ERISA

Significant ESG Movement on the ERISA Front

Legislation is afoot that would amend ERISA to expressly permit fiduciaries to account for environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors as part of their fiduciary duties. The proposed legislation, the Financial Factors in Selecting Retirement Plan Investments Act, was introduced by Senator Tina Smith (D-MN). It expressly permits, but does not compel, fiduciaries to “consider” ESG and similar factors when selecting investments or strategies on behalf of an ERISA-covered retirement plan. The legislation also permits fiduciaries to consider “collateral” factors “as tie-breakers when competing investments can reasonably be expected to serve the plan’s economic interest equally well with respect to expected return and risk over the appropriate time horizon.” Under either scenario, the fiduciary need not “maintain any greater documentation, substantiation, or other justification” when considering the ESG or similar factors. Notably, the bill provides that an investment selected based on ESG or similar factors (including such factors used as a tie-breaker) may be a permissible default investment option (a “qualified default investment alternative” (QDIA)) for a plan that uses a default investment option as part of its menu. Lastly, the US Department of Labor’s (DOL) 2020 Financial Factors rule would cease to have force or effect upon the enactment of the legislation.

Meanwhile, President Joe Biden just issued an Executive Order on Climate-Related Financial Risk, in which he directed the DOL to consider proposing by September 2021 a rule that would suspend, revise or rescind the Financial Factors and proxy voting rules promulgated under the Trump Administration. The Executive Order further directed the DOL to consider taking any other action under ERISA “to protect the life savings and pensions of United States workers and families from the threats of climate-related financial risk.”

Should the legislation pass, it could provide fiduciaries limited additional comfort that the incorporation of ESG factors in their investment decision-making complies with ERISA’s fiduciary duties. The trend is toward incorporating ESG factors into an investment process for their effect on investment performance, and existing guidance, including the Financial Factors rule, should already provide fiduciaries enough of a roadmap to do so in accordance with ERISA. The legislation also seeks to dial back the documentation requirements of the Financial Factors rule, which may indeed ease some of the angst over foot faults and the resulting liability exposure. Though the DOL removed all references to “ESG” in the final Financial Factors rule, some argued the rule’s aggressive proposal, coupled with the Trump Administration’s overall stance on climate change, was designed to curb ERISA fiduciaries’ appetite for ESG. Yet, carefully documenting important decisions is already a well-established requirement and technique used by fiduciaries to mitigate their fiduciary duty risk.

It is a big deal that, with a rescission of the Financial Factors rule, fiduciaries would seemingly no longer have to comb through a fund’s prospectus and marketing materials for references to non-pecuniary factors, nor would the fiduciary need to scrutinize a fund manager’s use of screens or ratings. These requirements obviously present legal risk to a fiduciary and, therefore, may deter some fiduciaries from considering ESG products. But they also may serve as useful guideposts for fiduciaries trying to avoid selecting a greenwashed fund. An unintended consequence of the legislation could be that stripping out specific actions a fiduciary must take to navigate the intricate ESG landscape perhaps deters more plan sponsors from adding ESG to their plans than if the guideposts (and associated legal risks) remained.

It is also a big deal that the proposed legislation would allow a fund, which incorporates ESG factors for non-investment performance reasons, to serve as QDIA. The Financial Factors rule outright prohibited such a result. This change will likely give some plan sponsors comfort in selecting an ESG-themed QDIA that does not base ESG decisions on risk and return criteria, for example. However, the zealous litigation routinely brought against defined contribution plan sponsors over the selection of investment options has largely resulted in playing it safe. Plan sponsors know they will be second-guessed. This change, therefore, is unlikely to dramatically increase the adoption of ESG by ERISA plans, which continue to lag other institutional investors on that score.

The Executive Order is worth watching. The DOL may opt to impose affirmative obligations on fiduciaries to mitigate climate change risk to the plan. The imposition of any such obligation will likely be litigated.

In sum, ESG is and will remain entirely relevant to ERISA fiduciaries. Under ERISA and existing guidance, fiduciaries may take ESG factors into account when investing plan assets or selecting investment options for a plan lineup. With ESG top of mind for the current Congress and White House, ERISA fiduciaries should continue to evaluate whether taking ESG into account is prudent under the circumstances.

Springtime DOL Updates

By George Michael Gerstein and John “JJ” Dikmak Jr.

As we await even more fiduciary-related rules and guidance from the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) over the coming months, we take stock of some lower-profile spring updates worth noting. We begin with the DOL’s recent cybersecurity guidance, the first of its kind, as cybersecurity becomes an increasingly important issue for plan sponsors and service providers. We conclude with some new DOL guidance related to locating missing plan participants.

