A little more than one year ago, we reported on a settlement (Cassell et al. v. Vanderbilt University, et al.) involving the alleged wrongful use of personal information belonging to retirement plan participants, claimed to be “plan assets.” This year, similar claims have been made against Shell Oil Company in connection with its 401(k) plan. Retirement plan sponsors may begin seeing more of these claims and they might consider some strategies to head them off.

The essence of the allegations is that employers breach their fiduciary duties of loyalty and prudence when they permit plan service providers to profit from the use of plan assets – sensitive personal information of plan participants – for non-plan purposes. Citing several “cross-selling” activities of plan advisors and other service providers, the Shell plaintiffs claim downstream sales opportunities working with retirement plans are more plentiful through better access to plan participant data, and without the need to engage in “cold-calling.”

The Employee Retirement Income Security Act (“ERISA) is the primary federal statute regulating employee benefit plans, including retirement plans. Currently, there are no express provisions in ERISA that prohibit the use of plan participant data for any particular purpose. However, as in the Vanderbilt case, the Shell plaintiffs rely on ERISA’s long-standing fiduciary duty provisions to support their claims concerning plan data:

  • ERISA’s fiduciary duty provisions require plan fiduciaries to discharge their duties with respect to a plan solely in the interest of the participants and beneficiaries and for the exclusive purpose of providing benefits to participants and their beneficiaries. 29 U.S. Code § 1104.
  • ERISA also prohibits plan fiduciaries from engaging in certain prohibited transactions, including transactions between the plan and a party in interest which the fiduciary knows constitutes a direct or indirect transfer to, or use by or for the benefit of a party in interest, of any assets of the plan. 29 U.S.C. §1106(a)(1).

For example, in Count IV of the complaint, the Shell plaintiffs alleged fiduciary duties under § 1104(a)(1) include:

restricting its use of Confidential Plan Participant Data solely to carrying out its Plan recordkeeping role, not using the data for nonplan purposes

Recordkeeping, investment of contributions, and other tasks associated with retirement plan administration require access to large amounts of personal information, usually in electronic format. The risks involving such information are not limited to data breaches. As the Vanderbilt and Shell cases indicate, plan participants have become increasingly aware of the vulnerabilities associated with handling their data, as well as how their data are being used by plan vendors. The California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) and similar laws emerging in other states may increase this awareness. At least for the time being, employees of CCPA covered entities are entitled to a “notice at collection” that must outline the categories of personal information collected and the purpose(s) that information is used. Regardless of whether ERISA preempts the CCPA, increased communication about privacy of personal information may cause participants to be more sensitive to the collection and use of their information.

There are some measures plan sponsors can take to minimize the risk of these kinds of claims.

  • Consider relationships with plan service providers more carefully and earlier in the process. ERISA requires plan fiduciaries to “obtain and carefully consider” the services to be provided by plan service providers before engaging the provider. Whether that duty extends to assessing the provider’s data privacy and security practices is not clear. Nonetheless, during the procurement process, consider basic questions such as: Who has access to participants’ data? How much (and what) data does the provider have access to, and what are they doing with that data? Is the service provider sharing data with other third parties?
  • Limit by contract the ability of plan service providers to use plan participant data to market or sell to participants products unrelated to the retirement plan, unless the participants initiate or consent.

Of course, depending on the bargaining power of the sponsor, it may not be able to convince a vendor to agree not to use participant data solely for plan administration purposes. However, sponsors should be sure their process includes these and other factors when making selections and when evaluating the performance of their service providers.

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Photo of Joseph J. Lazzarotti Joseph J. Lazzarotti

Joseph J. Lazzarotti is a principal in the Berkeley Heights, New Jersey, office of Jackson Lewis P.C. He founded and currently co-leads the firm’s Privacy, Data and Cybersecurity practice group, edits the firm’s Privacy Blog, and is a Certified Information Privacy Professional (CIPP)…

Joseph J. Lazzarotti is a principal in the Berkeley Heights, New Jersey, office of Jackson Lewis P.C. He founded and currently co-leads the firm’s Privacy, Data and Cybersecurity practice group, edits the firm’s Privacy Blog, and is a Certified Information Privacy Professional (CIPP) with the International Association of Privacy Professionals. Trained as an employee benefits lawyer, focused on compliance, Joe also is a member of the firm’s Employee Benefits practice group.

