U.S. Supreme Court Rules That An SEC Enforcement Claim For Disgorgement Is Subject To A Five-Year Statute Of Limitations

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously held that any claim for disgorgement in an SEC enforcement action must be commenced within five years of the date the claim accrued. The decision in Kokesh v. SEC, No. 16-529, resolved a split among Courts of Appeals whether the statute of limitations that applies to SEC enforcement actions seeking a penalty or forfeiture (28 U.S.C. § 2462) applies when disgorgement is sought. The Court had earlier applied that statute of limitations to claims by the SEC seeking a civil monetary penalty, and held that the limitations period begins to run when the violation occurs, not when it is discovered by the government. Gabelli v. SEC, 568 U.S. 442 (2013).

Supreme Court SCOTUS Class-Action WaiverThe five-year statute of limitations applies to “an action, suit or proceeding for the enforcement of any civil fine, penalty, or forfeiture.” The Court held that the imposition of disgorgement in an SEC enforcement action is a “penalty,” thus subject to the five-year limitations period. In reaching that conclusion, the Court noted that disgorgement is imposed as a consequence of violation of a public law, not because some individual was aggrieved. Another element of the Court’s reasoning was that when disgorgement is ordered in an enforcement action the remedy is not compensatory. Instead, disgorged profits are paid to the court, and it is within the discretion of the court to determine how and to whom the money will be distributed.

Perhaps most important among the Court’s rationales, the primary purpose of disgorgement ordered in an enforcement action is deterrence, and sanctions imposed to deter infractions of public laws are “inherently punitive.” The Court noted that the amount paid is often greater than the defendant’s gain so that the defendant is not, in all cases, merely restored to the status it would have occupied had it not broken the law.

The oral argument in the case included considerable colloquy on the source of a court’s power to order disgorgement in an SEC enforcement action. In its decision the Court stated, “Nothing in this opinion should be interpreted as an opinion on whether courts possess authority to order disgorgement in SEC enforcement proceedings . . . .” (Slip Op., p. 5, n. 3)

The obvious effect of the decision will be to require the SEC to be expeditious in filing cases seeking not only civil monetary penalties but also, now, disgorgement. The Court did not address whether the remedy of an injunction, which often has collateral consequences for the defendant, or of declaratory relief is subject to this statute of limitations. The Court also did not discuss the effect a tolling agreement would have on the running of the statute.

This post was written by Allan Horwich of Schiff Hardin LLP.
Immigration Ban, Temporary Restraining Order

Unanimous Supreme Court Decision in Favor of “Church Plan” Defendants

Today, the Supreme Court handed a long-awaited victory to religiously affiliated organizations operating pension plans under ERISA’s “church plan” exemption. In a surprising 8-0 ruling, the Court agreed with the Defendants that the exemption applies to pension plans maintained by church affiliated organizations such as healthcare facilities, even if the plans were not established by a church. Justice Kagan authored the opinion, with a concurrence by Justice Sotomayor.  Justice Gorsuch, who was appointed after oral argument, did not participate in the decision.  The opinion reverses decisions in favor of Plaintiffs from three Appellate Circuits – the Third, Seventh, and Ninth.

For those of you not familiar with the issue, ERISA originally defined a “church plan” as “a plan established and maintained . . . for its employees . . . by a church.”   Then, in 1980, Congress amended the exemption by adding the provision at the heart of the three consolidated cases.  The new section provides: “[a] plan established and maintained . . . by a church . . . includes a plan maintained by [a principal-purpose] organization.”  The parties agreed that under those provisions, a “church plan” need not be maintained by a church, but they differed as to whether a plan must still have been established by a church to qualify for the church-plan exemption.

The Defendants, Advocate Health Care Network, St. Peter’s Healthcare System, and Dignity Health, asserted that their pension plans are “church plans” exempt from ERISA’s strict reporting, disclosure, and funding obligations.  Although each of the plans at issue was established by the hospitals and not a church, each one of the hospitals had received confirmation from the IRS over the years that their plans were, in fact, exempt from ERISA, under the church plan exemption because of the entities’ religious affiliation.

