By: James M. Hlawek

Seyfarth Synopsis:  The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) recently issued a final rule intended to simplify the calculation of withdrawal liability for multiemployer plans that have adopted benefit reductions, benefit suspensions, surcharges, and contribution increases.

Under ERISA, multiemployer pension plans assess withdrawal liability on employers that withdraw from the plans.  Withdrawal liability represents a withdrawing employer’s proportionate share of a plan’s unfunded vested benefits. The calculations of withdrawal liability can be highly complex.

Congress approved changes under the Pension Protection Act in 2006 and the Multiemployer Pension Reform Act in 2014 that permitted financially troubled plans to reduce certain benefits, impose benefit suspensions, assess surcharges, and impose contribution increases as part of a “funding improvement plan” or “rehabilitation plan.” Under the law, these changes are generally disregarded for purposes of calculating withdrawal liability.  The PBGC’s final rule provides simplified methods that plans may use in excluding those changes from the withdrawal liability determination.

The final rule will apply to employer withdrawals from multiemployer pension plans that take place in plan years beginning on or after February 8, 2021.  The PBGC expects the final rule will benefit multiemployer pension plans that adopt the simplified methodology by reducing the cost associated with the withdrawal liability calculation.  Notably, however, it does not appear that the final rule will result in any significant changes to the amounts of withdrawal liability assessed on employers that withdraw from multiemployer pension plans.  The rule only simplifies the way that those amounts are calculated.

Even though the PBGC issued this rule to “simplify” the calculation of withdrawal liability for certain plans, this area of law itself remains very complex.  Employers that are considering withdrawal from a multiemployer pension plan, are engaging in reorganizations or transactions that might trigger a withdrawal, or that have been assessed withdrawal liability, should be sure to consult with counsel.

Additionally, the PBGC’s rule may be just the beginning of a busy year of legal developments affecting multiemployer pension plans.  With the number of severely underfunded plans continuing to increase and a new administration about to begin, Congress is likely to soon consider new legislation to address the risk of insolvencies in multiemployer pension plans.  Stay tuned for further developments.

Seyfarth Synopsis: The IRS has extended the remote notarization relief that gives plans and participants greater flexibility for participant elections, including spousal consents, that must be signed in person and witnessed by a notary or plan representative in order to be valid. The IRS has also requested comments on this relief, including comments as to whether this relief should be made permanent.

As described in our prior post, Notice 2020-4 provides relief from the rule in Treasury Regulation Section 1.401(a)-21(d)(6) that requires the signature of an individual making an election to be witnessed in the physical presence of a plan representative or a notary public. That relief was set to expire on December 31, 2020. In recognition of the continued public health emergency caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the IRS has issued Notice 2021-3, which extends relief from this physical presence requirement through June 30, 2021.

This extended relief means that physical presence is not required for any participant election witnessed by:

1. A notary public in a state that permits remote notarization; or
2. A plan representative using live audio technology, provided the requirements detailed in our prior post are satisfied.

Notably, Notice 2021-3 also requests comments on this relief, including comments as to whether this relief should be made permanent, and what, if any, procedural safeguards are necessary in order to reduce the risk of fraud, spousal coercion, or other abuse in the absence of a physical presence requirement.

Plan administrators that have already taken advantage of this guidance can continue to benefit from the changes that were put in place through June 30, 2021. Meanwhile, plan administrators that have not yet adopted remote witnessing procedures may consider making these administrative changes in light of the continuing pandemic and indications from the IRS that this guidance may be made permanent.

COVID-19 vaccines are finally here! Employers have a lot to think about in how this new tool in the fight against COVID-19 applies in the workplace, and whether it should be a mandatory aspect of employment. Check out the labor and employments considerations about the extent to which an employer should implement a vaccine policy, here and here.

Employers offering vaccine programs can also implicate ERISA as well when paying for (or mandating) the vaccine distributed to those employees not already covered under the employer’s group health plan. Check out this Legal Update here for thoughts on the benefits considerations employers face with their COVID-19 vaccine programs.

Getting the vaccines is the first step, but employers have decisions to make about what to do next. Keep tuned to our blog for future updates.

