Federal law contains provisions forbidding discrimination based on several classifications: race, sex, veteran status, etc. However, no federal law explicitly prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation or transgender status. As a result, many employers in states which do not have their own legislation barring discrimination based on sexual orientation or transgender status have assumed that no laws prohibited such discrimination.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) has now called this assumption into question, by bringing several lawsuits treating discrimination based on sexual orientation or transgender status as a form of sex discrimination prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This issue is a focus of the EEOC’s Strategic Enforcement Plan for 2013-2016. Read more.
What should a retirement plan sponsor do if it discovers that it has overpaid benefits to a retiree or other former employee? The question has recently arisen in the case of the pension plan of Pontiac, Michigan, which accidentally overpaid many of its retirees an average of $1,000 over a 16-month period. Read more.
The Pension Research Council of The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania has done a study on the effects of Utah’s change in its pension system. Before the change, employees participated in a defined benefit plan. Employees hired after the change were given a choice between a hybrid (defined benefit/defined contribution) plan or a straight defined contribution plan. Those who failed to make a choice were automatically assigned to the hybrid plan. In general, either of the new plans was less generous than the old defined benefit plan.
In general, the Pension Research Council found that employees hired after the change had greater turnover than those hired before the change. Moreover, those electing into the hybrid plan were more likely to stay with the employer than those electing into the defined contribution plan. Those who defaulted into the hybrid plan had the highest turnover.
The Pension Research Council concluded that while the change may have saved the state money in pension costs, “public pension reformers must consider employee responses, in addition to potential cost savings, when developing and enacting major pension plan changes.”
This post was updated on June 26, 2015 to reflect the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, which struck down all state bans on same-sex marriage.
The Treasury Department and the IRS announced on August 29, 2013 that all legal same-sex marriages will be recognized for federal tax purposes. On September 18, 2013, the Department of Labor took the same position for purposes of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA“). The announcements and corresponding revenue ruling (Rev. Rul. 2013-17) apply only to marriages legal in the jurisdiction in which performed. They do not apply to civil unions or domestic partnerships. (Of course, parties to a civil union or domestic partnership could still obtain the benefits of the announcement and revenue ruling by getting legally married.) The Treasury and IRS position was later reinforced by the Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, which struck down all state bans on same-sex marriage.
Because employee benefit plans are extensively regulated by federal law, this announcement means that all employers will be required to recognize such marriages for many employee benefits purposes. Conversely, employers in states that treat civil unions or domestic partnerships as if they were marriages will nevertheless be forbidden from treating such arrangements as marriages for certain employee benefits purposes. However, the precise impact will depend on whether the plan is subject to ERISA or whether it is a governmental or church plan exempt from ERISA. The chart below sets forth areas in which the announcement will affect the operation of different types of plans.
In recent years, the Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”) has been allowing plan sponsors to request determination letters on the qualified status of their retirement plans only during certain periods (cycles). For individually designed governmental plans, such a cycle (Cycle E) opened on February 1, 2015, and will remain open until January 31, 2016. Read more
A “qualified” plan is a retirement plan that meets all of the requirements of Internal Revenue Code section 401(a) to obtain certain tax benefits. There are alternative ways of obtaining favorable tax status for a retirement plan, such as Internal Revenue Code section 403(b) (tax-sheltered annuities and custodial accounts), 457(b) deferred compensation plans, or individual retirement accounts or annuities. The determination letter process applies only to qualified plans.
Prototype (volume submitter) plans designed for adoption by a variety of employers are subject to different deadlines, which vary depending on whether they are defined benefit or defined contribution plans. However, such plans are rare in the governmental context.
As of October 9, 2014, the Internal Revenue Service has updated its page on determination letters for governmental plans. The page contains information for any governmental plan considering obtaining an IRS determination letter, including the following: Read more
Highlights of the regulations, as issued by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) today: Read more
A California statewide ballot initiative proposal, The Pension Reform Act of 2014 was filed on October 15, 2013. The proposal if passed would amend the California constitution to provide that employees have no vested rights in future pension and retiree health benefit accruals, but only to benefits accrued based on past employment. As such, it would cause the vesting of public retirement plans in California to be more comparable to the vesting of private retirement plans under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”). The proposal, if adopted, would be particularly significant inasmuch as California has historically been a leader in the recognition of the right of public employees to vesting in future benefit accruals.
Pension plans of businesses and most tax-exempt organizations are subject to federal rules which permit them to discontinue accruals of benefits at any time, so long as previously accrued benefits are preserved. (Internal Revenue Code section 411.) By contrast, pension plans of governmental employers are typically subject to protections under court decisions based on federal or state constitutions provisions forbidding the “impairment of contracts,” which may require the preservation of not only past but future benefit accruals. The leading cases in this area come from California, although courts in other states have often looked to them in interpreting similar constitutional provisions in other states. See, e.g., Betts v. Board of Administration, 21 Cal.3d 859, 864 (1978).
Starting in 2011, California courts have begun applying similar reasoning to the provision of retiree health benefits, as well as pension benefits. In Retired Employees v. Co. of Orange, 52 Cal. 4th 1171, 266 P.3d 287, 134 Cal. Rptr. 3d 779 (2011), the California Supreme Court held that
under California law, a vested right to health benefits for retired county employees can be implied under certain circumstances from a county ordinance or resolution. Whether those circumstances exist in this case is beyond the scope of the question posed to us by the Ninth Circuit.
A recent case from the Los Angeles Superior Court, Los Angeles City Attorneys Association v. City of Los Angeles has provided additional guidance on this issue, although it seems to raise as many questions as it answers.
The article (the full text of which is available only to Tax Notes subscribers) deals with the fact that the IRS failed to release two 2007 Technical Advice Memoranda (TAMs), which indicated that the annual contributions to a defined benefit plan under a deferred retirement option plan (“DROP“) will be treated as a contribution to a separate defined contribution plan (and thus subject to an annual additions limitation) if the contribution is credited with actual plan earnings. While this position was one we had taken in an article back in 1998, it apparently came as news to many local governments. The article also raises questions about the IRS authority to withhold release of TAMs.