DOL Issues Additional Fiduciary Rule Enforcement Relief and FAQ Guidance

The DOL has issued temporary enforcement relief and FAQ guidance addressing the implementation of the DOL’s final fiduciary rule on investment advice conflicts and related prohibited transaction exemptions (PTEs) during the transition period beginning June 9, 2017 and ending January 1, 2018.

As background, the fiduciary rule and PTEs were effective June 7, 2016, with an initial applicability date of April 10, 2017. The applicability date was delayed 60 days to June 9, 2017. See our prior article here. In connection with the delay, the DOL amended the Best Interest Contract (BIC) exemption and the PTEs to provide transition relief that only requires adherence to the impartial conduct standards (including the best interest standard) through January 1, 2018.The standards specifically require advisers and financial institutions to:

(1) Give advice that is in the “best interest” of the retirement investor. This best interest standard has two chief components: prudence and loyalty:

  • Under the prudence standard, the advice must meet a professional standard of care as specified in the text of the exemption;
  • Under the loyalty standard, the advice must be based on the interests of the customer, rather than the competing financial interest of the adviser or firm;

(2) Charge no more than reasonable compensation; and

(3) Make no misleading statements about investment transactions, compensation, and conflicts of interest.

Highlights of the most recent transition guidance:

Temporary Enforcement Policy on Fiduciary Duty Rule (FAB 2017-02). The DOL announced on May 22, 2017 that it will not pursue claims during the transition period against fiduciaries who are “working diligently and in good faith” to comply with the new fiduciary rule and the related exemptions. The DOL also states that IRS confirms that FAB 2017-02 constitutes “other subsequent related enforcement guidance” for purposes of IRS Announcement 2017-4, which means that the IRS will not impose prohibited transaction excise taxes or related reporting obligations on any transactions or agreements during the transition period that would be subject to the DOL’s nonenforcement policy.

DOL FAQ Guidance on the Transition Period. The DOL also issued FAQs, which review the DOL’s “phased implementation approach”, and confirm that on June 9, 2017, firms and advisers who are fiduciaries need to alter their compensation practices to avoid PTEs or satisfy the transition period requirements under the BIC or another exemption. During the transition, firms should adopt policies and procedures they “reasonably conclude” are necessary to ensure that advisers comply with the impartial conduct standards. However, there is no requirement to give investors any warranty of their adoption, and those standards will not necessarily be failed if certain conflicts of interest continue during the transition period. Other highlights include a clarification that level-fee providers can rely on the BIC exemption during the transition period, and examples of participant communications and non-client-specific investment models that do not provide fiduciary advice. The guidance also indicates that the President’s mandated review (see our prior article here) has not been completed, but when it is, additional changes might be made to the rule or the PTEs.

Be Careful Before Denying COBRA to Employee Terminated for Gross Misconduct

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has rendered a decision in Mayes v. WinCo Holdings that reminds employers to be very cautious about denying COBRA coverage based on the gross misconduct exception.

Facts
Defendant grocery store fired the plaintiff, who supervised employees on the night-shift freight crew, for taking a stale cake from the store bakery to share with fellow employees and telling a loss prevention investigator that management had given her permission to do so. The employer deemed these actions theft and dishonesty, and determined that the plaintiff’s behavior rose to the level of gross misconduct under the store’s personnel policies. Therefore, the employer fired the employee and did not offer COBRA coverage to her or her dependents. Plaintiff sued asserting gender discrimination claims under Title VII, a claim under COBRA, and wage claims.

The Law
Under COBRA, an employer does not have to offer COBRA coverage to an employee and their covered dependents if the employee is terminated for “gross misconduct.” Unfortunately, the COBRA statute does not define “gross misconduct,” and court decisions do not provide clear guidance on what that term means.