The Plaintiffs, participants in the pension plans, argued that the church plan exemption was not intended to exempt pension plans of large healthcare systems where the plans were not established by a church.

Justice Kagan’s analysis began by acknowledging that the term “church plan” initially meant only “a plan established and maintained . . . by a church.” But the 1980 amendment, she found, expanded the original definition to “include” another type of plan—“a plan maintained by [a principal-purpose] organization.’”  She concluded that the use of the word “include” was not literal, “but tells readers that a different type of plan should receive the same treatment (i.e., an exemption) as the type described in the old definition.”

Thus, according to Justice Kagan, because Congress included within the category of plans “established and maintained by a church” plans “maintained by” principal-purpose organizations, those plans—and all those plans—are exempt from ERISA’s requirements. Although the DOL, PBGC, and IRS had all filed a brief supporting the Defendants’ position, Justice Kagan mentioned only briefly the agencies long-standing interpretation of the exemption, and did not engage in any “Chevron-Deference” analysis.  Some observers may find this surprising, because comments during oral argument suggested that some of the Justices harbored concerns regarding the hundreds of similar plans that had relied on administrative interpretations for thirty years.

In analyzing the legislative history, Justice Kagan aptly observed, that “[t]he legislative materials in these cases consist almost wholly of excerpts from committee hearings and scattered floor statements by individual lawmakers—the sort of stuff we have called `among the least illuminating forms of legislative history.’” Nonetheless, after reviewing the history, and as she forecasted by her questioning at oral argument (see our March 29, 2017 Blog, Supreme Court Hears “Church Plan” Erisa Class Action Cases), Justice Kagan rejected Plaintiffs’ argument that the legislative history demonstrated an intent to keep the “establishment” requirement.  To do so “would have prevented some plans run by pension boards—the very entities the employees say Congress most wanted to benefit—from qualifying as `church plans’…. No argument the employees have offered here supports that goal-defying (much less that text-defying) statutory construction.”

In sum, Justice Kagan held that “[u]nder the best reading of the statute, a plan maintained by a principal-purpose organization therefore qualifies as a `church plan,’ regardless of who established it.”

Justice Sotomayor filed a concurrence joining the Court’s opinion because she was “persuaded that it correctly interprets the relevant statutory text.” Although she agreed with the Court’s reading of the exemption, she was “troubled by the outcome of these cases.”  Her concern was based on the notion that “Church-affiliated organizations operate for-profit subsidiaries, employee thousands of people, earn billions of dollars in revenue, and compete with companies that have to comply with ERISA.”  This concern appears to be based on the view that some church-affiliated organizations effectively operate as secular, for-profit businesses.

Takeaways:

  • Although this decision is positive news for church plans, it may not be the end of the church plan litigation.  Numerous, large settlements have occurred before and since the Supreme Court took up the consolidated cases, and we expect some will still settle, albeit likely for lower numbers.
  • In addition, Plaintiffs could still push forward with the cases on the grounds that the entities maintaining the church plans are not “principal-purpose organizations” controlled by “a church.”

René E. Thorne and Charles F. Seemann III of Jackson Lewis P.C..

Employer No-Recording Policies May Violate NLRA Says the Second Circuit

On June 1, 2017, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which covers Connecticut, New York and Vermont, upheld a National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) finding that Whole Foods Market Group, Inc.’s no-recording policy was overbroad and violated the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”).

In Whole Foods Market Group, Inc. v. NLRB, Whole Foods’ employee handbook contained a provision that prohibited employees from recording conversations, phone calls, and meetings, without first obtaining managerial approval.  The court concluded that this no-recording policy violated the NLRA.  The NLRA deems it an unfair labor practice “to interfere with, restrain or coerce employees in the exercise of their rights [to, among other things, engage in concerted activities for the purposes of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.]  Whole Foods insisted that its policy was not intended to interfere with employees’ rights to engage in concerted activity or to prevent them from discussing their jobs, and that it was merely a general prohibition against recording in the workplace.  Whole Foods argued that its policy was “to promote employee communication in the workplace” by assuring employees that their remarks would not be recorded.

