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.

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

PBGC Expands Missing Participant Program to Defined Contribution Plans

The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) has issued a Proposed Rule that would redesign its existing missing participants program for single employer Defined Benefit (DB) plans and to adopt three new missing participants programs that will cover most Defined Contribution (DC) plans, as well as multiemployer DB plans and professional service employer DB plans. All four programs would follow the same basic design. Among the most prominent changes to the existing program would be:

• Provision for fees to be charged for plans to participate in the missing participants program.

• A requirement to treat as ‘‘missing’’ non-responsive distributees with de minimis benefits subject to mandatory cash-out under the plan’s terms.

• More robust requirements for diligent searches, using sponsor and related plan records, free web-search methods, and (subject to waiver) commercial locator services (which would be clearly defined).

• Fewer benefit categories and fewer sets of actuarial assumptions for determining the amount to transfer to PBGC.

• Changes in the rules for paying benefits to missing participants and their beneficiaries.

An important part of all of the missing participants programs will be a new unified pension search database.  This database would include information about missing participants and their benefits and a directory through which members of the public could easily query the database (using a choice of fields) to determine whether it contained information about benefits being held for them. PBGC anticipates that its new pension search database will provide a comprehensive, nationwide, authoritative, reliable, easy to use source of information about missing participants and the benefits being held for them.

‘‘Missing’’ would be defined more specifically than in the current regulation. As explained below, a distributee would be missing if—

(1) For a DB plan, the plan did not know where the distributee was (e.g., a notice from the plan was returned as undeliverable), unless the distributee’s benefit was subject to mandatory ‘‘cashout’’ under the terms of the plan, or

(2) For a DC plan, or a distributee whose benefit was subject to a mandatory cash-out under the terms of a DB plan, the distributee failed to elect a form or manner of distribution.

For DC plans, PBGC proposes to specify simply that a diligent search is one conducted in accordance with DOL guidance, the most recent of which was issued on August 14, 2014 by the Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA) in Field Assistance Bulletin No. 2014–01 regarding Fiduciary Duties And Missing Participants In Terminated Defined Contribution Plans (the FAB). The FAB provides guidance about required search steps and options for dealing with the benefits of missing participants in terminated DC plans.

PBGC is proposing to charge a one-time $35 fee per missing distributee, payable when benefit transfer amounts are paid to PBGC, without any obligation to pay PBGC continuing ‘‘maintenance’’ fees or a distribution fee. There would be no charge for amounts transferred to PBGC of $250 or less. There would be no charge for plans that only send information about missing participant benefits to PBGC.

More…

Overview of Proposed Expanded Missing Participants Program

Proposed Expanded Missing Participants Program FAQs

Read the Proposed Rule

Plan Administrator Bears Burden to Produce Key Information Regarding Claimant’s Service and Benefits Eligibility

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on April 21, 2016 that where a claimant has made a prima facie case that he is entitled to a pension benefit, but lacks access to the key information about corporate structure, or hours worked, needed to substantiate his claim, and the defendant controls this information, the burden shifts to the defendant to produce this information. Estate of Bruce H. Barton v. ADT Security Services Pension Plan (9th Cir., 2016).

The Plan Administrator could not place the burden of producing records establishing which entities participated in the pension plan between 1967 and 1986, and the claimant’s service record, on the claimant where the Plan Administrator had no records of its own.

The Plan Administrator originally denied the claim on the basis of an absence of records establishing eligibility for plan participation, actual participation, or accrual of plan benefits.  This was wrong where the Committee rather than the claimant would likely be in possession of such records.

The lesson for Plan Administrators: keep plan documents,service records and contemporary records establishing benefit accruals forever -there is no practical document retention period for these documents.

The lesson for claimants: don’t be deterred from asserting a claim if you have enough evidence to state a prima facie case and the definitive documents or information ought to be in the Plan Administrator’s possession.

Estate of Bruce H. Barton v. ADT Security Services Pension Plan (9th Cir., 2016)

DOL Finalizes Regulations and Related Exemptions on ERISA Fiduciary Definition and Conflicts of Interest in Investment Advice

The Department of Labor (DOL) has adopted its long-awaited final rule defining who is a fiduciary investment adviser, and has issued accompanying prohibited transaction class exemptions that allow certain broker-dealers, insurance agents and others that act as investment advice fiduciaries to continue to receive a variety of common forms of compensation, as long as they adhere to standards aimed at ensuring that their advice is impartial and in the best interest of their customers.

Going forward, individuals and firms that provide investment advice to plans, plan sponsors, fiduciaries, plan participants, beneficiaries and IRAs and IRA owners must either avoid payments that create conflicts of interest or comply with the protective terms of an exemption issued by the DOL.