The Case
The trial court in this case initially ruled in favor of the employer, finding that theft and dishonesty can constitute gross misconduct under COBRA, regardless of the amount involved. The Ninth Circuit reversed, finding that there was sufficient evidence of the employer’s discrimination to allow the discrimination case to go to trial, and reasoning that if the employer fired the plaintiff for discriminatory reasons then that could not constitute termination for gross misconduct. Therefore, if the termination was discriminatory the employee and her dependents would be entitled to COBRA benefits and the employee could prevail on her COBRA claims.

Lessons for Employers
An employer terminating someone for violating company policy (such as theft), may be reluctant to offer them COBRA coverage, particularly where the employer’s plan is self-insured and, therefore, the employer sees the potential for large medical claims. However, denying COBRA coverage based on the gross misconduct exception is risky for a number of reasons.

First, if the employer is ultimately found to have denied COBRA incorrectly it is exposed to penalties for failing to offer coverage, and the employee and their dependents can get COBRA coverage retroactive all the way back to the initial termination of coverage. That scenario could happen in the Mayes case.

Second, if a terminated employee foresees having large medical claims, they will have a bigger incentive to sue to secure coverage. If they do file suit for COBRA coverage, they will invariably include other claims attacking the termination decision. Therefore, denying COBRA coverage increases the likelihood of a costly lawsuit challenging the termination decision.

Third, defending a case that includes a COBRA claim is also more difficult than a straight wrongful termination claim. It is easier for a judge to grant an employer summary judgment on a wrongful termination claim, which only affects the employee plaintiff, than it is to uphold a denial of COBRA, which directly affects the employee and her children, who are innocent bystanders. In most cases, therefore, an employer is better off defending a wrongful termination suit alone, and not also defending a claim that the employer failed to offer COBRA coverage.

For these reasons, in most cases discretion is the better part of valor and employers should not invoke the gross misconduct exception.

Some employers may be concerned that offering COBRA coverage after terminating someone for gross misconduct may undermine their defense of the termination decision (on the theory that offering COBRA means the termination must not have been for gross misconduct). This can be mitigated by including a self-serving cover letter on the COBRA offer indicating that while the reasons for termination most likely amount to gross misconduct, the employer is voluntarily choosing to offer the employee and their dependents COBRA coverage.

DOL Delays Fiduciary Duty Rule for 60 Days and Invites Comments on Whether to Further Delay, Amend, or Withdraw the Rule

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) today announced a proposed extension of the applicability dates of the fiduciary rule and related exemptions, including the Best Interest Contract Exemption, from April 10 to June 9, 2017.

The announcement follows a presidential memorandum issued on Feb. 3, 2017, which directed the DOL to examine the fiduciary rule to determine whether it may adversely affect the ability of Americans to gain access to retirement information and financial advice. See our prior post, which explained that the President’s memorandum

..instructs the DOL to rescind or revise the rule . . . if it concludes for any other reason after appropriate review that the Fiduciary Duty Rule is inconsistent with the Administration’s stated priority “to empower Americans to make their own financial decisions, to facilitate their ability to save for retirement and build the individual wealth necessary to afford typical lifetime expenses, such as buying a home and paying for college, and to withstand unexpected financial emergencies”.

The DOL’s latest announcement invites comments that might help inform updates to the legal and economic analysis it conducted in originally issuing the rule (during President Obama’s term), including any issues the public believes were inadequately addressed in the prior analysis. The DOL has also invited comments on market responses to the final rule and the related Prohibited Transaction Exemptions (PTEs) to date, and on the costs and benefits attached to such responses. The comment period runs 45 days from today.

Upon completion of its examination, the DOL may decide to allow the
final rule and PTEs to become applicable, issue a further extension of the applicability date, propose to withdraw the rule, or propose amendments to the rule and/or the PTEs.

President Orders Review of Fiduciary Duty Rule

On February 3, 2017, the President issued a Presidential Memorandum on the Fiduciary Duty Rule, ordering the Department of Labor (DOL) to “examine the Fiduciary Duty Rule to determine whether it may adversely affect the ability of Americans to gain access to retirement information and financial advice”.