Whole FoodsThe Second Circuit found, however, that the seemingly neutral policy was overbroad and could “chill” an employee’s exercise of rights under the NLRA.  In other words, the policy prohibited recording regardless of whether the recording involved an exercise of those rights.  As a result, “’employees would reasonably construe the language to prohibit’ recording protected by [the NLRA].”  Despite finding that Whole Foods’ policy violated the NLRA, the Second Circuit said that “[i]t should be possible to craft a policy that places some limits on recording audio and video in the work place that does not violate the [NLRA].”  Such a policy might be acceptable if it was narrow in scope, and furthered a legitimate safety concern.

Previously, in 1989, the Second Circuit held that recording a conversation at work in violation of a no-recording policy might not be sufficient “cause” for the termination of an employment agreement under Connecticut law.  In  Heller v. Champion Int’l Corp, (2d Cir. 1989), the Second Circuit rejected the employer’s assertion that such a recording constituted an act of disloyalty on the employee’s part.  According to the Second Circuit in Heller, the employee’s surreptitious tape-recording to be sure, represents a kind of ‘disloyalty’ to the company, but not necessarily the kind of disloyalty that under these circumstances would warrant dismissal as a matter of law. . . . Considering the range of factors that might have justified [the employee’s] conduct, especially his belief that he was gathering evidence in support of a possible claim of age discrimination, we cannot say that [the employer] had sufficient cause, as a matter of law, to dismiss him.

The Second Circuit’s latest decision in Whole Foods makes clear that an overbroad no-recording policy in the workplace will be stricken in violation of the NLRA.  At the very least, courts may disregard an overbroad policy depending upon the circumstances surrounding the recording.  In order for a no-recording policy to withstand scrutiny, care must be taken to limit the scope of the prohibition, and consider whether the employee’s purpose for recording jeopardizes an employer’s legitimate interest.

This post was written by Salvatore G. Gangemi of Murtha Cullina.

2016 year in review

New York City Tells Fast Food Employees: “You Deserve A Break Today” By Enacting New Fair Workweek Laws

Earlier this week, New York became the third major city in the United States to enact “fair workweek” laws aimed at protecting fast food and retail employees from scheduling practices that are perceived by the employees to be unfair and burdensome.   Following the lead set by San Francisco and Seattle, New York has adopted a series of new laws aimed at enhancing the work life of fast-food and retail employees.  By eliminating certain scheduling practices commonly used by fast food and retail employers, the New York Legislature seeks to protect these employees from unpredictable work schedules and fluctuating income that render it difficult for them to create budgets, schedule child or elder care, pursue further education, or obtain additional employment.   These new laws include the following provisions:

  • Fast food employers must now publish work schedules 14 days in advance;
  • If fast food employers make any changes to an employee’s schedule with less than 14 days’ notice, the employer must pay the employee, in addition to the employee’s normal compensation,  a bonus payment  ranging from $10 to $75 depending on the amount of notice provided of the change;
  • Before hiring new employees, fast food employers must first offer any available work shifts  to current employees, thereby enabling part-time employees desiring more work hours the opportunity to increase their hours worked and, accordingly, their income, before the employer hires additional part-time employees;
  • Fast food employers may no longer schedule an employee to work back-to-back shifts that close the restaurant one day and open it the next day if there are less than 11 hours in between the two shifts.  However, if an employee consents in writing to work such “clopening” shifts, the fast food employer must pay the employee an additional $100;
  • Fast food employees may ask their employers to deduct a portion of their salary and donate it directly to a nonprofit organization of their choice (This provision is a victory for unions as fast food employees can now earmark money to a group that fights for their rights, and the employer has to pay it on their behalf); and
  • Bans all retail employers  from utilizing  “on-call” scheduling that requires employees to be available to work and to contact the employer to determine if they are needed at work.
This post was written by John M. O’Connor of Epstein Becker & Green, P.C.
Climate Change, Donald Trump Campaign finance election law

President Trump Announces Withdrawal from Paris Agreement on Climate Change

President Trump announced on Thursday his intention to initiate a formal withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Agreement, a global agreement designed to address climate change by reducing greenhouse gas (“GHG”) emissions. The President indicated that the United States would move forward with the pull-out and possibly attempt to re-negotiate the agreement in order to get “terms that are fair to the United States.”  President Trump frequently discussed pulling out of the Paris Agreement while on the campaign trail, citing concerns regarding its potential impact on the American economy, particularly the energy sector.

