United States: Unpaid Employer Contributions As Plan Assets: Expansion Of Liability Under ERISA

The Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, as amended ("ERISA"), requires trustees of multiemployer pension and benefit funds to collect contributions required to be made by contributing employers under their collective bargaining agreements ("CBAs") with the labor union sponsoring the plans. This is not always an easy task—often, an employer is an incorporated entity with limited assets or financial resources to satisfy its contractual obligations. In some instances, an employer will resort to filing for bankruptcy to obtain a discharge of its debts to the pension or benefit funds.

In a distinct trend, federal courts have found that, depending on the text of the underlying plan documents, unpaid employer contributions due under a CBA may be viewed as plan assets, such that the representatives of an employer who exercise fiduciary control over those plan assets can be held individually liable for the unpaid amounts (together with interest and penalties) under ERISA. These cases will no doubt help plan trustees and administrators collect monies owed to the plan. They also should serve as cautionary warnings to contributing employers to ensure that they fully understand the obligations that they are undertaking when they agree to contribute to ERISA funds pursuant to CBAs.


In the typical scenario, an employer will agree under one or more of its CBAs to make specified contributions to fund the pension and health and welfare benefits promised to plan participants under the trust fund's plan of benefits. If an employer fails to timely remit those payments in violation of the CBA and the plan's rules, the trustees of the fund have a legal duty to attempt to recover the unpaid contributions unless, after fully examining the facts and circumstances, the trustees conclude that the likelihood of recovery is outweighed by its costs. What happens if the trustees expend the fund's resources to seek to collect the unpaid obligations and obtain a judgment against the employer, only to find the company's coffers empty? Or what if the company files for bankruptcy?

Unlike employee contributions, which under U.S. Department of Labor regulations are explicitly deemed to be plan assets, employer contributions are typically found to be contractual obligations that do not become plan assets until such amounts are paid by the employer to the trust fund. Hence, while an employer's failure to remit an employee contribution relegates the employer to the status of an ERISA plan fiduciary because it is has authority and control over plan assets, employer contributions have generally been held not to constitute plan assets. As a result, an employer who fails to make its contributions due under the CBA may have committed a contractual violation but has not breached an ERISA fiduciary duty.

The Potential for Individual Fiduciary Liability

Recently, courts have regularly carved out an exception to the general rule that unpaid contributions are not plan assets by finding that employer contributions are plan assets where the CBA explicitly defines them as such. In such cases, these courts will then proceed to consider the next question of whether the officers, directors or other representatives of such employer exercised a level of control over corporate assets sufficient to make them an ERISA plan fiduciary and thus individually liable for the contributions—effectively stripping them of the protections of the corporate form. Furthermore, if elevated to the status of a fiduciary breach, the debt may not be dischargeable in a bankruptcy proceeding. Thus, the plan could proceed to collect the unpaid contributions against the principals of the debtor personally.

For over a decade, some federal district courts in the Second Circuit have applied a two-part test in delinquent employer contribution cases to find that: (i) such contributions are plan assets when so specified by the CBA; and (ii) the principals of the employer are an ERISA plan fiduciary. More recently, the Second Circuit concluded that delinquent contributions were not plan assets where there were no provisions in the relevant plan documents that stated that unpaid contributions are assets of the plan. See In re Halpin, 566 F.3d 286 (2d Cir. 2009). The Court expressly stated, however, that "the trustees were free to contractually provide for some other result." It further noted that merely finding that delinquent contributions constitute plan assets does not end the inquiry. A court must also determine whether an individual defendant has exercised sufficient fiduciary conduct over the unpaid contributions to be found to be a plan fiduciary under ERISA.

While the Court's statements were extraneous to the holding of the case, some district courts within the Second Circuit have seized upon this language and have cited In re Halpin for the proposition that employer contributions can be plan assets where the plan documents so provide. See, e.g., Trustees of Sheet Metalworkers Int'l Assoc. v. Hopwood, 09-cv-5088, 2012 WL 4462048 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 27, 2012); Sullivan v. Marble Unique Corp., 10-cv-3582, 2011 WL 5401987, at *27 (E.D.N.Y. Aug. 30, 2011).