DOL Review

The memorandum directs the DOL to “prepare an updated economic and legal analysis concerning the impact of the Fiduciary Duty Rule”, considering whether the rule:

  • has harmed or is likely to harm investors due to a reduction in access to certain retirement savings offerings, retirement product structures, retirement savings information, or related financial advice;
  • has resulted in dislocations or disruptions within the retirement services industry that may adversely affect investors or retirees; or
  • is likely to cause an increase in litigation, and an increase in the prices that investors and retirees must pay to gain access to retirement services.

Possible Revision or Rescission

The memorandum also instructs the DOL to rescind or revise the rule if it makes an affirmative determination as to any of the above considerations, or if it concludes for any other reason after appropriate review that the Fiduciary Duty Rule is inconsistent with the Administration’s stated priority “to empower Americans to make their own financial decisions, to facilitate their ability to save for retirement and build the individual wealth necessary to afford typical lifetime expenses, such as buying a home and paying for college, and to withstand unexpected financial emergencies”.

Possible Delay

While the Memorandum does not directly delay the rule, the acting U.S. Secretary of Labor, Ed Hugler, responded to the President’s direction through a News Release stating that “The Department of Labor will now consider its legal options to delay the applicability date as we comply with the President’s memorandum.”

While it is still unclear whether the DOL will delay the rule, it is entirely possible, likely even, that the DOL will delay the rule within the next few weeks. It is also a good bet that the DOL will ultimately make some revisions to the rule, even if they do not rescind it entirely. In the meantime, financial advisors and others subject to the Rule will need to evaluate their compliance efforts so that they remain as nimble as possible in the face of he constantly shifting regulatory sands.

Plan Sponsors and Plan Administrators should note that neither the Fiduciary Duty Rule, nor the potential impending changes to the rule, directly impact their responsibilities as plan fiduciaries, other than how the rule impacts those providing financial advice to Plan Sponsors and Administrators.

More:

DOL Conflict of Interest Final Rule Page

Qualified Employer Health Reimbursement Arrangements Permitted for Small Employers

The House and the Senate recently passed, and President Obama has signed, the “21st Century Cures Act”, which includes a provision exempting small employer health reimbursement arrangements (HRAs) from the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA’s) group plan rules, and from the excise tax imposed under Code Section 4980D for failure to comply with those rules. See our prior posts on the Section 4980D excise tax herehere and here. 

Background

HRAs typically provide reimbursement for medical expenses (which can include premiums for insurance coverage). HRA reimbursements are exclude-able from the employee’s income, and unused amounts roll over from one year to the next. HRAs generally are considered to be group health plans for purposes of the tax Code and ERISA.

The ACA market reforms, which generally apply to group health plans, include provisions that a group health plan (including HRAs) (1) may not establish an annual limit on the dollar amount of benefits for any individual; and (2) must provide certain preventive services without imposing any cost-sharing requirements for these services. Code Section 4980D imposes an excise tax on any failure of a group health plan to meet these requirements.

The IRS has previously distinguished between employer-funded HRAs that are “integrated” with other coverage as part of a group health plan (and which therefore can meet the annual limit rules) and so called “stand-alone” HRAs. A “stand alone” HRA  almost certainly does not meet the ACA group coverage mandates. 

The New Law

The 21st Century Cures Act provides relief from the Section 4980D excise tax effective for tax years after December 31, 2016 for small employers that sponsor a qualified small employer HRAIn addition, previous transition relief for small employers, i.e. those that are not an Applicable Large Employer (ALE) under the ACA, is extended through December 31, 2016.

Therefore, for plan years beginning on or before December 31, 2016, HRAs maintained by small employers with fewer than 50 employees will not incur the Section. 4980D excise tax even if the plans are not qualified small employer HRAs. For tax years after December 31, 2016, small employer HRAs will need to satisfy the requirements of a qualified small employer HRA.

Qualified Small Employer HRA

A qualified small employer HRA must meet all of the following requirements:

(1)  Be maintained by an employer that is not an ALE (i.e., it employs fewer than 50 employees), and does not offer a group health plan to any of its employees

(2)  Be provided on the same terms to all eligible employees. For this purpose, small employers may exclude employees who are under age 25, employees have not completed 90 days of service, part-time or seasonal employees, collective bargaining unit employees, and certain nonresident aliens.