In short, his practice focuses on the matrix of laws governing the privacy, security, and management of data, as well as the impact and regulation of social media. He also counsels companies on compliance, fiduciary, taxation, and administrative matters with respect to employee benefit plans.

Privacy and cybersecurity experience – Joe counsels multinational, national and regional companies in all industries on the broad array of laws, regulations, best practices, and preventive safeguards. The following are examples of areas of focus in his practice:

  • Advising health care providers, business associates, and group health plan sponsors concerning HIPAA/HITECH compliance, including risk assessments, policies and procedures, incident response plan development, vendor assessment and management programs, and training.
  • Coached hundreds of companies through the investigation, remediation, notification, and overall response to data breaches of all kinds – PHI, PII, payment card, etc.
  • Helping organizations address questions about the application, implementation, and overall compliance with European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and, in particular, its implications in the U.S., together with preparing for the California Consumer Privacy Act.
  • Working with organizations to develop and implement video, audio, and data-driven monitoring and surveillance programs. For instance, in the transportation and related industries, Joe has worked with numerous clients on fleet management programs involving the use of telematics, dash-cams, event data recorders (EDR), and related technologies. He also has advised many clients in the use of biometrics including with regard to consent, data security, and retention issues under BIPA and other laws.
  • Assisting clients with growing state data security mandates to safeguard personal information, including steering clients through detailed risk assessments and converting those assessments into practical “best practice” risk management solutions, including written information security programs (WISPs). Related work includes compliance advice concerning FTC Act, Regulation S-P, GLBA, and New York Reg. 500.
  • Advising clients about best practices for electronic communications, including in social media, as well as when communicating under a “bring your own device” (BYOD) or “company owned personally enabled device” (COPE) environment.
  • Conducting various levels of privacy and data security training for executives and employees
  • Supports organizations through mergers, acquisitions, and reorganizations with regard to the handling of employee and customer data, and the safeguarding of that data during the transaction.
  • Representing organizations in matters involving inquiries into privacy and data security compliance before federal and state agencies including the HHS Office of Civil Rights, Federal Trade Commission, and various state Attorneys General.

Benefits counseling experience – Joe’s work in the benefits counseling area covers many areas of employee benefits law. Below are some examples of that work:

  • As part of the Firm’s Health Care Reform Team, he advises employers and plan sponsors regarding the establishment, administration and operation of fully insured and self-funded health and welfare plans to comply with ERISA, IRC, ACA/PPACA, HIPAA, COBRA, ADA, GINA, and other related laws.
  • Guiding clients through the selection of plan service providers, along with negotiating service agreements with vendors to address plan compliance and operations, while leveraging data security experience to ensure plan data is safeguarded.
  • Counsels plan sponsors on day-to-day compliance and administrative issues affecting plans.
  • Assists in the design and drafting of benefit plan documents, including severance and fringe benefit plans.
  • Advises plan sponsors concerning employee benefit plan operation, administration and correcting errors in operation.

Joe speaks and writes regularly on current employee benefits and data privacy and cybersecurity topics and his work has been published in leading business and legal journals and media outlets, such as The Washington Post, Inside Counsel, Bloomberg, The National Law Journal, Financial Times, Business Insurance, HR Magazine and NPR, as well as the ABA Journal, The American Lawyer, Law360, Bender’s Labor and Employment Bulletin, the Australian Privacy Law Bulletin and the Privacy, and Data Security Law Journal.

Joe served as a judicial law clerk for the Honorable Laura Denvir Stith on the Missouri Court of Appeals.