U.S. Department of Labor Audits and ERISA Litigation

According to "Attorney, Official Discuss DOL Investigations, Give Recommendations on Avoiding Litigation," by Andrea L. Ben-Yosef (Pension & Benefits Daily, BNA Bloomberg, October 15, 2012), trouble may come in pairs. The same complaints from plan participants, leads from government authorities and/or news about a company's financial distress that trigger U.S. Department of Labor ("DOL") scrutiny could invite plaintiffs' counsel to file a contemporaneous lawsuit.
 
Speakers Mabel Capolongo, Director of Enforcement with the U.S. Department of Labor, Employee Benefits Security Administration ("EBSA") and Attorney R. Bradford Huss with Trucker Huss suggested that persons being examined for possible breach should familiarize themselves with the EBSA enforcement manual and notify their ERISA liability insurance carrier right away. Cited potential areas of investigation include:
  • Fiduciary breach;
  • Co-fiduciary liability;
  • Plan expenses;
  • Plan operations;
  • Plan investing;
  • Prohibited transactions;
  • Company securities in a plan, including Employee Stock Ownership Plan ("ESOP") issues;
  • Real estate holdings;
  • Bonding;
  • Reporting; and
  • Disclosure.

For regulatory information, click to access the EBSA Enforcement Manual.

In a related online interview for the Professional Liability Underwriting Society ("PLUS"), Chartis Executive Vice President Rhonda Prussack cites financial distress (including the filing for bankruptcy protection) as a significant concern for ERISA fiduciary liability. She adds that a troubled plan sponsor may see the value of company-issued securities plummet which in turn could trigger an ERISA "stock drop" case if such securities are part of the mix for a 401(k) or profit-sharing plan. A company seeking to save cash may switch from a defined benefit plan to a cash balance plan which in turn could pave the way for a lawsuit over allegations relating to the change in design. A company in trouble could shut down factories, instigate large-scale layoffs and/or cut back benefits, all of which lead to unhappy individuals who are more likely to sue. Ms. Prussack emphasizes that happy workers are less likely to sue. She further adds that plan participant actions are likely to take the form of putative class actions.

The bottom line is that there is a long list of potential risk exposures for ERISA fiduciaries and a continued need to mitigate liability.

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