Locke Lord’s employee benefits lawyers have years of experience addressing the benefits-related needs of clients ranging from small businesses to Fortune 500 companies. We know that practical and timely solutions to employee benefits issues are critical to maintaining the proper balance between advantage and cost. Locke Lord’s Employee Benefits practice ranks nationally in the U.S. News – Best Lawyers® “Best Law Firms” report. Chambers USA, Guide to America’s Leading Lawyers for Business ranked Locke Lord as one of the leading Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation firms in Dallas and Houston.
Our breadth of client experience touches all areas of benefits law, including executive compensation planning, compliance issues and benefits planning. We find unique solutions for each client and do not take a cookie-cutter approach when it comes to employee benefits issues.
Our lawyers have solid and good working relationships with government personnel and agencies, and we keep our clients apprised of industry changes and standards. We counsel publicly-held companies, closely-held businesses, nonprofit organizations and government entities. We frequently represent plan trustees and administrators, including fiduciaries of employee stock ownership plans.
Our clients include insurers, preferred provider organizations (PPOs), health maintenance organizations (HMOs), administrative service providers, utilization review organizations and many other businesses in the health care industry. We understand the full range of unique solutions to employers’ health benefits challenges in today’s rapidly changing climate.
With many of our lawyers having 20 or more years of experience, their credentials are widespread and varied and include election to fellowships in the American College of Employee Benefits Counsel and the American College of Trust & Estate Counsel. Our lawyers hold leadership positions in the employee benefits committees or sections of the American Bar Association as well as various state and local bar associations.
Our lawyers serve and have served as adjunct professors and lecturers at various law schools, including the University of Chicago, the Dedman School of Law at Southern Methodist University and the LL.M. Program in Employee Benefits at the John Marshall Law School. In addition, we speak at seminars and other events sponsored by, among others, the American Law Institute and the American Bar Association. Our lawyers have published many scholarly articles on benefits-related topics.
Qualified Benefit Plans
The right strategies for pension and profit-sharing plans can help employees and employers succeed together. Locke Lord’s benefits lawyers design and draft qualified benefits plans, including profit sharing plans, 401(k) plans, money purchase pension plans, 403(b) plans, defined benefit plans and cash balance plans.
We provide a comprehensive service, from innovative plan design all the way to managing termination. Our goal is to contain overall plan costs while meeting the retirement needs of business owners and executives. We advise on compliance and fiduciary issues and regularly represent clients before the IRS, U.S. Department of Labor and other government agencies, handling issues arising from plan audits and fiduciary investigations. Our benefits lawyers – headquartered around the United States – are familiar with agency personnel at the federal, regional and state levels.
Our customized, individual approach to each client means effective strategies on a host of issues, including the following:
- Design and tailor administration of qualified plans to avoid hidden costs and liabilities that can result in costly administrative difficulties and compliance disputes.
- Increase retirement benefits for business owners and key executives.
- Prepare plan and trust documents, summary plan descriptions and employee benefits communications and training materials.
- Manage controlled group and affiliated service group issues as well as matters arising from transactions such as mergers and acquisitions.
- Design claim procedures.
- Correct operational errors.
- Design procedures to assure compliance with fiduciary standards.
- Manage responses to audits, investigations and enforcement actions of the IRS, U.S. Department of Labor, state insurance agencies and other regulators.
- Draft record retention and security policies to comply with the documentation, confidentiality and privacy requirements under HIPAA, ERISA, the Internal Revenue Code and other applicable laws and regulations.
Employee Stock Ownership Plans (ESOP)
Locke Lord’s experience and contacts in the ESOP industry help clients understand both the advantages and the challenges faced by business owners when they change to an employee ownership culture.
An ESOP provides many benefits for businesses and for employees – but only if done right. Our employee benefits lawyers save clients time and money in structuring an ESOP for retirement and business succession needs and can demonstrate how employee ownership can help a company defer taxes, diversify investments and attract and retain quality employees.
Selling stock to an ESOP is a major change for any company, and Locke Lord’s experienced ongoing advice is essential during these transitions. We have dealt with every phase of ESOP implementation and administration, including the following examples:
- Voting of ESOP shares held by the plan trustee.
- Calculating the annual release of shares from the ESOP suspense account as the ESOP loan is repaid.
- Coordinating the annual appraisal process for determining the value of company stock.
- Submitting the ESOP to the IRS for a favorable determination letter.
- Preparing for and successfully completing an audit by the IRS or U.S. Department of Labor.
- Handling ESOP distributions and implementing procedures for buying back shares from departing employees.
Attracting and retaining top executives are critical to company success, and Locke Lord benefits lawyers have years of experience in all aspects of equity and deferred compensation planning for executives. We understand the related tax, accounting, disclosure and securities law considerations, and we highlight issues to consider before adopting an equity compensation arrangement.
Compensation planning is complex, and we have extensive experience in the following areas:
- Designing stock-based executive compensation plans, including incentive stock option plans, non-qualified stock option plans and restricted stock plans.