While the President’s intentions are clear, the path forward is less obvious. The U.S. cannot immediately exit the Paris Agreement and several nations, including Germany, France, and Italy, announced in a joint statement that “that the Paris Agreement cannot be renegotiated.”  In addition to announcing withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, President Trump also indicated that the U.S. would immediately halt the remaining $2 billion of the $3 billion in aid to developing countries pledged by President Obama as a part of the Green Climate Fund, which also is a component of the UNFCCC.

The Paris Agreement’s formal processes does not allow for a notice of withdrawal to be submitted until November 4, 2019, after which it will take one year for such notice to become effective. Assuming adherence to this process, the earliest the U.S. can formally withdraw from the Paris Agreement is November 5, 2020, one day after the next presidential election.  Because the Agreement’s only binding obligations are certain reporting requirements, the withdrawal is viewed by some as a symbolic gesture, since any federal GHG reduction measures resulting from the Paris Agreement would still need to be pursued through domestic legislation or regulatory action.  As a practical matter, irrespective of the Paris Agreement the administration can—and likely will—take steps to alter federal climate change policy.

Paris Agreement Background

The Paris Agreement builds on the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), a treaty signed by President George H. W. Bush and ratified by the United States Senate in 1992. The Paris Agreement was adopted in December 2015 as part of the twenty-first session of the Conference of the Parties (COP21) to the UNFCCC.  Following its initial adoption, President Obama ratified the Paris Agreement as an “executive agreement” on September 3, 2016.  The Paris Agreement was ultimately signed by 195 parties, ratified by 146 nations and the European Union, and entered into force on November 4, 2016.

The Paris Agreement directs signatory nations to develop voluntary GHG reduction measures, known as “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions,” which convert to “Nationally Determined Contributions” (NDCs) after a nation ratifies the Paris Agreement.  The Paris Agreement further provides for periodic updates to NDCs in order to continually “enhance” emission reductions targets.  The Paris Agreement’s only binding provisions are reporting obligations largely governed by the UNFCCC and “global stocktakes” that occur every five years.  These reporting measures were designed to help track total carbon emissions and progress towards meeting each NDC.  However, actual attainment of an NDC is voluntary and the Paris Agreement has no legally binding enforcement mechanism. The Paris Agreement also directs wealthier nations to help developing nations reduce GHG emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change, but again these actions would be taken on a voluntary basis.

What happens next?

The UNFCCC made a formal statement in response to President Trump’s announcement that it “regrets” the decision of the United States to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, and that it remains open to discussion of the rules and modalities currently being negotiated for implementation of the Paris Agreement.  At the same time, the UNFCCC stated that the Paris Agreement has been “signed by 195 Parties and ratified by 146 countries plus the European Union [and] cannot be renegotiated based on the request of a single Party.”  Based on this statement and similar statements from France, Germany, Italy, and other nations, it appears that any near-term renegotiation of the Paris Agreement is unlikely.

Regardless of whether the United States is a party to the Paris Agreement, multinational corporations will still be subject to GHG reduction programs in other nations as those nations attempt to fulfill their NDCs. In addition, France and other nations have indicated the possibility of imposing a carbon tax on American imports from certain industries if the United States does formally withdraw from the Paris Agreement.

Under the Paris Agreement, the United States established its NDC as a goal of reducing GHG emissions 26-28 percent below 2005 levels, by 2025, and to make “best efforts” to reduce emissions by 28 percent. It is important to note that the U.S. is in the first sustained period where greenhouse gas emissions have decreased while economic growth has increased, largely the result of increased reliance on natural gas, improved vehicle fuel economy, state and regional GHG programs, and growth in renewable energy.  These factors are likely to persist even if the U.S. leaves the Paris Agreement.  And even in the absence of U.S. commitments under the Paris Agreement or additional federal action, U.S. GHG emissions are expected to decline by about 15-18 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.