Seyfarth Synopsis: The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has proposed changes to the required Privacy Notice under the HIPAA privacy regulations. If finalized, these would be the first significant changes to the HIPAA rules since the HITECH changes effective back in 2013.

The press release issued by HHS on December 10, 2020, states its intention to empower patients, improve coordinated care, and reduce regulatory burdens in the health care industry. HHS notes that the medical crises brought on by the opioid and COVID-19 epidemics have heightened the need to make these updates. While many of the changes directly affect health care providers and their patients, several provisions will also have an impact on employer-provided health plans. The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking is voluminous, but includes such things as an expansion of the definition of health care operations and the minimum necessary rule, changes to the required HIPAA Privacy Notice, shortened time frames to respond to individuals requests regarding their rights to their PHI, and disclosures of applicable fees for access to PHI. The Notice also provides long-awaited additional guidance on Electronic Health Records.

For more detailed information on the impact of these proposed changes on covered entity health plans, please see our Legal Update here. Also, click here for our Legal Update discussing these proposals and health care providers.

By: Mark Casciari, Ben Conley, and Michael W. Stevens

Seyfarth Synopsis: The Supreme Court unanimously upheld Act 900, an Arkansas law regulating Pharmacy Benefit Managers (PBMs).  The opinion could be used as a framework for states to attempt to indirectly regulate ERISA plans via statutes or regulations that affect plan costs.

Background

We previously addressed the Supreme Court’s consideration of Rutledge v. PCMA, which featured a pharmaceutical industry group’s challenge to Arkansas Act 900.  The Act (a) regulated the price PBMs paid for certain prescription drugs, (b) created an appeal process whereby pharmacies could challenge a PBM’s rate of reimbursement, and (c) permitted pharmacies to decline to sell drugs at reimbursement rates below acquisition cost.  As noted in our prior posts, PCMA (as supported by many amicus briefs from ERISA groups) argued that the law “relate[s] to an employee benefit plan” and, insofar as it applies to self-funded ERISA plans is preempted and thus impermissible.  These ERISA groups argued that piecemeal state regulation undermines a central purpose of ERISA:  to create one national private sector benefit plan jurisprudence, resulting in administrative savings and ultimately more plan benefits.

Holding

In an 8-0 Opinion (Justice Amy Coney Barrett not participating), the Court unanimously ruled in favor of Arkansas.  The Court found that, while the Act can be said to be connected to increased plan costs and operational inefficiencies, “ERISA does not pre-empt state rate regulations that merely increase costs or alter incentives for ERISA plans without forcing plans to adopt any particular scheme of substantive coverage.”  The Court added:  “[C]ost uniformity was almost certainly not an object of pre-emption.”  Finally, the Court said that ERISA plans are not essential to the Act’s operation, meaning that it has no exclusive reference to ERISA plans.

Justice Thomas alone concurred in the Opinion.  He continued his disagreement with the Court’s ERISA preemption “connection with or reference to” standard.  He would replace that standard with one that addresses whether any ERISA provision governs the same matter as the state law, and has a “meaningful,” presumably direct, relationship to the plan in light of ERISA’s text.

Implications for ERISA Plan Sponsors

The Court’s Opinion could be problematic for ERISA plan sponsors, who typically prefer a uniform administrative scheme across state lines.  Many PBM agreements contain provisions permitting PBMs to charge additional fees or limit the scope of their services where states impose more restrictive regulations or guidelines.  The Opinion will embolden states and localities to be more aggressive in their regulation of pharmacy benefits.  We should expect these jurisdictions to argue that, after Rutledge, there is no preemption because they are simply regulating plan costs.

In any event, Rutledge leaves open the possibility that preemption will apply if the cost regulation is “so acute that it will effectively dictate plan choices.”  And, state law that provides a cause of action or additional state remedies for claims allowed by ERISA, or directly amends ERISA plan terms or the ERISA scheme that governs plan administration, remain preempted.

Stay tuned to this blog for further updates on this important issue of benefit plan administration.

 

Seyfarth Synopsis: The IRS has announced that the due date for contributions to a single-employer defined benefit pension plan due in 2020, previously extended to January 1, 2021 by the CARES Act, will be considered timely if made no later than January 4, 2021.

