On June 9, 2017, the Department of Labor (DOL) regulation updating the definition of “fiduciary” for purposes of ERISA became effective, along with a series of new and updated prohibited transaction exemptions. The DOL regulation expands the types of activities that can give rise to fiduciary status, and applies not only to plans subject to ERISA but also to self-directed IRAs. While the DOL is still reviewing whether changes should be made to the regulation to reduce the regulatory burden, and both the DOL and Congress are considering more drastic action such as full repeal, for the time being the regulation is in effect.
A broad reading of the definition of “fiduciary” under the new rule could cause investment fund managers to become fiduciaries to ERISA and IRA investors in their funds, and to prospective investors, regardless whether a fund they manage is a “plan assets” fund. Fund managers may need to take action now, notifying benefit plan investors, obtaining representations and/or amending subscription applications.
Private investment funds that limit ERISA plan and IRA investments to below 25% of each class of equity interests (or that qualify as a Venture Capital Operating Company (VCOC) or a Real Estate Operating Company (REOC)) are still exempt from ERISA with respect to most of their activities—their investment transactions and compensation arrangements are exempt from ERISA’s fiduciary rules and from the prohibited transaction restrictions of ERISA and the Internal Revenue Code. However, under the new DOL regulation, certain types of marketing and outreach activities to new and current benefit plan investors could be viewed as “recommendations” to invest in (or continue investing in) a fund, and thus may become subject to the new fiduciary rules.
Not every marketing or outreach activity will give rise to fiduciary status, and an exemption is available for communications with financially sophisticated plan fiduciaries.