The federal Clean Power Plan was one measure that was expected to further reduce U.S. GHG emissions. However, that program is subject to ongoing legal challenges and has been stayed by the U.S. Supreme Court.  There also are various lawsuits underway seeking to compel the federal government to take action on climate change. See e.g., Juliana v. United States, No. 6:15-cv-01517-TC (D. Or. Nov. 10, 2016).   Apart from litigation, the Trump Administration has indicated a willingness to modify the Clean Power Plan (should it be upheld) and reconsider other federal regulations and programs directed at GHG emissions and climate change, such as motor vehicle emissions standards.  These processes will take time to play out and, in combination with ongoing state-level programs, will ultimately determine the course of climate change policy in the United States for the remainder of the Trump Administration.

This post was written by Brook J. Detterman, Leah A. Dundon and Kristin H. Gladd of Beveridge & Diamond PC.
Pharmaceutical Issues

New FDA Commissioner Hits the Ground Running

Fresh off his noticeably smooth confirmation, the new Commissioner of Food and Drugs, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, appeared before Congress last Thursday and unveiled his strategic initiatives and priorities for the Trump Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”).  These run the gamut from improving regulatory science and policies to streamlining clinical trials to spurring innovation on behalf of patients.  Two initiatives, in particular, merit closer attention and discussion: combating opioid abuse and addressing drug price increases through more, accelerated generic competition.

Opioid Regulation

In his first post to the FDA Voice blog, Dr. Gottlieb wrote:

As Commissioner, my highest initial priority is to take immediate steps to reduce the scope of the epidemic of opioid addiction. . . .  I believe it is within the scope of FDA’s regulatory tools – and our societal obligations – to take whatever steps we can, under our existing legal authorities, to ensure that exposure to opioids is occurring under only appropriate clinical circumstances, and for appropriate patients.

First among these steps, the Commissioner is establishing an Opioid Policy Steering Committee, comprised of “some of the agency’s most senior career leaders, to explore and develop additional tools or strategies FDA can use to confront this epidemic.”  The strategies under consideration include (1) mandatory education for health care professionals about (i) appropriate prescribing recommendations; (ii) how to identify the risk of abuse in individual patients; and (iii) how to get addicted patients into treatment; and (2) working more closely with provider groups to develop standards for prescribing opioids in different clinical settings, so that “the number of opioid doses that an individual patient can be prescribed is more closely tailored to the medical indication.”

Limiting the availability of prescription pain medication is a dicey proposition, however.  As Dr. Gottlieb acknowledged, certain situations “require a 30-day supply” and, “[i]n those cases, we want to make sure patients have what they need.  But there are plenty of situations where the best prescription is a two- or three-day course of treatment.”  The individualized medical judgments and circumstances that drive opioid prescribing likely mean that no single approach is likely to strike the proper balance between over-prescribing and ensuring sufficient access to adequate pain management.  Interestingly, the variability between opioid prescribers and patients did not stop the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services from proposing hard limits on opioid dosing for non-cancer pain or palliative/end-of-life care (i.e., chronic pain) for Medicare Advantage Organizations and Prescription Drug Plan Sponsors.

In fact, pain patients already have struggled under bright-line limitations on opioids.  As we previously reported, the State of Massachusetts enacted a new law in March 2016 that prohibits “a practitioner [from] issu[ing] a prescription for more than a 7-day supply . . . [w]hen issuing a prescription for an opiate to an adult patient for outpatient use for the first time [or] to a minor,” the first such limitation legislatively imposed by any state.”  Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 94C, § 19D (2016).  Massachusetts physicians surveyed following the law’s enactment complained that “the pendulum has swung too far, depriving pain patients of needed relief,” and that “regulations won’t solve the addiction problem . . . .  Instead, they make doctors reluctant to prescribe opioids.”

Broadly targeting opioids as a class of drugs also may cast too wide a net.  A recent article in the journal Substance Abuse reported “[t]he US opioid epidemic has changed profoundly in the last 3 years” in that “[h]eroin and fentanyl have come to dominate an escalating epidemic of lethal opioid overdose, whereas opioids commonly obtained by prescription play a minor role, accounting for no more than 15% of reported deaths in 2015.”  The article urged that the changing etiology of opioid overdose “require[s] substantial recalibration of the US policy response.”

