On October 30, 2020, the U.S. Department of Labor (the “DOL”) issued a final rule on “ESG” investing (summarized here) which requires ERISA plan fiduciaries to base investment decisions on financial factors alone, prohibits fiduciaries from selecting investments based on non-pecuniary considerations, and which could restrict “do-good” or “ESG” investing (the “ESG Rule”).  However, the fate of the ESG Rule is currently unclear, as the Biden administration directed the DOL to review the rule in a fact sheet issued on January 20, 2021.

In a separate (but related) rulemaking, the DOL published in the Federal Register on December 16, 2020, a final rule confirming its position that ERISA’s fiduciary duties of prudence and loyalty apply to an ERISA plan fiduciary’s exercise of shareholder rights, including proxy voting, proxy voting policies and guidelines, and the selection and monitoring of proxy advisory firms (the “Proxy Voting Rule”).  The Proxy Voting Rule went into effect on January 15, 2021 (although certain aspects of this rule have later compliance dates, as discussed below).

The ESG Rule and the Proxy Voting Rule were each structured in a manner that would amend the DOL’s “investment duties” regulation at 29 C.F.R. 2550.404a-1.  When the DOL finalized the ESG Rule, it reserved a section of the amended regulation for the final Proxy Voting Rule.  It is uncertain what action the Biden administration will take with respect to the ESG Rule following its review thereof, but it is very possible that the Proxy Voting Rule will have the same fate given how intertwined the two rules are.

The Proxy Voting Rule reflects the DOL’s attempt at clarifying its prior proxy voting guidance that “may have led to confusion or misunderstandings on the part of plan fiduciaries.”  In particular, the DOL acknowledged that there is a view among some that ERISA plan fiduciaries are required to vote all proxies or exercise every shareholder right – the Proxy Voting Rule makes clear that is not the case.  The Proxy Voting Rule instead takes a principles-based approach and details the obligations of fiduciaries when making such decisions in order to satisfy their duties of prudence and loyalty, which include the following:

  • act solely in accordance with the economic interest of the plan and its participants and beneficiaries;
  • consider any costs involved;
    • relevant costs will depend on the facts and circumstances, and could include: direct costs to the plan of determining how to vote and actually submitting the vote; potential reduction of management fees by reducing the number of proxies voted that have no economic consequence for the plan; any out-of-the-ordinary costs or unusual requirements, such as may be the case of voting proxies on foreign corporation shares; or any opportunity costs of voting, such as forgone earnings from recalling securities on loan or any restrictions on selling the underlying shares.
  • not subordinate the interests of the participants and beneficiaries in their retirement income or financial benefits under the plan to any non-pecuniary objective, or promote non-pecuniary benefits or goals unrelated to those financial interests of the plan’s participants and beneficiaries;
  • evaluate material facts that form the basis for any particular proxy vote or other exercise of shareholder rights;
  • maintain records on proxy voting activities and other exercises of shareholder rights; and
  • exercise prudence and diligence in the selection and monitoring of persons (if any) who have been delegated authority to exercise shareholder rights, or who have been selected to advise or otherwise assist with the exercise of shareholder rights.
    • note, however, that a fiduciary may adopt a practice of following the recommendations of a proxy advisory (or similar) firm only if the fiduciary first determines that the service provider’s proxy voting guidelines are consistent with the requirements above.

The Proxy Voting Rule also provides an optional safe harbor for plan fiduciaries that adopt and follow proxy voting policies with specific parameters that are prudently designed to serve the plan’s economic interest.  The safe harbor is intended to reduce compliance burdens with respect to decisions as to whether to vote proxies, and does not apply with respect to decisions as to how to vote proxies.  The safe harbor permits a plan to adopt either or both of the following (though these are not meant to be the exclusive means for compliance):

  • A policy to limit voting resources to particular types of proposals that the fiduciary has prudently determined are substantially related to the issuer’s business activities or are expected to have a material effect on the value of the plan’s investment in the issuer.
  • A policy of refraining from voting on proposals or particular types of proposals when the size of the plan’s holdings in the issuer relative to its total investment assets is below a quantitative threshold that the fiduciary prudently determines, considering the plan’s percentage ownership of the issuer and other relevant factors, is sufficiently small that the matter being voted upon is not expected to have a material effect on the investment performance of the plan’s portfolio (or plan assets under management in the case of an investment manager).