Under new exemptions adopted with the rule, firms will be obligated to acknowledge their status and the status of their individual advisers as “fiduciaries.” Firms and advisers will be required to:

  • make prudent investment recommendations without regard to their own interests, or the interests of those other than the customer;
  • charge only reasonable compensation; and
  • make no misrepresentations to their customers regarding recommended investments.

I.  What Is Covered Investment Advice Under the Rule?

Covered investment advice is generally defined as a recommendation to a plan, plan fiduciary, plan participant and beneficiary and IRA owner for a fee or other compensation, direct or indirect, as to the advisability of buying, holding, selling or exchanging securities or other investment property, including recommendations as to the investment of securities or other property after the securities or other property are rolled over or distributed from a plan or IRA.

A “recommendation” is a communication that, based on its content, context, and presentation, would reasonably be viewed as a suggestion that the advice recipient engage in or refrain from taking a particular course of action.

II.  What Is Not Covered Investment Advice Under the Rule?

The final rule includes some specific examples of communications that would not rise to the level of a recommendation and therefore would not constitute a fiduciary investment advice communication, including:

  • Education about retirement savings and general financial and investment information. For example, education can include specific investment alternatives as examples in presenting hypothetical asset allocation models or in interactive investment materials intended to educate participants and beneficiaries as to what investment options are available under the plan, as long as they are designated investment alternatives selected or monitored by an independent plan fiduciary and other conditions are met. In contrast, because there is no similar independent fiduciary in the IRA context, the investment education provision in the rule does not treat asset allocation models and interactive investment materials with references to specific investment alternatives as merely “education.”
  • General communications that a reasonable person would not view as an investment recommendation
  • Simply making available a platform of investment alternatives without regard to the individualized needs of the plan, its participants, or beneficiaries if the plan fiduciary is independent of such service provider
  • Transactions with Independent Plan Fiduciaries with Financial Expertise. ERISA fiduciary obligations are not imposed on advisers when communicating with independent plan fiduciaries if the adviser knows or reasonably believes that the independent fiduciary is a licensed and regulated provider of financial services (banks, insurance companies, registered investment advisers, broker-dealers) or those that have responsibility for the management of $50 million in assets, and other conditions are met.
  • Employees working in a company’s payroll, accounting, human resources, and financial departments who routinely develop reports and recommendations for the company and other named fiduciaries of the sponsors’ plans are not investment advice fiduciaries if the employees receive no fee or other compensation in connection with any such recommendations beyond their normal compensation for work performed for their employer

III.  Best Interest Contract Exemption

The Best Interest Contract Exemption permits firms to continue to rely on many current compensation and fee practices, as long as they meet specific conditions intended to ensure that financial institutions mitigate conflicts of interest and that they, and their individual advisers, provide investment advice that is in the best interests of their customers. Specifically, in order to align the adviser’s interests with those of the plan or IRA customer, the exemption requires the financial institution to:

  • acknowledge fiduciary status for itself and its advisers
  • adhere to basic standards of impartial conduct, including giving prudent advice that is in the customer’s best interest, avoiding making misleading statements, and receiving no more than reasonable compensation.
  • have policies and procedures designed to mitigate harmful impacts of conflicts of interest and
  • disclose basic information about their conflicts of interest, including descriptions of material conflicts of interest, fees or charges paid by the retirement investor, and a statement of the types of compensation the firm expects to receive from third parties in connection with recommended investments.
  • Investors also have the right to obtain specific disclosure of costs, fees, and other compensation upon request.
  • In addition, a website must be maintained and updated regularly that includes information about the financial institution’s business model and associated material conflicts of interest, a written description of the financial institution’s policies and procedures that mitigate conflicts of interest, and disclosure of compensation and incentive arrangements with advisers, among other information.

IV.  Additional Exemptive Relief

In addition to the Best Interest Contract Exemption, the DOL issued a Principal Transactions Exemption, which permits investment advice fiduciaries to sell or purchase certain recommended debt securities and other investments out of their own inventories to or from plans and IRAs. As with the Best Interest Contract Exemption, this requires, among other things, that investment advice fiduciaries adhere to certain impartial conduct standards, including obligations to act in the customer’s best interest, avoid misleading statements, and seek to obtain the best execution reasonably available under the circumstances for the transaction.

V.  Effective Date

Compliance with the new rule is required as of April 2017.  The exemptions will generally become available upon the applicability date of the rule. However, the DOL has adopted a “phased” implementation approach for the Best Interest Contract Exemption and the Principal Transactions Exemption. Both exemptions provide for a transition period, from the April 2017 applicability date to January 1, 2018, under which fewer conditions apply. This period is intended to give financial institutions and advisers time to prepare for compliance with all the conditions of the exemptions while safeguarding the interests of retirement investors.

