Recent Enforcement Actions, Changing Regulations Highlight Fiduciary Risks
On March 29, 2011, the Labor Department sued the owner of Eyeglass Factory, Inc. (EGF), Stephen Schaffer, for breach of fiduciary duties under ERISA by failing to ensure that EGF timely forwarded health plan contributions collected from employees to pay health plan contributions to the plan and failing to ensure that he and other plan fiduciaries and service providers were bonded in accordance with ERISA's fidelity bond requirements. The Labor Department suit charges that from July 1, 2000 to October 1, 2000, Schaffer and EGF withheld and failed to forward to the health plan contributions deducted from employee pay for health insurance coverage and contributions made to the flexible benefit plan sponsored by EGF from January 1, 2000 to December 4, 2000. The employees' paycheck withholdings were commingled with the company's general assets and used for its general operating expenses. The Labor Department is asking the court to order that Schaffer and other defendants make restitution to the plan for the misapplied contributions, including lost opportunity costs, to correct prohibited transactions and to appoint an independent fiduciary to oversee the plans once Schaffer is removed as the plan fiduciary.
The Schaffer suit follows the Labor Department's successful prosecution of a breach of fiduciary duty action against Larry Lauterback, the president and former owner of a Minnesota Cement Company, for his role in allowing his construction company to commingle with company assets and divert to company use employee health and 401(k) contributions withheld from employee's pay. In Solis v. Larry Lauterback, the District Court ordered Lauterback to restore $17,273.18 in unremitted employee contributions and lost opportunity costs to the company's health and dental plan, and $747.20 in unremitted employee contributions to the company's 401(k) plan and enjoins Lauterback from serving or acting as a fiduciary or service provider to any employee benefit plan for three years.. The order followed the entry of a consent judgment against Lauterback and the plan sponsor, Slate Cement, Inc., for failure to remit employee contributions, failure to forward employee contributions to medical and dental providers, co-mingling employee contributions of the general assets and using those assets for company operations.
The Schaffer and Lauterback actions taken in March, 2011 are only the most recent in a series of enforcement actions taken against business executives, board members, plan vendors and others for their role in committing or failing to take prudent steps to prevent or redress alleged misconduct relating to the maintenance, administration and funding of various employee benefit programs regulated by ERISA. In recent months and years, the Labor Department has filed several lawsuits against business executives and businesses for alleged breaches of fiduciary duties. While misuse of employee contributions by plan sponsors is a common focus of many of these actions, plan sponsors, plan service providers and members of their management with discretionary authority or responsibility over plan assets or administration or the election of those appointed to administer those responsibilities often arise out of the failure or these individuals to take prudent steps to prevent, monitor or address misconduct by other plan fiduciaries or service providers.
Plan sponsors, fiduciaries, service providers and their management should anticipate these risks and their attendant responsibilities will continue to rise as the Labor Department moves forward to adopt and implement revisions and enhancements to its fiduciary regulations such as those provided for in the new "Interim Final Regulation Relating to Improved Fee Disclosure for Pension Plans" scheduled to take effect in July, 2011 and the Proposed Regulation on the "Definition of the Term Fiduciary'' published by the Labor Department in July and October, 2010 respectively.
Meanwhile, the Labor Department enforcement activities highlight the longstanding and ongoing policy of aggressive investigation and enforcement of alleged misconduct by companies, company officials, and service providers in connection with the maintenance, administration and funding of ERISA-regulated employee benefit plans. In its Fiscal Year 2010, the Labor Department closed 3,112 civil investigations, of which 2,301 (73.94%) resulted in monetary recoveries or other corrective action. The Labor Department referred 264 cases for civil litigation and filed 128 civil lawsuits. Meanwhile on the criminal side, the Labor Department closed 281 criminal investigations and obtained indictments against 96 people.
In addition to prosecutions brought by the Labor Department, companies and individuals that exercise discretion and control of the administration or funding of employee benefit plans regulated by ERISA also may be sued personally by participants and beneficiaries for breach of fiduciary under ERISA. A review of the Labor Department's enforcement record and existing precedent makes clear that where the Labor Department perceives that a plan sponsor or its management fails to take appropriate steps to protect plan participants, the Labor Department will aggressively pursue enforcement regardless of the size of the plan sponsor or its plan, or the business hardships that the plan sponsor may be facing.
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