If adopted, a proxy voting policy must be reviewed periodically by the plan fiduciary, and may not prohibit the fiduciary from (i) voting the proxy, if the fiduciary prudently determines that the matter being voted upon is expected to have a material effect on the value of the investment or the investment performance of the plan’s portfolio (or plan assets under management in the case of an investment manager) after taking into account the costs involved, or (ii) refraining from voting the proxy, if the fiduciary prudently determines that the matter being voted upon is not expected to have such a material effect after taking into account the costs involved.

The Proxy Voting Rule also reiterates the DOL’s longstanding position that the responsibility for voting proxies rests with the plan trustee, unless the plan trustee is being directed by the plan’s named fiduciary or voting authority has been delegated to an investment manager.  If authority to manage plan assets has been delegated to an investment manager, the investment manager will have the exclusive authority to vote proxies unless the applicable plan documents or investment management agreement specifically provide otherwise.

An investment manager of a pooled investment vehicle that holds assets of more than one employee benefit plan must either (i) reconcile (insofar as possible) any conflicts in the proxy voting policies of such plans, and vote (or abstain from voting) the relevant proxies in proportion to each plan’s economic interest in the pooled investment vehicle, or (ii) develop an investment policy statement consistent with the Proxy Voting Rule that the participating plans must accept before they are allowed to invest in the pooled investment vehicle.

The Proxy Voting Rule does not apply to shareholder rights that are passed through to participants and beneficiaries of individual account plans.  In such a case, the plan trustee must follow the direction of the plan participant or beneficiary, but only if the direction is consistent with the plan terms and not contrary to ERISA.

The Proxy Voting Rule went into effect on January 15, 2021 and applies to the exercise of shareholder rights after such date; provided, that (i) fiduciaries that are not SEC-registered investment advisers have until January 31, 2022 to comply with the requirements to evaluate material facts providing the basis for exercising a shareholder right and to maintain records on proxy voting activities, and (ii) all fiduciaries have until January 31, 2022 to comply with the requirement to confirm that a proxy firm upon whom the fiduciaries intend to rely has proxy voting guidelines that comply with the Proxy Voting Rule and the requirements relating to investment managers of pooled investment vehicles.

The Proxy Voting Rule also removes from the Code of Federal Regulations the DOL’s Interpretive Bulletin 2016-01, which may have been interpreted to permit consideration of a broader set of factors when making determinations regarding proxy voting, as it no longer reflects the DOL’s views on the exercise of shareholder rights.

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As noted above, although both the ESG Rule and the Proxy Voting Rule are currently effective, the fate of such rules remains uncertain.  We are monitoring the status of such rules, and are always available to assist plan fiduciaries, investment managers and other plan service providers in their compliance efforts related thereto.

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Photo of Ira G. Bogner Ira G. Bogner

Ira G. Bogner is Managing Partner of the Firm. He is the immediate former chair of the Firm’s Tax Department. He is a member of the Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation Group and the Firm’s Executive Committee. Ira represents a varied list of…

Ira G. Bogner is Managing Partner of the Firm. He is the immediate former chair of the Firm’s Tax Department. He is a member of the Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation Group and the Firm’s Executive Committee. Ira represents a varied list of clients, including financial service companies, entertainment industry clients, and tax-exempt organizations, and also actively represents individual executives in executive compensation matters.

Ira counsels clients with respect to the tax, securities law disclosure, corporate governance, stock exchange and other requirements relevant to executive compensation arrangements. Ira also provides advice regarding equity arrangements, employment agreements, change in control agreements and all other types of executive compensation arrangements, including guidance regarding “409A,” “162m,” “457A,” and “280G.”

Ira frequently is called on to structure and analyze alternative investments for pension trusts and other exempt organizations. He also works with the Firm’s corporate and real estate lawyers in structuring and maintaining investment funds that include participation by pension plans. Through his work in the investment fund area Ira has obtained substantial experience in applying the rules provided under the “plan asset” regulations, including the operation of venture capital operating companies and real estate operating companies. He has assisted in the formation of private equity, real estate, infrastructure and hedge funds, including “fund of funds.” Ira also has advised clients on both avoiding ERISA “plan asset” status and operating an investment fund in accordance with ERISA.