(3)  Be funded solely by an eligible employer. No employee salary reduction contributions may be made under the HRA. 

(4)  Provide for the payment of, or reimbursement of, an eligible employee for expenses for medical care (which can include premiums) incurred by the eligible employee or the eligible employee’s family members.

(5)  The amount of payments and reimbursements do not exceed $4,950 ($10,000 if the HRA also provides for payments or reimbursements for family members of the employee). These amounts will be adjusted for cost of living increases in the future. An HRA can vary the reimbursement to a particular individual based on variations in the price of an insurance policy in the relevant individual health insurance market with respect to: (i) age or (ii) the number of family members covered by the HRA, without violating this requirement that the HRA be provided on the same terms to each eligible employee.

Coordination With Other Rules

If an employee covered by a qualified HRA does not maintain “minimum essential coverage” within the meaning of Code Section 5000A(f), they will be subject to the individual mandate tax penalty under existing law. Under the new law, their HRA reimbursements will also be taxable income to them. 

In addition, for any month that an employee is provided affordable individual health insurance coverage under a qualified HRA, he is not eligible for a premium assistance tax credit under Code Section 36B. 

Employer Reporting Requirements

For years beginning after December 31, 2016, an employer funding a qualified HRA must, not later than 90 days before the beginning of the year, provide a written notice to each eligible employee that includes:

(1) The amount of the employee’s permitted benefit under the HRA for the year; 

(2) A statement that the eligible employee should provide the amount of the employee’s permitted benefit under the HRA to any health insurance exchange to which the employee applies for advance payment of the premium assistance tax credit; and

(3) A statement that if the employee is not covered under minimum essential coverage for any month, the employee may be subject to the individual mandate tax penalty for such month, and reimbursements under the HRA may be include-able in gross income. 

For calendar years that begin after December 31, 2016, employers also have to report contributions to a qualified HRA on their employees’ W-2s. 

More… text of the 21st Century Cures Act.

Welfare Benefits Strategies For Small to Mid-Size Employers After The ACA

Lovitt & Touche’s Chris Helin has a great article out detailing two innovative approaches to dealing with the challenges posed to small and mid-sized businesses resulting from the continued rise in rates and coverage mandates under the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Retention Accounting

Chris explains that “[w]hen you receive a quote from a carrier under a retention accounting contract instead of a fully insured contract, you are given the chance to share in the savings in a good claims year.” These contracts used to be available only to employers with more than 5000 people on their medical plan. They may now be an option even if you have as few as 100 employees on your plan.

Private Marketplace

The second approach is one on which Lovitt & Touche has taken a lead: the Private Marketplace. Not to be confused with the public exchanges, a private marketplace can be custom designed to deliver all of your welfare benefits, including medical, dental, vision, life, and disability. A private marketplace offers several innovations that employers may find attractive, including: (1) you can offer many more than just two or three plan designs within each insurance option; and (2) you can also use a defined contribution strategy and provide a specific dollar amount for each employee to spend.

Even if the ACA is repealed or significantly altered in 2017, these trends will likely continue, and they may be worth a look.

For more information read Chris’s article Here.

 

ERISA Benefits Law Receives Recognition as a Top Tier Law firm in 2017 U.S. News – Best Lawyers® “Best Law Firms” Rankings

Just eight months after opening its doors as a niche ERISA and employee benefits law firm focused on providing the highest quality legal services at the most affordable rates anywhere, ERISA Benefits Law has been recognized as a top tier law firm in the 2017 U.S. News – Best Lawyers® “Best Law Firms” rankings. The firm received a Tier 1 metropolitan ranking in Tucson, Arizona in Employee Benefits (ERISA) Law.

The U.S. News – Best Lawyers “Best Law Firms” rankings are based on a rigorous evaluation process that includes the collection of client and lawyer evaluations, peer review from leading attorneys in their field, and review of additional information provided by law firms as part of the formal submission process.