What is clear—and what Dr. Gottlieb seems to recognize—is that opioid abuse and addiction are dynamic issues that differ from prescriber to prescriber and from one patient to another.  Those variables may make a one-size-fits-all”strategy unviable.

Drug Prices

During a budget hearing before the House Committee on Appropriations, Dr. Gottlieb testified that, “while the FDA does not have a direct role in drug pricing, we can take steps to facilitate entry of lower-cost alternatives to the market.”  He identified policy challenges that the last Congress had attempted to address through legislation designed to expedite access to affordable drugs.  Such legislation included the CREATES Act, which we previously analyzed.  The proposed law sought to prevent brand-name drug companies from using FDA safety rules (i.e., Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategies (REMS) and requirements thereunder, e.g., Elements to Assure Safe Use (ETASU)) for medicines with higher risk potential to block or delay generic entry.  “FDA has an important role to play in making sure that its statutory and regulatory processes are working as intended,” Gottlieb told Congress, “not being manipulated in ways that FDA and Congress did not intend.”

In response to growing political pressure in Washington to expedite drug reviews, Dr. Gottlieb assured lawmakers that biomarkers, new technologies, and more efficient clinical trial designs would make it possible to shorten the regulatory process.  But accelerated approval of expensive, investigational (albeit life-saving) therapies has raised concerns among health policy experts.

A recent op-ed published by the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) cautioned that

accelerated approval can lead to situations in which private payers may choose not to cover a drug because of high cost and lack of evidence of clinical efficacy, thereby thwarting the pathway’s goal of getting potentially important therapies to patients earlier, while major government payers are forced to cover the product, directing substantial tax dollars to drugs not yet shown to have clinical benefit.

The NEJM article’s authors argue that any biopharma company granted an accelerated approval should be subject to certain price restrictions until the confirmatory trials are completed, reasoning that “the price paid by taxpayers should reflect the strength of the available evidence about the drug’s clinical impact.”  Additionally, they proposed that all drugs moving through an accelerated-approval pathway should be subject to formal economic impact analyses after one to two years on the market, possibly funded by an increase in the user fees for manufacturers that use this pathway.

Dr. Gottlieb is also evaluating the generic drug and biosimilar review and approval process.  More specifically, Dr. Gottlieb is looking at measures to  facilitate communication between the industry and FDA, address complex molecules, and to speed up the approval of biosimilar products.

These recommendations are not without some appeal.  Despite seeking to deliver more “bang” for the taxpayer’s “buck,” however, prospectively capping the federal reimbursement for a high-cost drug product still subject to additional clinical trials and/or other R&D may create a financial disincentive to pharmaceutical manufacturers to foot the expense of developing breakthrough drugs to fill an unmet medical need.

Stay Tuned

To deliver on the promises of reducing the incidence of opioid abuse and lowering drug prices, Dr. Gottlieb’s FDA must navigate the competing interests and thorny health policy issues highlighted above.

Jason L. DroriDavid L. Rosen and Judith A. Waltz of Foley & Lardner LLP.

The ERISA Fiduciary Advice Rule: What Happens on June 9?

This is an update on the upcoming effective date of the “fiduciary rule” or “fiduciary advice rule” (the “Rule”) that was issued under the US Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA). The Rule was published by the US Department of Labor (DOL) in April, 2016. The purpose of the Rule is to cause a person or entity to become a “fiduciary” under ERISA and the US Internal Revenue Code of 1986 (the “Code”) as a result of giving of certain types of advice involving investment of assets of employee benefit plans, such as 401(k) or pension plans, or of individual retirement accounts (IRAs) and receiving compensation for that advice.

calendar hundred daysThe Rule was originally intended to become effective April 10, but in April the DOL extended (the “Extension Notice”) the effective date of the Rule for 60 days (until June 9), and provided for reduced compliance obligations under the Rule from that date through the end of 2017 (the “Transition Period”). The effective date for Prohibited Transaction Exemptions (PTEs), both new and amended, that are related to the Rule also was extended until June 9, and further transitional relief was provided with respect to certain of those PTEs.

