal financial officer (usually the CFO), and the three most highly compensated executive officers other than the principal executive officer and the principal financial officer and up to two additional individuals in certain circumstances). The IRS said that lack of a reference to the “principal financial officer” in the tax code meant that CFOs, by and large, were exempt from 162(m).

However, when legal regimes cross, it’s not always as simple as it seems. For smaller reporting companies (generally those with less than a $75 million in public float), the securities rules only require disclosure of the compensation of the principal executive officer (usually the CEO) and the next two most

Dodd-Frank SEC Guidance Executive Compensation – Status

Dodd-Frank SEC Guidance Executive Compensation – Status

November 2, 2015

Authored by: benefitsbclp

With all the rulemaking required under the Dodd-Frank Act, it can sometimes be hard to keep up with the status of the various rules.  Below is a handy chart that details the current status of the various executive compensation rulemakings.  We plan to update this periodically for additional rulemakings, so be sure to come back and visit from time to time.

Last Updated: November 2, 2015

Provision Summary Status of SEC Rulemaking Say on Pay; Say on Golden Parachutes § 951 Requires advisory vote of shareholders on executive compensation and golden parachutes; advisory vote on frequency of say on pay

  • Final rule: adopted January 25, 2011; SEC Rel. No. 33-9178

Compensation Committee Independence § 952(includes comp consultant conflicts) Requires stock exchanges to adopt listing standards that require:

  • compensation committee members to be “independent;”
  • each committee must   have the authority to engage compensation advisers and before selecting any adviser, the committee must take into consideration specific independence factors; and
  • the committee must be directly responsible for the appointment, comp and oversight of the advisers and the company must provide funding.

Requires disclosure of whether the committee obtained advice of a comp consultant, and whether the work raised a conflict of interest and how it was addressed

  • Final rule: adopted June 20, 2012 requiring exchanges to adopt listing standards; SEC Rel. No. 33-9330
  • SEC approved listing standards in January 2013 exchanges subsequently adopted the required listing standards

Clawback Policy §

Termination of a Nonqualified Retirement Plan with a Traditional Defined Benefit Formula

A recent case from a federal court in the Northern District of Georgia provides an interesting perspective on the termination of a nonqualified retirement plan with a traditional defined benefit formula offering lifetime annuity payments. In Taylor v. NCR Corporation et. al., NCR elected to terminate such a nonqualified retirement plan. The termination decision not only precluded new entrants to the plan and the cessation of benefit accruals for active employees, but it also affected retirees in payout status receiving lifetime payments. Those retirees received lump sum payments discounted to present value in lieu of the lifetime payments then being paid to them.

At the time NCR terminated the plan, its provisions apparently provided that the plan could be terminated at any time provided that “no such action shall adversely affect any Participant’s, former Participant’s or Spouse’s accrued benefits prior to such action under the Plan. . . ” The plaintiff was a retiree receiving a lifetime joint and survivor annuity of approximately $29,000 annually. As a result of the plan’s termination, NCR calculated a lump sum benefit for the plaintiff of approximately $441,000, with the plaintiff ultimately receiving a net payment of approximately $254,000 after federal and state income tax withholdings.

The key allegations made by the plaintiff, as recited by the court, were (1) that the lump sum payment caused the plaintiff to incur a significant taxable event and (2) that the plaintiff objected to the use of a discount factor to reduce the value of the lump

Proposed Rule Would Make No-Fault Clawbacks Mandatory for Public Companies

Guy GrabbingLast week the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) proposed a new Rule 10D-1 that would direct national securities exchanges and associations to establish listing standards requiring companies to adopt, enforce and disclose policies to clawback excess incentive-based compensation from executive officers.

  • Covered Securities Issuers. With limited exceptions for issuers of certain securities and unit investment trusts (UITs), the Proposed Rule 10D-1 would apply to all listed companies, including emerging growth companies, smaller reporting companies, foreign private issuers and controlled companies. Registered management investment companies would be subject to the requirements of the Proposed Rule only to the extent they had awarded incentive-based compensation to executive officers in any of the last three fiscal years.
  • Covered Officers.   The Proposed Rule would apply to current and former Section 16 officers, which includes a company’s president, principal financial officer, principal accounting officer (or if none, the controller), any vice-president in charge of a principal business unit, division or function, and any other officer or person who performs policy-making functions for the company. Executive officers of a company’s parent or subsidiary would be covered officers to the extent they perform policy making functions for the company.
  • Triggering Event. Under the Proposed Rule, the clawback policies would be triggered each time the company is required to prepare a restatement to correct one or more errors that are material to previously issued financial

Discretionary Clawback Policies: Risk of Variable Stock Plan Accounting

ChartCompanies should be aware that at least some major accounting firms are questioning whether discretionary aspects of clawback policies trigger variable accounting for compensatory equity awards granted by those companies. Existing accounting guidance (ASC 718-10-30-24) would seem to suggest that clawback features should not disrupt fixed accounting treatment because of their contingent nature.

