Articles Posted in Employee Benefits

In Hager v. DBG Partners, Inc., No. 17-11147 (5th Cir. 2018), after plaintiff David Hager (“Hager”) was fired by defendant, DBG Partners, Inc (“DBG”), he obtained continuation coverage under DBG’s ERISA health care plan through COBRA.  Hager later filed this suit, alleging that DBG had discontinued its health plan without notifying him, violating COBRA’s notice requirements.  The district court dismissed Hager’s claim on the eve of trial, concluding that ERISA did not provide Hager with a remedy.  Hager appeals.

Upon reviewing the case, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals (the “Court”) reversed the district court’s decision.  COBRA has a notice provision, in  29 U.S.C.S. § 1166(a)(4), which applies to former employees receiving COBRA benefits.  DBG discontinued its health plan earlier than 18 months after Hager was fired.  It therefore had an obligation-under the COBRA notice provision- to notify Hager “as soon as practicable” that it was discontinuing coverage.  Hager adequately alleged that DBG did not fulfill its notice obligations under COBRA.  Hagar could be entitled to the penalty award under 29 U.S.C.S. § 1132(c)(1) because of DBG’s failure to provide the notice.

In WHD Opinion Letter FMLA2018-2-A, the U.S. Department of Labor (the “DOL”) concluded that organ-donation surgery can qualify as a “serious health condition” under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (the “FMLA”).  Here is what the DOL said.

BACKGROUND.  The FMLA entitles eligible employees of covered employers to unpaid, job-protected leave for specified family and medical reasons.  Eligible employees may take up to 12 workweeks of leave in a 12-month period for, among other things, a serious health condition that renders the employee unable to perform the functions of his or her job. 29 U.S.C. § 2612(a)(1)(D); 29 C.F.R. § 825.112(a)(4).

The FMLA defines “serious health condition” as an “illness, injury, impairment, or physical or mental condition that involves” either “inpatient care in a hospital, hospice, or residential medical care facility” or “continuing treatment by a health care provider.” 29 U.S.C. § 2611(11).  Implementing regulations define “inpatient care” as “an overnight stay in a hospital, hospice, or residential medical care facility, including any period of incapacity… or any subsequent treatment in connection with such inpatient care.” 29 C.F.R. § 825.114.  The regulations also specify that “continuing treatment” includes “incapacity and treatment,” “chronic conditions,” “permanent or long-term conditions,” and “conditions requiring multiple treatments.” 29 C.F.R. § 825.115.  For all conditions, “incapacity” means “inability to work, attend school or perform other regular daily activities due to the serious health condition, treatment therefore, or recovery therefrom,” and “treatment” includes “examinations to determine if a serious health condition exists and evaluations of the condition.” 29 C.F.R. § 825.113(b), (c).  An employee is incapacitated if he or she is “unable to work at all or is unable to perform any one of the essential functions of the employee’s position,” including when the employee “must be absent from work to receive medical treatment.” 29 C.F.R. §§ 825.113(b), .123(a).

The Internal Revenue Service (the “IRS”) has issued a Private Letter Ruling in which an employer proposes to amend its 401(k) plan in a manner which will help its employees accumulate moneys to pay off student loans.

In PLR 201833012 (dated August 17, 2018), the Internal Revenue Service (the “IRS”) was faced with the following proposed amendment to a 401(k) plan (the “Plan”).

An employer proposed to amend the Plan to offer a student loan benefit program (the “Program”).  Under the Program, the employer would make an employer nonelective contribution on behalf of an employee, conditioned on that employee making student loan repayments (the “SLR Nonelective Contribution”).  The Program is voluntary.  An employee must elect to enroll, and once enrolled, may opt out of enrollment on a prospective basis.

In IRS Tax Reform Tax Tip 2018-69, May 4, 2018, the IRS offers guidance on the tax credit available to employers for paid family and medical leave.  Here is what the Tax Tip says:

During National Small Business Week, the IRS focuses on educating employers about the employer credit for paid family and medical leave created by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act passed last year. Employers may claim the credit based on wages paid to qualifying employees while they are on family and medical leave.

Here are some facts about this credit and how it benefits employers:

In Pizza Pro Equipment Leasing, Inc. v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, No. 17-1297 (8th Cir. 2018) (Unpublished Opinion), Pizza Pro Equipment Leasing, Inc. (“Pizza Pro”) appeals a tax court decision upholding determinations by the Commissioner of Internal Revenue that it owes excise taxes and additions to tax related to its defined benefit pension plan.  After reviewing the case, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals (the “Court”) affirmed the district court’s ruling.

In this case, in 1995, Pizza Pro established a defined benefit pension plan (the “Plan”).  This case involves a dispute about a limitation on the Plan’s annual benefit, see I.R.C. § 415(b)(2)(C), which in turn determines Pizza Pro’s deductible contributions to the Plan.  The Commissioner concluded that from 2002 to 2006 Pizza Pro incorrectly calculated the limitation on the annual benefit and therefore made nondeductible contributions to the Plan. See I.R.C. § 404(j)(1)(A).  Section 4972 of the Internal Revenue Code imposes “a tax equal to 10 percent of the nondeductible contributions.”  The Commissioner further imposed additions to tax for failure to file a return of excise taxes and to timely pay the excise tax owed. See I.R.C. § 6651(a)(1) & (a)(2).

Pizza Pro petitioned the tax court, challenging the excise tax and additions.  The tax court decided the case without trial based on the parties’ stipulated facts and expert reports, and it upheld the Commissioner’s determinations.  It also concluded that Pizza Pro did not make a valid election under I.R.C. § 4972(c)(7), which allows a taxpayer to disregard contributions to a defined benefit plan under certain conditions, thereby avoiding the excise tax on nondeductible contributions.  Pizza Pro timely appealed.

