Articles Posted by James K. Estabrook

On Monday, Jan. 24, 2022, in the case Hughes vs. Northwestern, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a fiduciary’s duty to monitor investments in defined contribution retirement plans means the plan cannot include non-prudent investments. In reaching this conclusion, the Court recognized that fiduciaries have an ongoing obligation to monitor plan investments. Simply offering participants a diverse menu of investment options is not sufficient to insulate fiduciaries from potential liability.

The Holding in Hughes v. Northwestern.

In Hughes, employees of Northwestern University participated in two defined contribution 401(k) plans offered by the University. The employees alleged that the trustees of the plans breached their fiduciary duty to the participants by “(1) failing to monitor and control recordkeeping fees, resulting in unreasonably high costs to plan participants; (2) offering mutual funds and annuities in the form of “retail” share classes that carried higher fees than those charged for otherwise identical share classes (institutional share class) of the same investments; and (3) offering investment options that were likely to confuse investors.” Both the trial court and the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals accepted Northwestern’s argument that even if some options were not prudent, there was no violation of ERISA’s prudence standard because the plans offered a diverse menu of investment options that the plaintiffs agreed were prudent.

UPDATE:  On March 7, 2022, Governor Murphy once again lifted the COVID-19 public health emergency, and consequently the presumption created by SB2380.

In an effort to combat the rapidly spreading COVID-19 Omicron variant, on January 13, 2022, Governor Murphy reactivated a presumption that essential workers’ contraction of the virus is work-related for purposes of workers’ compensation claims.

The Rise and Fall of The Workplace Presumption for Essential Workers. To establish a compensable COVID-19 claim under New Jersey’s Workers’ Compensation Act, the employee must show that he/she contracted the virus directly from the workplace. The difficulty in establishing where an individual contracts a communicable disease explains the scarcity of compensable seasonal influenza workplace claims. However, on September 14, 2020, Governor Murphy signed SB2380, retroactive to March 9th, removing this requirement in COVID-19 cases for essential workers during a public health emergency declared by the Governor, by creating a presumption that the employee contracted the virus in the workplace. Under the bill, the presumption of workplace contraction can only be refuted by a preponderance of the evidence showing the essential worker was not exposed to COVID-19 in the workplace.

On November 4, 2021, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued an Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) requiring employers of 100 or more to adopt COVID-19 policies, maintain rosters of vaccinated employees, and provide paid time off to employees to vaccinate or recover from its effect. These mandates were to go into effect on January 10, 2022. By February 9, 2022, employers were to require employees to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination or undergo weekly testing.

On that same date the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) issued an interim rule mandating COVID-19 vaccination and other requirements for workers in most healthcare settings participating in Medicare and Medicaid programs by January 22, 2022.

Legal challenges quickly wound their way through the federal courts, leaving businesses in limbo about their obligations to implement these vaccination and testing mandates. On January 13, 2022 the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) issued decisions on both mandates, imposing a stay on the OSHA ETS vaccination and testing mandates, but upholding the vaccination mandate and other aspects of the CMS for healthcare facilities.

It is very common for parents to provide funds to their children over their lifetime, but are these transfers gifts or loans? A recent ruling in the Tax Court, Estate of Bolles v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2020-71, 119 T.C.M. (CCH) 1502 (June 1, 2020), highlights the importance in estate planning of differentiating between loans and gifts.

Mary Bolles was a loving mother of five children whom she tried to treat equally. Her practice was to keep a record of her advances to and the occasional repayments from each child. Based on her intent and the advice of tax counsel, she treated the advances as loans. She forgave the “debt” account of each child every year to the extent of the annual gift tax exclusion amount. According to the Tax Court, her practice would have been noncontroversial had she not advanced substantial funds to one son, Peter.

When Peter ran into financial difficulties with his architectural business, Mary supported him and between 1985 and 2007 she transferred $1,063,333 to Peter or for his benefit.

On October 29, 2020, the Department of Health and Human Services (“HHS”), the Department of Labor (“DOL”), and Department of Treasury (“DOT”) collaborated to issue a final “transparency rule” aimed at providing greater information to consumers, thereby allowing them to explore different healthcare options and avoid surprise billing for services rendered.  Additionally, the rule requires the public disclosure of negotiated rates for in-network providers and amounts allowed for out-of-network providers.

Disclosure of Provider Rates

Under the rule, non-grandfathered health plans and insurers must publish their negotiated rates and allowable out-of-network charges on a public website, which is to be updated monthly through three machine-readable files.  The website must be publicly available, accessible without charge, and cannot require a user account, password, or other credentials, or submission of personally identifiable information to access the files.  Specifically, the files will reflect negotiated rates for in-network services, historical payments to and billed charges from out-of-network providers, and in-network negotiated rates.  The files must also show historical net prices for covered prescription drugs at the pharmacy level.

We are proud to announce 11 of our attorneys have been named to the 2021 Best Lawyers® list, two of which were named “Lawyer of the Year.” This recognition in The Best Lawyers in America© 2021, identifies each for their leading legal talent in their corresponding practice areas.

