Andrew S. Williams
401(K) TRUSTEES SUED FOR PANDEMIC-RELATED INVESTMENT LOSSES
Former participants in a 401(k) profit sharing plan have filed suit in Federal court in New Jersey seeking recovery of investment losses allocated to their accounts by the employer-sponsor.
The losses were incurred when the employer imposed a special valuation date of April 30, 2020 to reflect the plan's investment losses incurred during the COVID-19 lockdown. This mid-year valuation reduced the account balances available for distribution to the former participants.
The employer in Lipshires et al v. Behan Bros. Inc. Retirement Plan maintains a 401(k) profit sharing plan with a pooled trust for investments. Plan assets were valued annually, and participants' account values and benefit distributions were based on a single year-end valuation date—at least until Lipshires and several other employees terminated employment and became eligible for distribution of their Plan benefits in mid-2019.
The former participants would normally be entitled to a benefit distribution based on the most recent December 31, 2018 valuation but because of market appreciation in early 2019, they were allowed by the employer to elect a December 31, 2019 valuation date, which they did. The former participants then requested benefits distribution forms in early January, 2020.
The employer delayed providing such forms and instead sent a letter in March, 2020 to participants advising that the Plan would implement a Special Valuation Date of April 30, 2020 as a result of the extraordinary "change" in the Plan's market valuation due to the coronavirus pandemic. The effect of implementing this Special Valuation Date was a substantial reduction in the account values of all of the former participants.
The former participants received their reduced benefit distributions in early June, 2020 and promptly filed suit alleging that the employer and Plan trustees (also employees) acted improperly in the following respects:
- They failed to follow the Plan document and unreasonably and arbitrarily delayed the benefit distributions;
- The employer was using the coronavirus pandemic as a pretext to reduce the amount of distribution to the former participants; and
- The trustees acted in a direct conflict of interest because the trustees and several of their family members also participated in the Plan and benefited by preserving trust funds for themselves.
The complaint seeks restoration of the lost benefits from the Plan and "equitable restitution" personally from the trustees of the value of the Plan accounts lost as a result of their alleged breach of fiduciary.
It is notable in this case that the employer and trustees were implementing a Special Valuation Date in accordance with express Plan provisions allowing them to do so.
However, this action was inconsistent with the employer's prior assurance to the former participants that they could elect a December 31, 2019 valuation date. After having done so, the employer then implemented the Special Valuation Date with the intended effect of retroactively reducing the benefits payable to the former participants. Bear in mind that employers and retirement plan trustees owe their fiduciary duties to all plan participants and beneficiaries.
Although it remains to be seen how this case will turn out, it is clear that employers and other retirement plan fiduciaries need to proceed with extreme caution in implementing a COVID-19 related change in a plan's valuation date or any other reduction in benefits. Because the IRS guidelines for pandemic retirement plan relief are rapidly evolving, it is important to base any such decisions on the latest available information. Further, as illustrated by the complaint in Lipshires, retirement plan fiduciaries should be mindful of their own duties - and personal exposure - in dealing with any benefit changes.
Andrew S. Williams
We’ve all read about the lawsuits questioning an employer’s 401(k) investment fund selections and related claims of excessive fund costs. And typically a plan’s professional investment advisor (yes – you should have one unless you have an investment professional on staff) meets with company representatives periodically to discuss a detailed report on fund investment performance and any recommended changes in the plan’s investment fund selections. So, your 401(k) plan files bulge with investment-related materials (and they should!). But what about the rest of an employer’s 401(k) responsibilities?
As posed by the moderator of the 401(k) panel at the Illinois CPA Society’s recent annual Summit that I had the pleasure of appearing on, what should plan sponsors be paying attention to in addition to monitoring plan investment results?
Good question – so what can you do to get a leg up on the rest of the 401(k) universe?
Consider online IRS compliance guides like “A Plan Sponsor’s Responsibilities”. This material covers plan documentation, monitoring plan service providers, internal controls, law changes, payroll data you need to share with plan providers, hardship distributions, participant loans, ERISA fiduciary bonds, as well as eligibility, vesting and benefit payment matters. It also provides links to other IRS compliance resources and is a good starting point to find more detailed information on specific plan administrative requirements such as government filings, participant notices and fiduciary requirements. Also consider articles such as “Your Fiduciary Duty – And What to Do About It”.
There’s more to an employer’s 401(k) responsibilities than selecting and reviewing plan investment funds. Remember, as the “Plan Administrator,” the buck stops with the employer when it comes to all compliance matters. So, consider IRS guidance as a starting point, but do not hesitate to address any resulting concerns with your plan’s investment advisor, third party administrator, accountant or ERISA lawyer.