A Retirement Plan Established by a Church-Affiliated Organization is not an ERISA-Exempt Church Plan (at least in the 9th, 3rd and 7th Circuits)

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals recently held that, to qualify for the church plan exception to the requirements of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), a church plan (i) must be established by a church or by a convention or association of churches and (ii) must be maintained either by a church or by a church-controlled or church-affiliated organization whose principal purpose or function is to provide benefits to church employees.

The specific holding in in Rollins v. Dignity Health, 2016 WL 3997259 (9th Cir. 2016) was that Dignity Health’s pension plan was subject to the requirements of ERISA and did not qualify for ERISA’s church-plan exemption because it was not originally established by a church, even if it was maintained by a “principal purpose” organization. The 3rd and 7th circuits have reached the same conclusion when confronted with this question. See Kaplan v. Saint Peter’s Healthcare Sys., 810 F.3d 175, 180–81 (3d Cir. 2015); Stapleton v. Advocate Health Care Network, 817 F.3d 517, 523–27 (7th Cir. 2016).

Background

  • 29 U.S.C. § 1003(b)(2) provides that a church plan is exempt from ERISA.
  • 29 U.S.C. § 1002(33)(A) provides that in order to qualify for the church-plan exemption, a plan must be both established and maintained by a church.
  • 29 U.S.C. § 1002(33)(C)(i) provides that a plan established and maintained by a church “includes” a plan maintained by a principal-purpose organization.

The 9th Circuit reasoned that “there are two possible readings of subparagraph (C)(i). First, the subparagraph can be read to mean that a plan need only be maintained by a principal-purpose organization to qualify for the church-plan exemption. Under this reading, a plan maintained by a principal-purpose organization qualifies for the church-plan exemption even if it was established by an organization other than a church. Second, the subparagraph can be read to mean merely that maintenance by a principal purpose organization is the equivalent, for purposes of the exemption, of maintenance by a church. Under this reading, the exemption continues to require that the plan be established by a church.”

The 9th Circuit then held that “the more natural reading of subparagraph (C)(i) is that the phrase preceded by the word “includes” serves only to broaden the definition of organizations that may maintain a church plan. The phrase does not eliminate the requirement that a church plan must be established by a church.”

More

Rollins v. Dignity Health, 2016 WL 3997259 (9th Cir. 2016)

Kaplan v. Saint Peter’s Healthcare Sys., 810 F.3d 175, 180–81 (3d Cir. 2015)

Stapleton v. Advocate Health Care Network, 817 F.3d 517, 523–27 (7th Cir. 2016)

Attorney Erwin Kratz Named to the Best Lawyers in America© 2017

ERISA Benefits Law attorney Erwin Kratz was recently selected by his peers for inclusion in The Best Lawyers in America© 2017 in the practice area of Employee Benefits (ERISA) Law. Mr. Kratz has been continuously listed on The Best Lawyers in America list since 2010.

Since it was first published in 1983, Best Lawyers® has become universally regarded as the definitive guide to legal excellence. Best Lawyers lists are compiled based on an exhaustive peer-review evaluation. Lawyers are not required or allowed to pay a fee to be listed; therefore inclusion in Best Lawyers is considered a singular honor. Corporate Counsel magazine has called Best Lawyers “the most respected referral list of attorneys in practice.”

HHS Announces Two More Significant HIPAA Privacy and Security Settlements

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has announced two more significant settlements in cases of alleged violations of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) involving electronic protected health information (ePHI). These settlements highlight the need for HIPAA covered entities and their business associates to:

  • Conduct an accurate and thorough assessment of the potential risks and vulnerabilities to all of their ePHI;
  • Implement policies and procedures and facility access controls to limit physical access to their electronic information systems;
  • Implement physical safeguards for all workstations that access ePHI to restrict access to authorized users;
  • Assign a unique user name and/or number for identifying and tracking user identity in information systems containing ePHI;
  • Reasonably safeguard laptops with unencrypted ePHI (or better yet, secure all ePHI);
  • Implement policies and procedures to prevent, detect, contain, and correct security violations; and
  • Obtain satisfactory assurances in the form of a written business associate contract from their business associates that they will appropriately safeguard all ePHI in their possession.