In a May 23 Op Ed in the Wall Street Journal, Labor Secretary Acosta announced that the Rule would go into effect on June 9, as provided for in the Extension Notice, and that the DOL would seek additional public comment on possible revisions to the Rule.  He indicated that the DOL “found no principled legal basis to change the June 9 date while we seek public input.”  The DOL also published, on May 23, FAQs on implementation of the Rule and an update of its previously-issued enforcement policy for the Transition Period. Therefore, it is important to review the rules that will go into effect on June 9.

Under the Rule, fiduciary status is triggered by investment “recommendations.” It provides, in general, that if a person (1) provides certain types of recommendations to a plan or its participants and/or beneficiaries, or to an IRA owner (collectively, “Protected Investors”); and (2) as a result, receives a fee or other compensation (direct or indirect), then that person is providing “investment advice for a fee” and therefore, in giving such advice, is a fiduciary to the Protected Investor. Receipt of compensation tied to such recommendations by a person or entity that is a fiduciary could result in prohibited transactions under ERISA and the Code. Under the Extension Notice, the DOL provided simplified compliance requirements under the Rule for the Transition Period.

This post was written by Gary W. HowellAustin S. LillingGabriel S. MarinaroRichard D. MarshallAndrew R. SkowronskiRobert A. Stone of Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP.

Farm, Green, Feild

Farming Remains One of the Most Dangerous Professions According to Safety Data

Farmers represent a small portion of our population, but feed the entire country and most of the world. Despite advances in agricultural technology, however, farming remains one of the most dangerous occupations. To exacerbate matters, the injury of a farmer often hurts his or her entire family, as entire families often work together and feel the pain when one of their loved ones is unable to contribute and must be cared for by the others. It is for this reason that they must be extremely mindful of safety and constantly devising safer ways of accomplishing their goals.

Over Two Million Workers are employed on Farms Each Year

According to NIOSH, over 1.8 million people are employed full-time in the agricultural field every year, with over 200,000 part time workers. Many of these workers are under the age of 20 and working for their families’ farms. Of these workers, there are a recorded 374 deaths per year on average due to agricultural related injuries, with the most common cause of death being tractor overturns.

Nonfatal injuries are far more common— 167 workers are injured every single day. Many of these workers are injured severely enough to suffer a disability for life. The rate of permanent disability is estimated at about 5% of all injuries while 50% of accidents are as minor as a strain or contusion. Over 2,700 workers under the age of 20 are injured every year as well.

Young People Represent a Third of Farm Deaths

Of the 374 deaths reported annually, an average of 113 are under the age of twenty. This is likely due to the fact that younger workers are more likely to make mistakes and lack the safety training and awareness to avoid serious injuries. Almost one quarter of the youth deaths were due to tractor related accidents and 19% involved the use of motor vehicles such as ATVs.

NIOSH began the development of a special program in the 1990s to help agricultural workers reduce their risk of serious injury through education and research. This organization has conducted research over the last two decades on injuries that include repetitive use, exposure to toxic substances, hearing loss, stress and machinery accidents in an effort to create new safety programs that can help entire farming families. These programs are based out of universities located in ten different states across the country.

American Health Care Reform

Key Tax Changes in the American Health Care Act

The American Health Care Act (“AHCA”), passed by the House of Representatives on May 4, 2017, repeals many of the taxes added by the Affordable Care Act (“ACA”) and makes changes to other tax rules.  Some of the notable changes proposed to be made to the Internal Revenue Code are:

            1. The individual mandate to maintain health insurance and the employer mandate to offer health insurance remain in the Code, but the taxes are “zeroed out” effective retroactively to 2016.

            2. The following taxes, fees, credits and limitations are repealed as of the year shown below:

·         The net investment income tax (NIIT) (2017)

·         The 0.9% additional Medicare tax (2023)

·         The small employer health insurance credit (2020)

·         The $2500 limitation on contributions to a health flexible spending account (FSA) (2017)

·         The annual fee on branded prescription drug sales (2017)

·         The medical device excise tax (2017)

·         The annual fee on health insurance providers (2017)

·         The elimination of a deduction for expenses allocable to the Medicare Part D subsidy (2017)

·         The 10% tanning salon tax (June 30, 2017)

            3.         The “Cadillac” tax on high cost health plans is delayed until 2026.

            4.         Individuals may be reimbursed for over-the-counter medications under a health savings account (HSA), health FSA or a health reimbursement arrangement (HRA) (2017).