Under the funding rules for qualified defined benefit pension plans, plan sponsors generally must make any minimum required contributions no later than 8-1/2 months after the plan year to which they relate. For calendar year plans, this means that the minimum required contribution is due no later than September 15th of the year following the applicable plan year. Plans with a funding shortfall for the prior plan year also must make quarterly minimum required contributions (for a calendar year plan, these contributions are due April 15th, July 15th, October 15th and the following January 15th).

The CARES Act, enacted in late March 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, delayed the timing of any annual and quarterly minimum required contributions due in 2020 (i.e., attributable to the 2019 plan year for calendar year plans) until January 1, 2021. As a practical matter, because January 1, 2021, is a national holiday and banks will not transfer funds on that date, the delayed contributions were actually due no later than December 31, 2020. IRS Notice 2020-82, just issued on November 16th, effectively extends the deadline to the first business day after the new year, i.e., January 4th. The guidance is welcome news for plan sponsors who wish to make contributions in calendar year 2021 rather than 2020.

Subsequent to the issuance of the IRS Notice, the PBGC followed suit and revised its guidance to incorporate the extension for contributions due in 2020 to January 4, 2021 for PBGC purposes.

Seyfarth Synopsis: On October 30, 2020, the Department of Labor (“DOL”) released a final regulation amending the fiduciary regulations governing investment duties under the Employee Retirement Investment Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”). This final regulation is clear that an ERISA fiduciary should not consider “non-pecuniary” factors such as environmental, social or corporate governance (“ESG”) or sustainability factors when considering an investment or investment strategy. Under the final rule, investment fiduciaries must evaluate investments and investment strategies solely based on pecuniary factors. The final regulation is generally effective 60 days after it is published in the Federal Register.

The DOL proposed this regulation on June 23, 2020, which is discussed in our July 1, 2020 post, Can You Invest Your Retirement Plan to Save the Planet? ERISA investment fiduciaries have been faced with the dilemma of whether social investing concepts have a role when investing ERISA plan assets. It appears that the DOL has answered this question. Specifically, social investing concepts only have a role if they potentially impact the risk of loss or opportunity for return of the proposed investment.

The DOL received numerous comment letters and objections critical to its proposed regulation, including claims that it was unnecessary rulemaking, reflected antiquated views, and provided too short a comment period. Despite the extensive comments it received, the final regulation is substantially the same as the proposed regulation. References to ESG were removed from the final regulation because the DOL did not want to narrow or limit the application of the final regulation. Under the final regulation, challenges remain for fiduciaries who consider non-pecuniary factors when making investment decisions.

The final regulation limited pecuniary factors to those factors that a fiduciary prudently determines are expected to have a material effect on the risk and/or return of an investment in light of the plan’s investment horizon, investment objectives and funding policy. While many investors may believe that a company that incorporates ESG principles to manage its risks and create opportunities offers an inherently less risky investment, the DOL does not appear to be willing to accept the argument that ESG in and of itself could be a pecuniary factor.

The final rule continues to provide for “tie breakers,” even though the preamble questions whether there could be a true tie-breaker situation. In such a situation, fiduciaries must document: why pecuniary factors were not sufficient to select the investment or investment course of action; how the selected investment compares to available alternatives; and how the non-pecuniary factors considered were consistent with the interest of the participants in their plan benefits. The DOL indicated in the preamble that whether an investment could increase plan contributions — e.g., investing the assets of a multiemployer plan in projects that will employ union members and increase contributions to the plan — was not a pecuniary interest. The same is true for adding an investment in response to interest expressed by plan participants.

For individual account plans that allow plan participants to choose from a range of investment alternatives, the regulation prohibits a fiduciary from considering or including an investment fund solely because the fund promotes, seeks or supports one of more non-pecuniary goals — e.g., an ESG focused fund. But, it does not prohibit including an ESG focused fund in the investment line-up. The final regulation, however, prohibits qualified default investment alternatives (QDIAs) with investment objectives or principal investment strategies that “include, consider, or indicate the use of one or more non-pecuniary factors.” This prohibition could be interpreted to cast a wide net.