- Creating broadly based stock option plans and employee stock purchase plans.
- Preparing targeted incentive-for-performance pay plans and bonus plans.
- Designating supplemental executive retirement plans (SERPs).
- Preparing mirror supplemental savings plans that are coordinated with an existing qualified 401(k) savings plan.
- Developing nonqualified deferred compensation programs for key executives.
- Designing what are known as “457 plans” for executives of tax-exempt organizations.
- Ensuring that non-qualified plans comply with all tax and ERISA regulatory guidelines.
Health, Managed Care and Welfare Plans
Employees prize their health benefits, but these programs are tough to manage and are at the mercy of economic and regulatory forces. Locke Lord lawyers have extensive experience in the design, implementation, documentation and administration of health benefit plans. With our reputation for prudence in this field, we have helped clients contain plan costs, manage liabilities and comply with rapidly changing laws and regulations for many years.
We deal skillfully and confidently with all key players in the health benefits industry – insurers, PPOs, HMOs, administrative service providers, utilization review organizations and a wide range of other businesses involved in the design and administration of managed care and health-related products and services.
We understand our clients’ focus on managing health plan costs and liabilities while preserving the effectiveness of employer-sponsored programs. Our experience enables clients to reduce exposure to health plan related litigation and disputes.
Our lawyers are skilled in all phases of health benefit plans and regularly accomplish the following objectives:
- Draft, design and review health plan documents and arrangements, including managed care programs, executive health benefit plans, long-term care plans, medical spending accounts, wellness programs and supplemental health benefit programs.
- Negotiate, design and write group, individual, stop loss, minimum premium and outsourcing agreements.
- Help clients comply with the wide range of federal and state laws and regulations that affect health benefit plans.
- Provide guidance on health benefit plan funding, including the proper use, evaluation and enforcement of cafeteria plans, taxable and tax-exempt trusts, captive insurance and other funding arrangements.
- Counsel on plan underfunding in bankruptcy and other business contexts.
- Advise employers about retiree medical benefits and other post-termination benefit liabilities.
- Assist clients with the coordination of health benefits under ERISA plans and other group health programs, individual insurance arrangements, Medicare, Medicaid and worker’s compensation.
- Advise clients on a wide range of health care, licensing, regulatory compliance and other matters.
- Monitor new legislation, regulations and court decisions affecting health benefit plans.
- Communicate client concerns about health care costs and regulatory burdens to Congress, state legislators and federal and state agencies.
Beyond health benefits, employee welfare benefit plans encompass a broad range of insurance options as well as paid-time-off plans covering disabilities, illness, vacations and leaves of absence. We assist in designing and administering plans that achieve employment and business objectives, avoid costly employment and welfare benefit plan lawsuits and liabilities and are structured to save time and money in administration.
Locke Lord’s benefits team deals with a myriad of situations, including the following:
- Manages legal exposures and compliance with ERISA, the Internal Revenue Code, HIPAA, COBRA, the Social Security Act, federal employment discrimination and other federal and state laws and regulations, with particular emphasis on record retention and privacy concerns.
- Drafts, amends, reviews and evaluates welfare benefit design proposals, plan documents, summary plan descriptions, employee benefit communications materials, vendor agreements and other related documents.
- Evaluates, negotiates, administers, audits and enforces insurance and other vendor contracts and arrangements.
- Designs claims processes, investigates and processes claims and appeals of claim denials, interprets plan documents and coordinates welfare benefit arrangements with other sources of reimbursement and coverage.
- Creates and disseminates training programs, plan documents and administrative forms and other materials designed to promote efficient plan administration.
Litigation and Dispute Resolution Involving ERISA and Fiduciary Matters
When a lawsuit alleges breach of fiduciary duty, receiving comprehensive legal advice is vital. Locke Lord’s benefits lawyers have years of experience in the full spectrum of ERISA disputes and fiduciary matters.
We represent clients in alternative dispute resolution settings and before the U.S. Department of Labor. We practice extensively at the federal court level, including appearances in district courts, bankruptcy courts and appellate courts. In addition, ERISA claims by individual plan beneficiaries often involve class actions, and we have been in the forefront in defending many high profile class action cases.
In matters involving state and federal litigation, dispute resolution and administrative inquiry, our benefits lawyers are frequently called upon to perform the following actions:
- Defend trustees, plan administrators and others against allegations of breach of fiduciary duty or other alleged violations of plan provisions or participants’ rights.
- Defend companies before the U.S. Department of Labor over claims of alleged prohibited transactions.
- Secure individual prohibited transaction exemption rulings that allow clients to proceed with certain benefit plan transactions.
- Represent clients in IRS audits and U.S. Department of Labor examinations.
- Secure individual private letter rulings.
- Secure individual advisory opinions from the U.S. Department of Labor.
- Advise ERISA fiduciaries on plan investments and fiduciary duties.
- Represent managed care entities, health insurers and plan administrators in disputes over benefit claims under benefits plans.