The following Lindabury attorneys were named as Best Lawyers honorees:

On June 19, 2020, the IRS released Notice 2020-50, which provides additional guidance and relief for retirement plan participants taking coronavirus-related distributions and loans under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (the “CARES Act”).  Under the CARES Act, “qualified individuals” may take coronavirus-related distributions of up to $100,000 from their eligible retirement plans without being subject to the 10% additional tax on early distributions.  In addition, a coronavirus-related distribution can be included in income ratably over the three-year period commencing with the year of distribution and the individual taking the distribution has three years to repay the distribution to the plan, or roll it over to an Individual Retirement Account (“IRA”) or other qualified retirement plan, with the effect of reversing the income tax consequences of the distribution.  In addition, the CARES Act allows plans to suspend loan repayments due from March 27, 2020 through December 31, 2020 and further allows for an increase in the dollar amount on loans made between March 27, 2020 and September 22, 2020 from $50,000 to $100,000.  Notice 2020-50 expands the definition of qualified individuals under the Act and provides additional, clarifying guidance regarding coronavirus-related distributions and loans.

Expansion of the Definition of “Qualified Individual”

Under the original language of the CARES Act, a qualified individual included the following persons:

On June 5, 2020, the Paycheck Protection Program Flexibility Act of 2020 (“PPPFA”) was signed into law.  The PPPFA is aimed at providing borrowers with additional flexibility to maximize forgiveness of loans received under the Paycheck Protection Program (“PPP”) established as part of the CARES Act.  The following provisions of the PPPFA are highlighted below for your consideration:

  • Extension of Application Period:  The PPPFA extends the final date by which PPP loans can be made from June 30, 2020 to December 31, 2020.  However, a congressional letter clarifies that June 30, 2020 remains the last day for accepting and approving PPP loans.  Although additional guidance may be issued on whether applications will be accepted until December 31, 2020, employers should err on the side of caution and apply for loans prior to June 30, 2020.
  • Repayment Term is Extended:  For those PPP loans originated on or after the date of enactment of the PPPFA, the repayment term for the unforgiven portion of the loan is extended from two to not less than five years.  However, borrowers and lenders may mutually agree to expand the repayment period under existing loans (entered into prior to enactment of the PPPFA).

On May 21, 2020, the U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) announced a final rule allowing employers to post retirement plan disclosures online or furnish them to workers via email.  The rule is aimed at reducing administrative expenses for employers and making information more readily available to workers.

ERISA-covered retirement plans must furnish multiple disclosures each year to participants and beneficiaries. The exact number of disclosures per year depends on the specific type of retirement plan, its features, and in some cases the plan’s funding status.  To deliver these disclosures electronically, plan administrators were previously required to comply with the regulatory safe harbor established in 2002 under 29 CFR 2520.104b-1(c), which required that disclosures be reasonably calculated to ensure that workers actually received the information, including confirmation that the transmitted information was actually received (e.g., using return-receipt or notice of undelivered electronic mail features, conducting periodic reviews or surveys to confirm receipt of the transmitted information).

On August 31, 2018, Executive Order 13847, entitled Strengthening Retirement Security in America, was issued. The Order directed the DOL to review whether regulatory or other actions could be taken to make retirement plan disclosures more understandable for participants and beneficiaries and to focus on reducing the production and distribution costs that retirement plan disclosures impose on employers.  In October 2019, the Department published a proposed regulation with a solicitation for public comment.  In response to the commentary received, a final rule creating a new voluntary safe harbor was established.  The new safe harbor permits the following two optional methods for electronic delivery:

Will your assets pass to family if you die without a Will in New Jersey? Not necessarily. In some cases, a decedent’s property can actually escheat, or revert, to the State of New Jersey when the decedent has living relatives. The only way to ensure that your property is distributed according to your wishes is to execute a Will. While it may be tempting to let estate planning take a back burner to the hustle and bustle of everyday life, having a Will and other necessary estate planning documents helps your loved ones avoid additional hassles at the time of your passing.

Intestacy laws govern what happens to a person’s assets when he or she dies without a Will. Intestacy laws, however, do not interfere with assets that are jointly owned–those go to the survivor; or assets that are subject to a separate designation of beneficiary–those go to the designated beneficiary. In New Jersey, heirs must survive the decedent by at least 120 hours to inherit. New Jersey has adopted an intestacy system that only considers those relatives in the third branch and closer as “heirs” for the purposes of intestate succession. This is known as a parentelic system. The first branch includes the decedent, his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The second branch includes decedent’s parents, siblings, and nieces and nephews down the line to great-grandnieces and great-grandnephews. The third and final branch of heirs for purposes of the New Jersey intestacy laws consists of the decedent’s grandparents and descendants of grandparents including aunts, uncles, and first cousins.

It is important to note that if a decedent dies without a Will and has a spouse or domestic partner, that spouse or partner may not inherit the full estate. This debunks the common misconception that if you pass without a Will, your spouse will automatically receive everything. The surviving spouse or partner’s share depends on many things including but not limited to whether the couple had children together, whether there are children from a prior marriage, and whether the decedent has parents who are still living.

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