Now, however, PricewaterhouseCoopers and KPGM, at least, are publicly expressing concerns about clawback policies focusing on their discretionary, rather than contingent, nature. A 2013 PricewaterhouseCoopers survey of 100 companies indicated that nearly 80% of those companies had clawback policies that had problematic discretionary provisions. A clawback policy could involve discretion as to what circumstances it may apply; whether it should be applied; and, if applied, how severely it should be applied. It seems that all aspects of discretion may be problematic. Companies adopting or modifying existing clawback policies should evaluate the potential risks of discretionary provisions and consider consulting with their independent accountants before adopting or revising those policies. This will be particularly true for public companies when it comes time to evaluate compliance with the much-anticipated SEC guidance on clawbacks that will finally implement the Dodd-Frank legislation of 2010.

83(b) Elections

83(b) Elections

September 5, 2014

Authored by: Chris Rylands

Our sister blog, Start-Up Bryan Cave, recently posted about when and why to use the an 83(b) election.  The post has a good discussion of the advantages and disadvantages.

One item it does not mention is the company’s deduction, which is taken if and when the 83(b) election is made.  In the absence of an election, the deduction occurs when the property vests.

Of course, for the company to take the deduction, it has to know that the election has been made.  Even though the IRS rules require the recipient to give a copy to the company, another valuable planning point is to make sure that the agreement itself also requires the recipient to provide a copy of the election to the company.

Upcoming Equity Plan Proposal? ISS Invites U.S. Companies to Verify Equity Plan Data

Institutional Shareholder Services, or ISS, invites U.S. companies to verify the data it uses to evaluate proxy statement equity plan proposals.  ISS previously announced a move to a “balanced scorecard” approach for its evaluation of equity plan proposals.  Data verification is included as a key feature of this approach.

Data verification allows companies to preview, and if necessary update, the data used by ISS in its vote recommendation.  Some companies have been frustrated when reviewing ISS vote recommendations that include inaccurate or misconstrued data.  This program is designed to improve the quality of information used by ISS.  See “FAQs:  Equity Plan Data Verification” for details about the program.  Below is a summary of some key features:

How to Participate

  • The data verification program is optional.
  • It is open to U.S. companies who have filed definitive proxy materials after September 8th, 2014 with an equity plan proposal (new or amendment) on the ballot.
  • The data verification program does not apply to other compensation plan proposals such as cash and bonus plan proposals.
  • To participate in the program, the company’s proxy materials must be filed at least 30 days in advance of the meeting date.
  • Data verification is only available to company contacts who register in advance to participate in the data verification program with ISS.

Timing

  • Companies will have only a short period to verify their equity plan data – approximately two business days to review and respond.
  • The window period is expected to open within

Five Key Considerations When Drafting a Release

Five Key Considerations When Drafting a Release

July 2, 2014

Authored by: Bill Wortel and benefitsbclp

Employment Termination and ReleaseSeparation agreements almost always contain release provisions whereby one or both parties agree to waive claims that they may have against the other party; when the employee releases claims, he or she typically gains compensation or a benefit that he or she is not already entitled to receive.  In a world in which every terminated employee is a potential plaintiff, employers should have a good grasp on how to draft a valid and enforceable release in a separation agreement.  Here are five tips every employer should consider when drafting this type of a release.

Tip No. 1:  Offer Valid Consideration

In order to have a valid and enforceable release agreement, the employer must provide the employee with payments or benefits the employee is otherwise not entitled to receive.  Therefore, payments or benefits the terminated employee is otherwise entitled to receive either by law or pursuant to an employment agreement generally do not satisfy the consideration requirement.  For example, conditioning the employee’s release on the receipt of his final paycheck, earned commissions or vacation pay specified by an employee handbook or other policy will not constitute valid consideration.  While severance pay is the most common type of consideration, it is not the employer’s only option.  Valid consideration can also include notice pay (i.e., pay in lieu of notice), continuation of health benefits at the employer’s expense (note, there are tax

409A Day Comes a Day Early This Year

As we have noted previously, March 15 is tax “Code Section 409A Day.”  For employers with calendar fiscal years, that is generally the last day an amount can be paid and still qualify as a short-term deferral that is exempt from 409A’s stringent timing and form of payment requirements.  But what does one do when March 15 falls on a weekend, as it does this year?  You likely aren’t cutting payroll checks on a Saturday.  Can you wait until Monday to pay?

The answer is no.  The rules are clear that the payment generally has to be made by the 15th day of the 3rd month (hence, March 15) of the year following the year in which either the right to the compensation arises or the compensation is no longer subject to a substantial risk of forfeiture (and note that for this purpose, the 409A definition is different than the Section 83 definition).  (The deadline can be different if an employer has a non-calendar year fiscal year, but the concept is essentially the same.)

There are a few exceptions.  First, if making the payment by the deadline is administratively impracticable and such impracticability was not reasonably foreseeable when the right to the compensation arose, then payment can be made after the deadline, as long as payment is made as soon as practicable.  Of course, for 2014 it is difficult to argue that the impracticability wasn’t foreseeable simply because you didn’t happen to look into next March

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