In Notice 2018-24 (the “Notice”), the Internal Revenue Service (the “IRS”) requests comments on the potential expansion of the scope of the determination letter program for individually designed plans during the 2019 calendar year, beyond provision of determination letters for initial qualification and qualification upon plan termination.  Here is what the IRS says:

INTRODUCTION:  In reviewing comments submitted in response to this Notice, the Department of the Treasury (the “Treasury Department”) and the IRS will consider the factors regarding the scope of the determination letter program set forth in section 4.03(3) of Revenue Procedure 2016-37, 2016-29 I.R.B. 136.  The Treasury Department and the IRS will issue guidance if they identify any additional types of plans for which plan sponsors may request determination letters during the 2019 calendar year.

BACKGROUND:  Revenue Procedure 2016-37 sets forth procedures for issuing determination letters and describes an extension of the remedial amendment period for individually designed plans.  Effective January 1, 2017, the sponsor of an individually designed plan may submit a determination letter application only for initial plan qualification, for qualification upon plan termination, and in certain other limited circumstances identified in subsequent published guidance.  Section 4.03(3) of Rev. Proc. 2016-37 provides that the Treasury Department and the IRS will consider each year whether to accept determination letter applications for individually designed plans in specified circumstances other than for initial qualification and qualification upon plan termination.

The case of  Duncan v. Muzyn, No. 17-5389 (6th Cir. 2018), Jerry Duncan and a class of pension-plan participants sued their employer and its pension system when the system cut their benefits. Their suit has already produced one appeal before this the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals (the “Court”). Duncan v. Muzyn, 833 F.3d 567 (6th Cir. 2016). They now pursue the second.

In this case, the Tennessee Valley Authority (the “TVA”) provides funding for the Tennessee Valley Authority Retirement System (“the Plan”). A seven-member board (“the Board”) administers the Plan and manages its assets. And the Plan, in turn, provides defined benefits to participants. That means the Plan, by way of the TVA’s contributions, pays a pension benefit to participants in a defined amount.  That benefit includes a cost-of-living adjustment.  In 2009, the Plan found itself in financial trouble. Thanks in no small part to the recession, the Plan’s liabilities exceeded its assets and it needed to make some changes to ensure its long-term stability. So the Board cut some benefits. These cuts included temporarily lowering cost-of-living adjustments while also increasing the age at which certain Plan participants would first become eligible to receive cost-of-living adjustments. This litigation followed.

There are two issues in this appeal. First, Plaintiffs maintain that the Board failed to give proper notice to the TVA and Plan members before it made the cuts. Second, Plaintiffs contend that the Board violated the Plan’s rules by paying their cost-of-living adjustments for certain years out of the wrong account, an accounting claim. The district court granted summary judgment for the TVA and the Board on both claims.

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 (the “Act”), which was enacted on December 22, 2017, extends the time for rolling over the plan offset amount (defined below) from an outstanding plan loan, thereby helping the borrowing participant to avoid adverse tax consequences.

Background.  A qualified defined contribution retirement plan (such as a 401(k) plan) often allows a participant to take a loan from his or her individual account under the plan.  The loans are repaid through installment payments made at least quarterly.  The participant may terminate employment (or the plan may terminate) while there is an outstanding balance on the loan.  In such case, the plan may provide the following: The outstanding balance will become immediately due and payable to the plan.  Should the participant fail to make the payment, the plan will terminate the loan, and reduce the balance of the participant’s individual account by the amount of the outstanding loan balance. This reduction is called a “plan offset”, and the amount of the reduction is called a “plan offset amount”.

The plan offset amount is taxed to the participant as ordinary income. Further, if the participant is under age 59 and ½, the plan offset amount will be subject to the 10 percent excise tax on the early plan distributions.  However, the tax as ordinary income and 10% excise tax can be avoided, if the plan offset amount is rolled over by the participant, within 60 days after the date of the offset by the plan, to an eligible retirement plan (generally a qualified retirement plan or an IRA).

The IRS has issued a memorandum (TE/GE-04-1017-0033) which directs EP examiners not to challenge a qualified plan as failing to satisfy the required minimum distribution (“RMD”) standards under Internal Revenue Code (“IRC”) § 401(a)(9) in the circumstances it describes.  The memorandum is helpful to practitioners, as it indicates what the IRS will do (or not do) in specified circumstances, and therefore provides guidance on actions that a plan should be taking.

The memorandum states that it addresses only the application of IRC §401(a)(9) to certain circumstances involving a plan’s action related to a benefit of a participant or beneficiary whom the plan is unable to locate, and does not address the application of any other qualification requirements or other applicable law, including Title I of ERISA. The memorandum then says the following:

Background

In Morrissey v. United States, No. 17-10685 (11th Cir. 2017), the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals (the “Court) was called on to determine whether the IRS properly denied a taxpayer’s claimed deduction on his 2011 tax return.  In making this determination, the Court had to decide two questions.  First: was the money that a homosexual man paid to father children through in vitro fertilization (“IVF”)—and in particular, to identify, retain, compensate, and care for the women who served as an egg donor and a gestational surrogate—spent “for the purpose of affecting” his body’s reproductive “function” within the meaning of Code Section 213 (and therefore deductible under that Section)?  Second: in answering the first question “no,” and thus in disallowing the taxpayer’s deduction of his IVF-related expenses, did the IRS violate his right to equal protection of the laws either by infringing a “fundamental right” or by engaging in unconstitutional discrimination?

Upon analyzing the case, the Court held that the costs of the IVF-related procedures at issue were not paid for the purpose of affecting the taxpayer’s own reproductive function—and therefore are not deductible under Code Section 213—and that the IRS did not violate the Constitution in disallowing the deduction.