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Fourth Circuit: Plan Administrator Must Obtain “Readily Available Information” in Claims Determination

What is a plan administrator’s obligation under ERISA to seek and obtain information potentially relevant to a participant claim where the participant has not provided it? The Fourth Circuit recently provided guidance on that issue in the case of Harrison v. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A. A copy of that opinion is available here.

Nancy Harrison was an online customer service representative for Wells Fargo Bank. In 2011, she underwent a thyroidectomy to remove a large mass that had extended into her chest and which caused chest pain and tracheal compression. She was unable to work and received short-term disability benefits under the Wells Fargo plan. While she was recovering and waiting for a second, more invasive surgery, her husband died unexpectedly, triggering a recurrence of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) related to the death of her children in a house fire a few years before.

Reporting and Disclosure Guidance

Reporting and Disclosure Guidance

October 28, 2014

Authored by: benefitsbclp

On October 17, 2014, the Internal Revenue Service published a guide entitled “Retirement Plan Reporting and Disclosure Requirements Guide.” The Service states that the Guide is intended to be a quick reference tool to assist plan sponsors and administrators and is to be used in conjunction with the Department of Labor’s “DOL Retirement Plan Reporting and Disclosure Guide” [sic]. The DOL Guide was last updated in August 2013 and is actually called “Reporting and Disclosure Guide for Employee Benefit Plans”.

The IRS Guide covers twenty-five basic notices and disclosures, and, of course, not all of them would pertain to a particular plan. The type of plan determines the number and frequency of participant notices/disclosures. The IRS Guide addresses eleven possible reports, and, as with disclosure, the requirement for reporting depends on the nature of the plan.

The DOL’s Guide identifies thirty-three possible

Bill Gross Announces his Departure from PIMCO – Here’s What it Means for your 401(k) Plan

If you keep an eye on the investment world at all, you’ve certainly heard the news – Bill Gross, co-founder and chief investment officer of Pacific Investment Management (PIMCO), is leaving the very company he started more than 40 years ago.  In technical terms, Gross is what you call a “big deal” in the investment world.  He has been at the helm of PIMCO for more than four decades leading the company to a whopping $2 trillion in assets under management.  Gross has received countless awards and accolades in the industry for his thought leadership and successes, and is also a well-known writer on investment matters.

Until Friday, Gross managed the PIMCO Total Return fund (PTTCX).  This bond fund ranks as one of the largest mutual funds with a reported $221.6 billion in total fund assets.  And, perhaps more importantly for our readership, this bond fund is a pillar in

Signature Authority Can Trigger ERISA Fiduciary Responsibility

Signature Authority Can Trigger ERISA Fiduciary Responsibility

September 8, 2014

Authored by: benefitsbclp

When is a signature more than just a signature?

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In Perez v. Geopharma, decided on July 25, 2014, Geopharma’s CEO, Mihir Taneja, brought a motion to dismiss an ERISA breach of fiduciary duty claim under the company’s health and welfare plan brought against him by the DOL. In its suit, the DOL alleged that because Taneja had signature authority on Geopharma’s bank accounts – which included the plan’s participant contributions – he was a plan fiduciary. The claim arose from findings that the company: (1) withheld employee premium contributions over a two-month and ten-month period in 2009 and 2010 respectively; (2) failed to segregate the contributions from company assets as soon reasonably possible; and (3) failed to use the funds to pay claims. The DOL alleged that the company also

Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve

Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve

August 29, 2014

Authored by: benefitsbclp

Tatum v. RJR Nabisco Investment Committee, decided by the Fourth Circuit on August 4, involved the divestiture of the Nabisco stock funds following spin off of Nabisco.  Some 14 years after Nabisco and RJ Reynolds merged to form RJR Nabisco, the merged company decided to separate the food and tobacco businesses by spinning off the tobacco  business.  Following the spinoff, the RJR 401(k) plan, which was formed after the spinoff, provided for the Nabisco stock funds as frozen funds, which permitted participants to sell, but not purchase, Nabisco stock.