In addition, if it has been more than a few years since you conducted a security and privacy assessment and adopted privacy and security policies and procedures under HIPAA, you should be working on updating that assessment and the resulting policies and procedures. As in many areas, making a good faith effort at compliance is half the job.

Details

In the first case, Advocate Health Care Network (Advocate) agreed to a settlement with OCR for multiple potential HIPAA violations involving ePHI pursuant to which Advocate agreed to pay a $5.55 million settlement and adopt a corrective action plan.  This significant settlement, the largest to-date against a single entity, is a result of the extent and duration of the alleged noncompliance (dating back to the inception of the Security Rule in some instances), the involvement of the State Attorney General in a corresponding investigation, and the large number of individuals whose information was affected by Advocate, one of the largest health systems in the country. OCR began its investigation in 2013, when Advocate submitted three breach notification reports pertaining to separate and distinct incidents involving its subsidiary, Advocate Medical Group (“AMG”). The combined breaches affected the ePHI of approximately 4 million individuals.  The ePHI included demographic information, clinical information, health insurance information, patient names, addresses, credit card numbers and their expiration dates, and dates of birth. OCR’s investigations into these incidents revealed that Advocate failed to:

  • Conduct an accurate and thorough assessment of the potential risks and vulnerabilities to all of its ePHI;
  • Implement policies and procedures and facility access controls to limit physical access to the electronic information systems housed within a large data support center;
  • Obtain satisfactory assurances in the form of a written business associate contract that its business associate would appropriately safeguard all ePHI in its possession; and
  • Reasonably safeguard an unencrypted laptop when left in an unlocked vehicle overnight.

Read the Advocate Health Care Network resolution agreement and corrective action plan.

In the second case, the University of Mississippi Medical Center (UMMC) agreed to settle multiple alleged violations of HIPAA. OCR’s investigation of UMMC was triggered by a breach of unsecured ePHI affecting approximately 10,000 individuals. During the investigation, OCR determined that UMMC was aware of risks and vulnerabilities to its systems as far back as April 2005, yet no significant risk management activity occurred until after the breach, due largely to organizational deficiencies and insufficient institutional oversight. UMMC will pay a resolution amount of $2,750,000 and adopt a corrective action plan to help assure future compliance with HIPAA Privacy, Security, and Breach Notification Rules. On March 21, 2013, OCR was notified of a breach after UMMC’s privacy officer discovered that a password-protected laptop was missing from UMMC’s Medical Intensive Care Unit (MICU). UMMC’s investigation concluded that it had likely been stolen by a visitor to the MICU who had inquired about borrowing one of the laptops.  OCR’s investigation revealed that ePHI stored on a UMMC network drive was vulnerable to unauthorized access via UMMC’s wireless network because users could access an active directory containing 67,000 files after entering a generic username and password. The directory included 328 files containing the ePHI of an estimated 10,000 patients dating back to 2008. Further, OCR’s investigation revealed that UMMC failed to:

  • implement its policies and procedures to prevent, detect, contain, and correct security violations;
  • implement physical safeguards for all workstations that access ePHI to restrict access to authorized users;
  • assign a unique user name and/or number for identifying and tracking user identity in information systems containing ePHI; and
  • notify each individual whose unsecured ePHI was reasonably believed to have been accessed, acquired, used, or disclosed as a result of the breach.

University of Mississippi is the state’s sole public academic health science center with education and research functions. In addition it provides patient care in four specialized hospitals on the Jackson campus and at clinics throughout Jackson and the state. Its designated health care component, UMMC, includes University Hospital, the site of the breach in this case, located on the main UMMC campus in Jackson.

Read the University of Mississippi resolution agreement and corrective action plan.