Cybersecurity

On April 14, the DOL released a batch of guidance that attempts to clarify best practices for maintaining cybersecurity. The first of the guidance, aimed at plan sponsors and other fiduciaries, offers tips for hiring third-party service providers and ensuring they maintain strong cybersecurity practices. The second batch of guidance offers cybersecurity best practices for plan recordkeepers and plan fiduciaries. A final release offered tips for plan participants who access their account information online but will not be discussed here. These are the first cybersecurity guidance provided by the DOL.

The following tips offered by the DOL are designed to help fiduciaries meet their obligations under ERISA in prudently selecting and monitoring service providers:

  1. Ask about the service provider’s information security standards, practices, policies, and audit results and compare them to industry standards.
  2. Ask the service provider how it validates its practices and what levels of security standards it has met and implemented. Consider looking at contract provisions that confer rights to review audit results demonstrating compliance with the standards.
  3. Evaluate the track record of the service provider, including litigation brought against the service provider.
  4. Ask if the service provider has experienced security breaches and, if so, what happened, how the provider responded, and how it was resolved.
  5. Inquire if the service provider has insurance that would cover losses caused by cybersecurity and identity theft breaches.
  6. Include ongoing compliance with cybersecurity and information security standards as a part of the service provider’s contractual commitments. If possible, include terms that will enhance these protections, such as:

a. Require the service provider to obtain an annual audit from a third-party to evaluate the service provider’s compliance with information security policies and procedures.

b. Clearly stated provisions outlining the service provider’s obligations and restrictions on the use and sharing of information.

c. Require notification of any cybersecurity breaches.

d. Specific requirement to meet all federal, state and local laws, regulations, directives and requirements related to record retention, destruction, privacy, and security.

e. Required insurance to cover losses related to cybersecurity losses. This may include professional liability, errors and omissions liability, cyber liability, and/or privacy breach insurance.

In the second batch of guidance, the DOL offered best practices for plan recordkeepers and other service providers responsible for plan-related data. The list also includes the best practices for a plan fiduciary hiring one of these service providers. These best practices include:

  1. Have a formal, well-documented cybersecurity program. DOL highlighted 18 specific areas an effective policy would cover, including data governance and classification, access controls and identity management, business continuity and disaster recovery, configuration management, asset management, and risk assessment.
  2. Conduct prudent annual risk assessments. The scope, methodology, and frequency of assessments should be codified.
  3. Have a reliable annual third-party audit of security controls.
  4. Clearly define and assign information security roles and responsibilities. This includes clearly defining the roles of upper management, especially the Chief Information Security Officer (CISO).
  5. Have strong access control procedures which cover both authentication and authorization.
  6. Ensure that any assets or data stored in a cloud or managed by a third-party service provider are subject to appropriate security reviews and independent security assessments.
  7. Perform cybersecurity awareness training at least annually.
  8. Implement and manage a secure system development life cycle (SDLC) program.
  9. Have an effective business resiliency program addressing business continuity, disaster recovery, and incident response.
  10. Encrypt sensitive data, stored and in transit.
  11. Implement strong technical controls in accordance with best security practices.
  12. Appropriately respond to any past cybersecurity incidents. This would include notifying law enforcement, informing insurers, investigations, providing plan participants with information to assist in preventing or reducing their loss, honoring contractual terms, such as notification requirements, and fixing the problems which caused the breach.

Missing Participants

Earlier this year, the DOL provided a set of best practices for fiduciaries of defined benefit and defined contribution plans to locate missing participants and beneficiaries. Some “red flags” that a plan’s current approach may be insufficient for locating a missing or non-responsive participant include a large number of missing or non-responsive participants; missing, incomplete or inaccurate contact and other pertinent information (email, social security numbers, addresses, etc.), and the absence of adequate policies and procedures for handling returned mail marked “return to sender,” “wrong address” and the like.

The DOL’s list of best practices (copied below) are those that “have proven effective at minimizing and mitigating the problem of missing or non-responsive participants.” These practices are non-exhaustive, and some may be more appropriate for a particular plan than others. Ultimately, “[r]esponsible plan fiduciaries should consider what practices will yield the best results in a cost-effective manner for their plan’s particular participant population.”