Although the Plan document provided for the Nabisco stock funds, RJR decided to eliminate the funds approximately 6 months following the spinoff.  The decision was made by a “working group” of several corporate employees and not by either of the fiduciary committees appointed to administer the Plan and review its investments.

Something Else to Concern Plan Fiduciaries – The Floating NAV Rule

Floating DollarAccording to the Investment Company Institute, approximately 18%% of all mutual fund assets are invested in money market mutual funds.  An even higher percentage reflects the investment in money market mutual funds held by participant-directed defined contribution plans.  Many of these plan participants believe that their retirement money is “safe” in a money market mutual fund since these funds are thought to be “guaranteed” to maintain a fixed target value of $1.00 per share.  Plan participants do not, as a rule, appreciate the risks inherent in money market mutual funds that in certain market conditions might “break the buck.”

On July 23, 2014, the SEC promulgated a rule (the “MMF Rule”) addressing what it believes could be heavy redemptions of money market mutual funds in the event of

Have Missing Participants? The DOL Says, “Google Them!”

Missing PersonsLast week, the DOL released Field Assistance Bulletin 2014-01 which updated its 10-year-old guidance on how to deal with the accounts of missing or unresponsive participants and beneficiaries in a terminating defined contribution plan that does not have annuity options.  The 10-year-old guidance was largely rendered moot because of the discontinuance of the Social Security Administration and IRS letter forwarding programs, which were prominent features of that guidance.

The DOL takes this seriously.  As the FAB notes:

Some search steps involve so little cost and such high potential for success that a fiduciary should always take them before abandoning efforts to find a missing participant, regardless of the size of the participant’s account balance. The failure to take such steps would violate the fiduciary obligations of prudence and loyalty, as

Proposed Rule Re-defining ERISA “Fiduciary” Delayed (Still)

Regulations and RulesBroker-dealers and financial advisers may have gained some breathing room as a congressional battle to broaden ERISA’s definition of “fiduciary” loses steam.  In the following discussion, we will summarize the current state of that battle.

At issue is the innocuous-sounding “Conflict of Interest Rule” proposed by the Employee Benefit Security Administration (“EBSA”), that has nonetheless sparked searing critiques from the investment advice industry, which contends it could dramatically increase costs and reduce access to quality investment advice for millions of American workers.  The re-proposal of the controversial rule has been delayed again, this time until January 2015, well after the mid-term elections in November.  Assuming a six-month comment period and six months of hearings to develop final regulations, the final rule could be up for

The Moench Presumption is Dead – Long Live the Dudenhoeffer Presumption

On June 25, 2014, a unanimous United States Supreme Court weighed in on the legal standards applicable in stock drop cases in Fifth Third Bancorp v. Dudenhoeffer.

Facts. Beginning in 2007, Fifth Third Bank began experiencing a large number of mishaps, most of them associated with borrowers not repaying their loans when due. As a result, Fifth Third’s stock price suffered the same phenomenon as that of virtually every other publicly traded financial institution in the world during the great recession: it dropped precipitously, falling 74% from July 2007 to September 2009. With the benefit of hindsight, plaintiffs brought a class action lawsuit against the fiduciaries of the Fifth Third 401(k) Plan, alleging that all of this should have been patently obvious based on public and nonpublic information allegedly possessed by the fiduciaries. The plaintiffs asserted that the fiduciaries should have taken one or more of

Do you know the Yard-Man (inference, that is)?

As a child, you may have sung “do you know the Muffin Man?,” but as an employer you should make sure you know the Yard-Man inference.

Read the Small PrintThe “Yard-Man inference” comes from the Sixth Circuit’s decision in Auto Workers v. Yard-Man, Inc.  In that opinion, the Sixth Circuit created a presumption that retiree welfare benefits vest on retirement, unless a collective bargaining agreement clearly states otherwise.

However, the inference that these types of benefits vest has not been well received in all courts. For example, the Third Circuit has held the exact opposite: that retiree welfare benefits granted under a CBA expire with the CBA unless the agreement explicitly states otherwise.  Auto Workers v. Skinner Engine Co..

The split between the Circuits has likely contributed to the

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