The regulations would make it difficult or impossible for plan fiduciaries to consider non-pecuniary factors (e.g., religious tenets, ESG factors, etc.) when selecting investment options under an ERISA participant-directed defined contribution plan. A potential solution could be offering a brokerage window, which can provide access to individuals who wish to invest their accounts according to non-pecuniary factors such as religious tenets. Brokerage windows have their pros and cons. In addition, a fiduciary’s duties and responsibilities with respect to a brokerage window are not settled.

Historically, the DOL’s position on the role of ESG in ERISA plan investing has shifted with changes in administrations. With these final regulations, there is no doubt that the DOL has clearly shifted against marketplace trends. But, with a Biden administration coming onboard, calls for the SEC to address ESG disclosures and a Senate task force aimed at overhauling corporate governance, questions remain on whether the door on the role of ESG investing is closed. For information on ESG in the broader marketplace and what it means from a company perspective, see our alert series here, here, here and here.

If you are concerned about an existing non-pecuniary investment or investment strategy (e.g., an ESG or sustainability investment) or are interested in such an investment or strategy, be sure to contact your Seyfarth employee benefits attorney.

Seyfarth Synopsis: Yesterday, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the most recent challenge to the Affordable Care Act. The case has the potential to invalidate the entire law. While the Court’s decision isn’t expected soon, the oral arguments may provide some clues as to which way the Justices are leaning. We stress, however, that statements made during oral argument are not binding, and Justices remain free to rule as they deem appropriate.

On November 10, 2020, the Supreme Court heard oral argument on the constitutionality of the ACA. The case is captioned California v. Texas, No. 19-10011.

The case was brought by a group of state attorneys general in the wake of the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which reduced the individual tax for failure to maintain health insurance coverage to $0. The Trump Administration chose not to defend the law, but the lower courts granted leave to other states’ attorneys general and to the House of Representatives to defend the law. The arguments in the case addressed the following three issues:

  1. Do the plaintiff states have standing to challenge the constitutionality of the individual mandate?
  2. If so, did Congress’s actions in “zeroing out” the penalty for the mandate render the mandate an unconstitutional exercise of Congressional power?
  3. If so, is the mandate severable from the remainder of the ACA, or should the entire law fall?

The Court had previously ruled in 2012 that the ACA’s individual mandate was constitutional, as it represented an exercise of the lawful power of Congress to tax, and provide citizens with a reasonable choice of purchasing approved health insurance or paying a tax as a penalty. In that ruling, however, five Justices found that Congress cannot rely on its Commerce Clause power to enact the ACA. In other words, the Court upheld the mandate only by finding that the mandate was a tax, not a penalty. So, the question before the Court at present is whether the mandate can truly be considered a tax if it generates no revenue.

The Court under Chief Justice Roberts has shown an aversion to wading into politically sensitive rulings, given the current politically polarized climate. And this case has a complicated political overlay. The Court’s ruling here takes on heightened significance in the wake of the recent election in which Republicans appear to have maintained control of the Senate, because that takes away the Democrats’ avenue to “cure” the challenged provision by simply implementing a tax above $0 to enforce the individual mandate.

There are two ways that the Court can avoid a finding of unconstitutionality.

First, there is the issue of Article III standing. As we have previously opined, there is a substantial question whether there is a sufficient injury traceable to the actions of the defendants to justify a lawsuit on the merits. The November 10 oral argument focused on whether an injury could be said to have occurred because of increased reporting requirements, Medicaid payments by the state and the ACA restriction on what health policies an American can purchase in the marketplace. But a failure to purchase insurance does not directly cause injury — the tax penalty is $0. Justice Thomas described this issue in terms that we all can understand given our COVID times. He asked whether an American could sue in federal court to challenge a mask mandate that is not enforced. Justice Gorsuch and some of the more liberal Justices, however, expressed some concern that if the Court were to grant standing in this case, it would open the door to more challenges to federal law.

Look for the Court to limit any finding of standing to the peculiar facts of California v. Texas, given the concern about the federal judicial chaos that could result from a broader ruling on standing.