1. Maintaining accurate census information for the plan’s participant population

  • Contacting participants, both current and retired, and beneficiaries on a periodic basis to confirm or update their contact information. Relevant contact information could include home and business addresses, telephone numbers (including cell phone numbers), social media contact information, and next of kin/emergency contact information. Well-run plans regularly reconfirm that the information in their possession is accurate.
  • Including contact information change requests in plan communications along with a reminder to advise the plan of any changes in contact information.
  • Flagging undeliverable mail/email and uncashed checks for follow-up.
  • Maintaining and monitoring an online platform for the plan that participants can use to update contact information for themselves and their spouses/beneficiaries, if any, and incorporating such updates into the plan’s census information.
  • Providing prompts for participants and beneficiaries to confirm contact information upon login to online platforms.
  • Regularly requesting updates to contact information for beneficiaries, if any.
  • Regularly auditing census information and correcting data errors.
  • In the case of a change in record keepers or a business merger or acquisition by the plan sponsor, addressing the transfer of appropriate plan information (including participant and beneficiary contact information) and relevant employment records (e.g., next of kin information and emergency contacts). [DOL] has found that in the context of an acquisition, merger, or divestiture, well-run plans make missing participant searches of plan, related plan (e.g., health plan) and employer records (e.g., payroll records) part of the collection and transfer of records.

2. Implementing effective communication strategies

  • Using plain language and offering non-English language assistance when and where appropriate.
  • Stating upfront and prominently what the communication is about – e.g., eligibility to start payment of pension benefits, a request for updated contact information, etc.
  • Encouraging contact through plan/plan sponsor websites and toll-free numbers.
  • Building steps into the employer and plan onboarding and enrollment processes for new employees, and exit processes for separating or retiring employees, to confirm or update contact information, confirm information needed to determine when benefits are due and to correctly calculate the amount of benefits owed, and advise employees of the importance of ensuring that the plan has accurate contact information at all times.
  • Communicating information about how the plan can help eligible employees consolidate accounts from prior employer plans or rollover IRAs.
  • Clearly marking envelopes and correspondence with the original plan or sponsor name for participants who separated before the plan or sponsor name changed, for example, during a corporate merger, and indicating that the communication relates to pension benefit rights.

3. Missing participant searches

  • Checking related plan and employer records for participant, beneficiary and next of kin/emergency contact information. While the plan may not possess current contact information, it is possible that the employer’s payroll records or the records maintained by another of the employer’s plans, such as a group health plan, may have more up-to-date information. If there are privacy concerns, the person engaged in the search can request that the employer or other plan fiduciary forward a letter from the plan to the missing participant or beneficiary.
  • Checking with designated plan beneficiaries (e.g., spouse, children) and the employee’s emergency contacts (in the employer’s records) for updated contact information; if there are privacy concerns, asking the designated beneficiary or emergency contact to forward a letter to the missing participant or beneficiary.
  • Using free online search engines, public record databases (such as those for licenses, mortgages and real estate taxes), obituaries, and social media to locate individuals.
  • Using a commercial locator service, a credit-reporting agency, or a proprietary internet search tool to locate individuals.
  • Attempting contact via United States Postal Service (USPS) certified mail, or private delivery service with similar tracking features if less expensive than USPS certified mail, to the last known mailing address.
  • Attempting contact via other available means such as email addresses, telephone and text numbers, and social media.
  • If participants are non-responsive over a period of time, using death searches (e.g., Social Security Death Index) as a check and, to the extent such search confirms a participant’s death, redirecting communications to beneficiaries.
  • Reaching out to the colleagues of missing participants by, for example, contacting employees who worked in the same office (e.g., a small employer with one or two locations) or by publishing a list of “missing” participants on the company’s intranet, in email notices to existing employees, or in communications with other retirees who are already receiving benefits. Similarly, for unionized employees, some have reached out to the union’s local offices and through union member communications to find missing retirees.
  • Registering missing participants on public and private pension registries with privacy and cybersecurity protections (e.g., National Registry of Unclaimed Retirement Benefits), and publicizing the registry through emails, newsletters, and other communications to existing employees, union members, and retirees.
  • Searching regularly using some or all of the above steps.

4. Documenting procedures and actions

  • Reducing the plan’s policies and procedures to writing to ensure they are clear and result in consistent practices.
  • Documenting key decisions and the steps and actions taken to implement the policies.
  • For plans that use third party record keepers to maintain plan records and handle participant communications, ensuring the record keeper is performing agreed-upon services, and working with the record keeper to identify and correct shortcomings in the plan’s recordkeeping and communication practices, including establishing procedures for obtaining relevant information held by the employer.

Are You Sure You Can Use the QPAM Exemption?

For many investment managers, the ability to act as “QPAM” is essential to managing retirement account assets. Indeed, status as a QPAM likely provides a sort of credentialing boost in the eyes of prospective plan clients and, more importantly, signals the investment manager’s ability to rely upon the “QPAM Exemption,” a highly versatile exemption used to cure various prohibited transactions under ERISA and Section 4975 of the Internal Revenue Code when it exercises discretion over plan assets. To be a QPAM, however, is not tantamount to satisfying the QPAM Exemption. Moreover, the QPAM Exemption itself is subject to myriad conditions, the failure to meet only one of which can wreak havoc on a compliance strategy. Here, we provide an overview and highlight potential trap doors in a Q&A format.