Similarly, the Eleventh Circuit, in ITPE Pension Fund v. Hall, 334 F.3d 1011 (11th Cir. 2003), held that delinquent contributions can constitute plan assets when explicitly provided for in the plan documents and corporate officers are plan fiduciaries with respect to those assets. The Court demanded a high level of clarity in the plan documents, however, regarding the delinquent contribution's status as plan assets. It explained that when a corporation is delinquent in its contributions, the fund "has a sufficient priority on the corporation's available resources that individuals controlling corporate resources are controlling fund assets. This in effect places heavy responsibilities on employers, but only to the extent that . . . an employer freely accepts those responsibilities in collective bargaining."

In addition, district courts in the Third, Fourth, and Ninth Circuits have found that employer contributions constitute plan assets when the plan documents so provide. See, e.g., Trustees of Construction Industry and Laborers Health & Welfare Trust v. Archie, No. 2:12-cv-00225 (D. Nev. Mar. 3, 2014) (holding that unpaid contributions were plan assets based upon the CBA's language and finding that the company principals' acts and responsibilities demonstrated sufficient control and authority over the company's operations and financials to qualify as ERISA fiduciaries); Galgay v. Gangloff, 677 F. Supp. 295, 301 (M.D. Penn. 1987) (refusing to dismiss fiduciary breach claims for alleged failure to pay delinquent contributions based upon the "clear and undisputed language [of the agreement] stating that title to all monies 'due and owing' the plaintiff fund is 'vested' in the fund," rendering "any delinquent employer contributions vested assets of the plaintiff fund."; Connors v. Paybra Mining Co., 807 F. Supp. 1242, 1246 (S.D.W.V. 1992) (finding company officers personally liable for delinquent contributions that were plan assets based upon CBA's language since they breached their fiduciary duty by exercising authority over those assets by favoring other creditors over the fund); see also Secretary of Labor v. Doyle, 675 F.3d 187 (3d Cir. 2012) (holding that district court erred in failing to determine whether payments collected from various employers were plan assets subject to ERISA).

District courts in the Sixth Circuit have even signaled support for finding that contributions are plan assets as soon as they become due, "regardless of the language of the benefit plan." See, e.g., Plumbers Local 98 Defined Benefit Funds v. M&P Master Plumbers of Michigan, Inc., 608 F. Supp. 2d 873, 879 (E.D. Mich. 2009) (holding company principal personally liable for delinquent contributions since "the CBA and trust agreements . . . treat these unpaid contributions as inalienable plan assets" and signaling support for holding delinquent contributions plan assets "regardless of the language of the benefit plan.").

In a related context, a federal bankruptcy court recently refused to discharge a debtor's debt for delinquent contributions based upon the Bankruptcy Code's "defalcation in the performance of fiduciary duty" exception. See In re Fahey, 494 B.R. 16 (Bankr. D. Mass. 2013). Although the court initially found that the debtor lacked the necessary discretion for fiduciary status under ERISA because the "option to breach a contract does not constitute discretion in the performance of one's duty," the United States Bankruptcy Appellate Panel for the First Circuit reversed. The Panel ruled that "even if an ERISA fiduciary does not per se satisfy the § 523(a)(4) requirement for 'fiduciary capacity,' an analysis of [the Debtor's] control and authority over the plan in functional terms nonetheless yields the conclusion that he acted as a fiduciary of a technical trust imposed by common law." On remand, the bankruptcy court found that the debtor prioritized payments that were personally beneficial over his obligations to the ERISA funds and, consequently, committed defalcation as contemplated by the Bankruptcy Code.

View from Proskauer

Although the general rule that employer contributions do not constitute plan assets until actually received by the trust fund continues, recent decisions indicate an increased willingness by courts to carve out an exception to this rule. Funds looking to protect their ability to collect contributions should explicitly define in the plan documents and agreements with employers that plan assets also include all unpaid contributions in the hands of the employer. Employers should be fully cognizant of these provisions; otherwise its officers, directors and other representatives who choose to pay other creditors rather than the trust fund might be held personally liable for the unpaid amounts and interest and penalties, and possibly be unable to escape this liability through bankruptcy.

To view original article, please click here.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on Mondaq.com.