During this transition period, firms and advisers must adhere to the impartial conduct standards, provide a notice to retirement investors that, among other things, acknowledges their fiduciary status and describes their material conflicts of interest, and designate a person responsible for addressing material conflicts of interest and monitoring advisers’ adherence to the impartial conduct standards. Full compliance with the exemption will be required as of January 1, 2018.

VI. More…

Regulations and Related Exemptions

DOL Fact Sheet

DOL FAQs

Supreme Court Rules ERISA Equitable Relief Can’t Reach Nontraceable Settlement Proceeds

Employee benefits plans regulated by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA or Act) often contain subrogation clauses requiring a plan participant to reimburse the plan for medical expenses if the participant later recovers money from a third party for his injuries.

On January 20, 2016, the US Supreme Court held, in MONTANILE v. BOARD OF TRUSTEES OF THE NATIONAL ELEVATOR INDUSTRY HEALTH BENEFIT PLAN that if an ERISA-plan participant wholly dissipates a third-party settlement on nontraceable items, the plan fiduciary may not rely on a subrogation provision in their health plan to bring suit under ERSA §502(a)(3) to attach the participant’s separate assets.  Plan fiduciaries are limited by §502(a)(3) to filing suits “to obtain . . . equitable relief.” The Court previously held that whether the relief requested “is legal or equitable depends on [1] the basis for [the plaintiff’s] claim and [2] the nature of the underlying remedies sought.” Sereboff v. Mid Atlantic Medical Services, Inc., 547 U. S. 356, 363.  In Montanile, the Court held that the Plan was not seeking equitable relief because it sought to recover against the defendant’s general assets, not specifically traceable assets. The lesson for Plan fiduciaries wishing to assert subrogation claims is to (1) put participants on specific notice of the subrogation claim as soon as the Plan learns of a significant incident of a type that might give rise to a subrogation claim (such as an accident); and (2) pursue the claim diligently before the participant receives settlement proceeds.  We routinely include in our welfare wrap plan documents a vigorous subrogation reservation to protect Plans’ subrogation rights to the fullest extent practical.

More on the Montanile case…

Montanile was seriously injured by a drunk driver, and his ERISA plan paid more than $120,000 for his medical expenses. Montanile later sued the drunk driver, obtaining a 500,000 settlement. Pursuant to the plan’s subrogation clause, the plan administrator (the Board of Trustees of the National Elevator Industry Health Benefit Plan, or Board), sought reimbursement from the settlement. Montanile’s attorney refused that request and subsequently informed the Board that the fund would be transferred from a client trust account to Montanile unless the Board objected. The Board did not respond, and Montanile received the settlement.

Six months later, the Board sued Montanile in Federal District Court under §502(a)(3) of ERISA, which authorizes plan fiduciaries to file suit “to obtain . . . appropriate equitable relief . . . to enforce . . . the terms of the plan.” 29 U. S. C. §1132(a)(3). The Board sought an equitable lien on any settlement funds or property in Montanile’s possession and an order enjoining Montanile from dissipating any such funds. Montanile argued that because he had already spent almost all of the settlement, no identifiable fund existed against which to enforce the lien. The District Court rejected Montanile’s argument, and the Eleventh Circuit affirmed, holding that even if Montanile had completely dissipated the fund, the plan was entitled to reimbursement from Montanile’s general assets. The Supreme Cour reversed for the reasons explained above.

icon Supreme Court Decision in Montanile

icon Supreme Court Decision in Sereboff

DOL Provides Timing Relief for Fee Disclosures in Participant-Directed Individual Account Plans

On March 19, 2015 the Department of Labor issued final rules that give retirement plan administrators a two-month window in which to provide annual fee disclosures to plan participants. Under existing regulations, plan administrators must provide fee disclosures to participants in plans with individually directed accounts at “at least once in any 12-month period, without regard to whether the plan operates on a calendar or fiscal year basis”. This 12-month rule presents some administrative difficulty because Plans that provide the disclosures in the same month every year could easily run afoul of the regulatory language if their disclosures are not done on the exact same day of the month each year.

The new rule replaces “12-month period” with “14-month period”, giving plan administrators a two month window each year in which to make the disclosures The new rules will become effective on June 17, 2015 (unless the DOL gets significant adverse comments on the rule, which is not expected). In the meantime, the DOL indicates that for enforcement purposes plan administrators can rely on the new rule immediately.

icon Final Rule