What is a QPAM?

A QPAM is a “qualified professional asset manager” within the meaning of Part VI(a) of the QPAM Exemption (Prohibited Transaction Class Exemption 84-14). An investment adviser registered under the Advisers Act, for example, is generally eligible to be a QPAM, provided it has total client assets under management of more than $85 million as of the last day of its most recent fiscal year and more than $1 million in shareholders’ or partners’ equity. Thus, newly formed investment managers may need to rely on an alternative exemption for trading, such as Section 408(b)(17) of ERISA, during its first year of operations.

What is the QPAM Exemption, and why is it important?

Fiduciaries of employee benefit plans subject to Title I of ERISA and plans subject to Section 4975 of the Internal Revenue Code (e.g., IRAs) must avoid entering into prohibited transactions for which no exemption is available. A prohibited transaction includes the purchase and sale of securities or other property to a “party in interest.” For example, a swap transaction with a bank would be a prohibited transaction if the bank is a party in interest to the plan client. Virtually all financial service firms will assume they are a party in interest. This is why nearly all ISDA Schedules will include representations from the investment manager that the QPAM Exemption will be met with respect to the transactions. Simply, an investment manager may be hard-pressed to enter into many types of transactions on behalf of plan clients without representing that it can satisfy the QPAM Exemption (while the bank-counterparty in this example may seek a representation from the investment manager that it is a QPAM, the bank would only be interested in knowing that in the context of ensuring the QPAM Exemption can otherwise be met).

To be fair, the QPAM Exemption is not the only game in town. It is, however, a tried and true exemptive approach that facilitates many types of trades an investment manager may want to conduct on behalf of a plan client. Reliance on alternative exemptions may be feasible from a legal standpoint but nevertheless could slow negotiations down. Practically speaking, then, it is important for most investment managers who have discretionary responsibility over plan assets to become familiar with the nuances of the QPAM Exemption and ultimately comply with it.

For purposes of the prohibited transaction rules, is it enough to be a QPAM?

An investment manager’s status as a QPAM is important, but only insofar as the rest of the QPAM Exemption can also be satisfied. In other words, the QPAM Exemption contains several conditions; to meet the definition of a QPAM itself is but one condition.

What are the other conditions of the QPAM Exemption?

Here is an overview of the other key conditions of the QPAM Exemption:

  1. The investment manager (i.e., the QPAM) acknowledges in writing that it is a fiduciary to the plan client.
  2. The entity appointing the QPAM (or entering into the investment management agreement with the QPAM) is not the counterparty (or affiliate) with respect to the transaction. There is a useful exception to this condition for commingled investment funds where no plan (or plans established by the same employer) holds a 10 percent or more interest in the fund.
  3. The counterparty is not the QPAM or otherwise related to the QPAM (i.e., the QPAM Exemption does not cover self-dealing prohibited transaction issues).
  4. No plan, when combined with the assets of other plans established by the same employer, represents more than 20 percent of the QPAM’s total client assets under management.
  5. The terms of the transaction are negotiated by the QPAM, and the QPAM makes the decision to enter into the transaction on behalf of the plan.
  6. The terms of the transaction are at least as favorable to the plan as the terms generally available in an arm’s length transaction between unrelated parties.
  7. Neither the QPAM, any affiliate, nor certain other persons have been convicted of certain U.S. or non-U.S. crimes (e.g., larceny, forgery, theft, counterfeiting, etc.) within the past 10 years. This condition has proven challenging for some large financial services firms with affiliates around the globe that may have been convicted of non-U.S. crimes.

Each and every one of these conditions have to be met.

How should an investment manager proceed?

As evident from the conditions outlined above, the QPAM Exemption cannot be put on autopilot. Investment managers should be cognizant that satisfaction of the QPAM Exemption needs to be battle-tested prior to making a contractual representation to a client or a counterparty that the exemption can be complied with by the investment manager. Investment managers should also be sensitive to the fact that some clients of theirs may conflate an investment manager’s status as a QPAM with the investment manager’s ability to satisfy the QPAM Exemption. Should this occur, both parties may have a false sense of security that the QPAM Exemption can be met for the investment mandate. The existence of non-exempt prohibited transactions by an investment manager can result in severe monetary penalties and reputational harm. If the QPAM Exemption is unavailable for some reason, one or more alternative exemptions may be available, though they should be evaluated prior to entering into the investment management agreement and any trading.