Andrew S. Williams
Employers with 25 or more employees in Illinois will be subject to the Secure Choice Savings Program Act (the “Act”) if they do not already have an employer sponsored retirement arrangement like a 401(k) plan. For such employers with 500 or more Illinois employees that have been in business for at least two years, the compliance deadline is November 1, 2018. By that date, these employers must register at the Secure Choice website here and enroll their employees. Subject employers with fewer than 500 Illinois employees have compliance dates deferred until July 1, 2019 (100-499 employees) and November 1, 2019 (25-99 employees).
Here are some of the details:
The required retirement arrangement includes a separate Roth IRA account for each employee that is set up by the employer. Employees are automatically enrolled at a five percent contribution rate but they can elect out of the plan at any time. There are no employer fees to participate in the program and no employer retirement contributions are required or permitted.
The program is administered through the Illinois State Treasurer’s Office by a private contractor that will act as the Roth IRA “trustee,” process contributions, manage account records and maintain the website. Program costs are funded through an annual administrative charge not to exceed .75 percent of employee account balances. The Treasurer’s Office also charges employees a fee of .05 percent to cover its costs.
Employees may choose between several diversified mutual funds for the investment of their accounts and, if they make no investment direction, their accounts will default into a target date fund. Employee accounts are portable and may be transferred to other Illinois employers.
The employer’s role as “facilitator” includes registering as a participating employer, establishing an online “employer portal,” setting up a payroll deduction process, and remitting employee contributions.
The program is established with the intent to avoid complication for employers under ERISA, the federal pension law, and it is anticipated that employers will be subject to none of the ERISA responsibilities that apply to sponsors of 401(k) plans.
Non-compliant employers are subject to a fine of $250.00 per employee per year.
The Fine Print:
Official guidance available at this time provides the following specifics:
For purposes of determining program applicability, employers need to count all employees 18 years of age or older who receive wages taxable in Illinois (this includes part-time employees, but some seasonal employees can be excluded).
Illinois employers, including not-for-profit organizations, are subject to the Act if: (1) at no time during the prior calendar year they employed fewer than 25 Illinois employees, (2) they have been in business at least two years, and (3) they have not offered an employer sponsored retirement plan in the preceding two years.
Employers are required to log on to the Treasurer’s website to create a payroll list and then to input the following information in the employer portal by the applicable deadline: each employee’s address, phone number, email address, legal name, date of birth and social security number or individual tax identification number (undocumented workers are not permitted to participate in the program).
For employers with 500 or more Illinois employees, the November 1, 2018 deadline is fast approaching. Employer electronic enrollment of each of its employees may take some time unless data is submitted in bulk form. More important, subject employers may want to give serious consideration to a private retirement plan alternative like a 401(k) plan that also can provide enhanced benefits for management-level employees.
If your company is not among the eighty-eight percent (88%) or so of large Illinois employers that already sponsor a retirement plan under Sections 401(a), 403(b), 408(k), 408(p) or 457(b) of the Internal Revenue Code, then you need to take the steps outlined above to comply with the Illinois Secure Choice Act by November 1, 2018. Also consider the 401(k) and 403(b) options that may work better for you and your work force. Retirement professionals can analyze a census of your current employees to provide specific retirement plan options that might make more sense for you than a Secure Choice arrangement.
Andrew S. Williams
Your retirement plan may have an outside third party administrator (TPA) to assist with plan administration. However, a TPA typically is not a fiduciary to the plan and does not act as “plan administrator” (that’s usually the employer itself as provided in a typical TPA services agreement). This leaves the employer ultimately responsible for the plan’s compliance with all applicable legal requirements. So, even if your TPA makes a mistake, the employer is likely on the hook for any resulting liability because the TPA’s services agreement usually imposes damage limits and employer indemnities that protect the TPA.
An independent service provider (maybe your current TPA) can be engaged to act as the “plan administrator” pursuant to Section 3(16) of ERISA. As a 3(16) fiduciary, the service provider assumes fiduciary responsibilities in administering the plan. The 3(16) fiduciary is responsible for all compliance activities, including the following:
- Determining employee eligibility
- Retaining plan service providers
- Preparing and filing annual reports
- Maintaining fidelity bond coverage for employees who handle plan assets
- Interpreting and applying plan provisions
- Distributing summary plan descriptions and supplements on a timely basis
- Preparing an investment policy statement
- Administration of participant loans, hardship withdrawals, as well as benefit computations and distributions
- Distributing participant notes such as summary annual reports and, as applicable, annual qualified default investment alternative (QDIA) notices, safe harbor notices and investment fee disclosures
- Reviewing and acting on reports of plan investment advisors and any private auditor
- Reviewing and implementing qualified domestic relations orders (QDROs)
Are your bases covered on all of the above? If your TPA is not involved in these compliance functions, are they adequately performed by your own employees? If not, your plan may need help from an outside service provider or even a 3(16) fiduciary.
Engaging a competent 3(16) fiduciary should provide any retirement plan the maximum compliance protection available. Just bear in mind that the employer still retains a legal obligation to prudently select the 3(16) fiduciary and to monitor the fiduciary’s ongoing performance of its duties.