            5.         The penalty tax on withdrawals from an HSA not used for a qualified medical expense is reduced from 20% to 10% (2017).

6.         The bill would replace the current ACA premium tax credit with a new refundable, advanceable tax credit effective January 1, 2020.  The credit could be applied toward the cost of any eligible health insurance coverage, whether purchased on or off the Exchange.  The credit is age-based as follows:

Age

Annual Credit

Under 30

$2,000

30 – 40

$2,500

40 – 50

$3,000

50 – 60

$3,500

60 and over

$4,000

The maximum credit for a family is $14,000. The credit is adjusted each year by CPI + 1%.

The credit is phased out depending on the individual’s modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) for the year.  It begins phasing out for an individual with income of $75,000 ($150,000 for joint filers) by $100 for every $1,000 in income above those thresholds.  The MAGI dollar limitations are also indexed for inflation beginning in 2021.              To be eligible to claim the credit, the individual must be covered by “eligible health insurance,” not be eligible for “other specified coverage” (including employer coverage or a government sponsored health program) and be a U.S. citizen or a qualified alien.

7.         The bill would make the following changes to health savings accounts, effective in 2018:

§  The maximum contribution to an HSA would be increased to the out-of-pocket maximum (in 2017, $6,550 for self-only and $13,100 for family coverage).  Under current law, HSA contributions are limited to $3,400 for self-only and $6,750 for family coverage.
§  Both spouses could make a “catch-up” contribution to the same HSA.  Under current law, each spouse must have his or her own HSA.
§  If an HSA is established within 60 days after coverage under a high deductible plan begins, the individual could be reimbursed for medical expenses incurred within that 60-day period.  Under current law, an individual cannot be reimbursed for any expense incurred before the HSA is established.

The bill now moves to the Senate where significant changes are expected.

This post was written by Cynthia A. Moore of  Dickinson Wright PLLC.
President Trump clean power plan

Business and Employee Groups Oppose Merger of OFCCP with EEOC

President Trump’s 2018 budget, released on May 23, proposes to merge the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) by the end of FY 2018.  The proposed merger purports to result in “one agency to combat employment discrimination.”  The Trump administration asserts that the merger would “reduce operational redundancies, promote efficiencies, improve services to citizens, and strengthen civil rights enforcement.”

Both business groups and employee civil rights organizations have opposed the measure, albeit for different reasons.  The OFCCP is a division of the U.S. Department of Labor, while the EEOC is an independent federal agency.  Although both deal with issues of employment discrimination, their mandates, functions and focus are different.  The OFCCP’s function is to ensure that federal government contractors take affirmative action to avoid discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability and protected veteran status.  The OFCCP, which was created in 1978, enforces Executive Order 11246, as amended, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended, and the Veterans’ Readjustment Assistance Act of 1975.  The EEOC administers and enforces several federal employment discrimination laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, national origin, religion, sex, age, disability, gender identity, genetic information, and retaliation for complaining or supporting a claim of discrimination.  Its function is to investigation individual charges of discrimination brought by private and public sector employees against their employers.  The EEOC was established in 1965, following the enactment of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Business groups oppose the OFCCP’s merger into the EEOC due to concerns that it would create a more powerful EEOC with greater enforcement powers.  For example, the OFCCP conducts audits, which compile substantial data on government contractors’ workforces, while the EEOC possesses the power to subpoena employer records.  Combining these tools could provide the “new” EEOC with substantially greater enforcement power.  Civil rights and employee organizations oppose the merger, believing that overall it would result in less funding for the combined functions currently performed by each agency.

The budget proposal is consistent with the Trump administration’s goal to reduce costs and redundancies through a reorganization of governmental functions and elimination of executive branch agencies.  In light of opposition from both employers and employees, however, the measure lacks a powerful proponent; as a result, it is unlikely that the administration will succeed in effecting a combination, at least as it is currently proposed.

This post was written by Salvatore G. Gangemi of Murtha Cullina.