Areas of Concentration

Ira has provided guidance to clients on a wide variety of matters in the areas of employee benefits and executive compensation, including:

  • investment of plan assets
  • implementation of employee benefit plans

  • employee benefit issues in mergers and acquisitions

  • awarding of equity-based compensation

  • negotiation and drafting of employment agreements and severance arrangements

  • structuring, analyzing and maintaining investment funds that are suitable for plan investors

Thought Leadership

Ira has published a number of articles in publications such as The New York Law Journal, The New Jersey Law Journal, The Daily Deal, The Journal of Pension Planning and Compliance, Mergers and Acquisitions (The Monthly Tax Journal), The Journal of Taxation and Regulation of Financial Institutions, The Metropolitan Corporate Counsel, European Private Equity & Venture Capital Associations, The LPA Anatomised and Private Equity International and has been named to the Board of Advisors of the Journal of Taxation and Regulation of Financial Institutions. He also has lectured on topics such as the classification of workers, drafting employment agreements, equity alternatives for senior executives, investing IRA assets, the plan asset regulations, shareholder approval of equity plans, Code Section 409A, and key provisions for ERISA investors investing in a private equity fund.

Recognition

Ira has been recognized and ranked by various directories. US Legal 500 has carried the following comments: “Ira Bogner is ‘available, responsive and knowledgeable;” “Ira Bogner ‘provides a level of comfort with respect to business issues that is rare in the world of ERISA;” “Ira Bogner is the ‘go-to guy for fund sponsors needing help with ERISA.’”

Photo of Seth Safra Seth Safra

Seth J. Safra is chair of Proskauer’s Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation Group. Described by clients as “extremely knowledgeable, practical, and strategic,” Seth advises clients on compensation and benefit programs.

Seth’s experience covers a broad range of retirement plan designs, from traditional defined…

Seth J. Safra is chair of Proskauer’s Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation Group. Described by clients as “extremely knowledgeable, practical, and strategic,” Seth advises clients on compensation and benefit programs.

Seth’s experience covers a broad range of retirement plan designs, from traditional defined benefit to cash balance and floor-offset arrangements, ESOPs and 401(k) plans—often coordinating qualified and non-qualified arrangements. He also advises tax-exempt and governmental employers on 403(b) and 457 arrangements, as well as innovative new plan designs; and he advises on ERISA compliance for investments.

On the health and welfare side, Seth helps employers provide benefits that are cost-effective and competitive. He advises on plan design, including consumer-driven health plans with HSAs, retiree medical, fringe benefits, and severance programs, ERISA preemption, and tax and other compliance issues, such as nondiscrimination and cafeteria plan rules.

Seth also advises for-profit and non-profit employers, compensation committees, and boards on executive employment, deferred compensation, change in control, and equity and other incentive arrangements. In addition, he advises on compensation and benefits in corporate transactions.

Seth represents clients before the Department of Labor, IRS and other government agencies.

Seth has been recognized by Chambers USA, The Legal 500, Best Lawyers, Law360, Human Resource Executive, Lawdragon and Super Lawyers.

Photo of Adam Scoll Adam Scoll

Adam Scoll is a partner in the Firm’s Tax Department and Private Funds Group.

He specializes in the area of Title I of ERISA and the investment of ERISA “plan assets,” advising both pension trusts and their investment managers and advisers with regard…

Adam Scoll is a partner in the Firm’s Tax Department and Private Funds Group.

He specializes in the area of Title I of ERISA and the investment of ERISA “plan assets,” advising both pension trusts and their investment managers and advisers with regard to compliance with ERISA’s complex fiduciary duty and prohibited transaction rules.

Adam regularly advises private investment fund sponsors regarding the structuring of their funds in order to accept investments from ERISA-covered pension trusts, including compliance with the ERISA “plan asset” regulations and the operation of venture capital operating companies (VCOCs) and real estate operating companies (REOCs).

Adam also represents both employers and senior executives in the negotiation and drafting of employment and separation agreements, deferred compensation plans, and equity and “phantom equity” arrangements, including compliance with the nonqualified deferred compensation rules under Sections 409A and 457A of the Internal Revenue Code.