Second, there is the issue of severability. It is true that the individual mandate remains a part of the ACA, and it does state that all Americans “shall” purchase compliant insurance. It is also true that the constitutionality of that mandate is based on Congress’s taxing power that now is exercised at $0. It is true as well that a future Congress might increase the tax above $0, which might explain why the 2017 reduction to that level was not accompanied with a repeal of the individual mandate.

Justice Thomas pressed the attorney for the House of Representatives on how he could argue that the mandate is severable when, in 2012, he had argued that it was the “heart and soul” of the law. On the other hand, many Court observers honed in on statements from Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kavanaugh, both of whom seemed to express reservation at “reading into” Congressional intent rather than simply looking to the actions taken by Congress in zeroing out the individual mandate (while leaving the rest of the law intact). Justice Alito offered a hypothetical involving a plane that is presumed to be incapable of flight without a crucial instrument, but that then continues flying without issue once that instrument is removed.

While it is impossible at oral argument to discern how nine Justices will rule, hints from the arguments suggest the Court may have the votes to find standing (in a limited way) and declare only the individual mandate (and not the remainder of the law) to be unconstitutional as long as it is enforced by a $0 tax. We anxiously await the decision of the Court, and its reasoning.

On Wednesday, November 4, 2020, 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. ET, Seyfarth employee benefits attorneys Ben Conley, Jennifer Kraft and Howard Pianko will present at the Practicing Law Institute program “Applying ERISA Fiduciary Rules to Health Plans, Services and Products 2020.”

Howard is the program Chair and his panel will address prohibited transaction issues in the health and welfare space, such as hospitals providing services to their own employees. Ben will present an update on: (i) Department of Labor enforcement in the health and welfare space; and (ii) recent ERISA regulatory and legislative developments as well as what we might expect to see in benefit developments post-election. Jennifer will discuss fiduciary basics in the health and welfare area as well as onsite clinics, which more and more employers are exploring as a way to help provide cost-effective, quality care and combat rising healthcare costs.

For more information and to register for this program, visit www.pli.edu.

Seyfarth Synopsis: Many of the limitations that apply to tax-qualified plans, including 401(k) and 403(b) plans, are subject to cost-of-living increases. The IRS just announced the 2021 limits. The annual employee salary deferral contribution limits are not changing, but there are a few adjustments for 2021 that employers maintaining tax-qualified retirement plans will need to make to the plans’ administrative/operational procedures.

In Notice 2020-79, the IRS recently announced the various limits that apply to tax-qualified retirement plans in 2021. Notably, the “regular” 401(k) contribution limit and the “catch-up” contribution limit are not changing, and will remain at $19,500 and $6,500, respectively, for 2021. Thus, if you are or will be age 50 by the end of 2021, you may be eligible to contribute up to $26,000 to your 401(k) plan in 2021. These same limitations apply if you work for a governmental or tax-exempt employer and participate in a 403(b) plan.

The annual plan limits that did increase for 2021 include:

  • the maximum that may be contributed to a defined contribution plan (e.g., 401(k) or 403(b) plan) in 2021, inclusive of both employee and employer contributions, will increase by $1,000 to $58,000; and
  • the maximum annual compensation that may be taken into account under a plan (the 401(a)(17) limit) will increase from $285,000 to $290,000.

The Notice includes numerous other retirement-related limitations for 2021, including a $6,000 limit on qualified IRA contributions (unchanged) and adjustments to the income phase-out for making qualified IRA contributions. Other dollar limits for 2021 that are not changing include the dollar limitation on the annual benefit under a defined benefit plan ($230,000), the dollar limit used to determine a highly compensated employee ($130,000), and the dollar limit used when defining a key employee in a top-heavy plan ($185,000).

Individuals should check their plan contribution elections and consult with their personal tax advisor before the end of 2020 to make sure that they take full advantage of the contribution limits in 2021. Although many limits are not changing, employers who sponsor a tax-qualified retirement plan should still consider any necessary adjustments to plan administrative procedures and participant notices to ensure proper administration of the plan in 2021.

Employers who sponsor defined benefit pension plans (e.g., cash balance plans) also should be sure to review the new limits in the IRS Notice and make any necessary adjustments to plan administrative/operational procedures.