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Similar Articles
Relevancy Powered by MondaqAI
In association with
Related Topics
Similar Articles
Relevancy Powered by MondaqAI
Related Articles
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Mondaq Free Registration
Gain access to Mondaq global archive of over 375,000 articles covering 200 countries with a personalised News Alert and automatic login on this device.
Mondaq News Alert (some suggested topics and region)
Select Topics
Registration (please scroll down to set your data preferences)

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including your content preferences, for three primary purposes (full details of Mondaq’s use of your personal data can be found in our Privacy and Cookies Notice):

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting to show content ("Content") relevant to your interests.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, news alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our content providers ("Contributors") who contribute Content for free for your use.

Mondaq hopes that our registered users will support us in maintaining our free to view business model by consenting to our use of your personal data as described below.

Mondaq has a "free to view" business model. Our services are paid for by Contributors in exchange for Mondaq providing them with access to information about who accesses their content. Once personal data is transferred to our Contributors they become a data controller of this personal data. They use it to measure the response that their articles are receiving, as a form of market research. They may also use it to provide Mondaq users with information about their products and services.

Details of each Contributor to which your personal data will be transferred is clearly stated within the Content that you access. For full details of how this Contributor will use your personal data, you should review the Contributor’s own Privacy Notice.

Please indicate your preference below:

Yes, I am happy to support Mondaq in maintaining its free to view business model by agreeing to allow Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors whose Content I access
No, I do not want Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors

Also please let us know whether you are happy to receive communications promoting products and services offered by Mondaq:

Yes, I am happy to received promotional communications from Mondaq
No, please do not send me promotional communications from Mondaq
Terms & Conditions

Mondaq.com (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd (Mondaq). Mondaq grants you a non-exclusive, revocable licence to access the Website and associated services, such as the Mondaq News Alerts (Services), subject to and in consideration of your compliance with the following terms and conditions of use (Terms). Your use of the Website and/or Services constitutes your agreement to the Terms. Mondaq may terminate your use of the Website and Services if you are in breach of these Terms or if Mondaq decides to terminate the licence granted hereunder for any reason whatsoever.

Use of www.mondaq.com

To Use Mondaq.com you must be: eighteen (18) years old or over; legally capable of entering into binding contracts; and not in any way prohibited by the applicable law to enter into these Terms in the jurisdiction which you are currently located.

You may use the Website as an unregistered user, however, you are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the Content or to receive the Services.

You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these Terms or with the prior written consent of Mondaq. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information from the Content. Nor shall you extract information about users or Contributors in order to offer them any services or products.

In your use of the Website and/or Services you shall: comply with all applicable laws, regulations, directives and legislations which apply to your Use of the Website and/or Services in whatever country you are physically located including without limitation any and all consumer law, export control laws and regulations; provide to us true, correct and accurate information and promptly inform us in the event that any information that you have provided to us changes or becomes inaccurate; notify Mondaq immediately of any circumstances where you have reason to believe that any Intellectual Property Rights or any other rights of any third party may have been infringed; co-operate with reasonable security or other checks or requests for information made by Mondaq from time to time; and at all times be fully liable for the breach of any of these Terms by a third party using your login details to access the Website and/or Services

however, you shall not: do anything likely to impair, interfere with or damage or cause harm or distress to any persons, or the network; do anything that will infringe any Intellectual Property Rights or other rights of Mondaq or any third party; or use the Website, Services and/or Content otherwise than in accordance with these Terms; use any trade marks or service marks of Mondaq or the Contributors, or do anything which may be seen to take unfair advantage of the reputation and goodwill of Mondaq or the Contributors, or the Website, Services and/or Content.

Mondaq reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to take any action that it deems necessary and appropriate in the event it considers that there is a breach or threatened breach of the Terms.

Mondaq’s Rights and Obligations

Unless otherwise expressly set out to the contrary, nothing in these Terms shall serve to transfer from Mondaq to you, any Intellectual Property Rights owned by and/or licensed to Mondaq and all rights, title and interest in and to such Intellectual Property Rights will remain exclusively with Mondaq and/or its licensors.

Mondaq shall use its reasonable endeavours to make the Website and Services available to you at all times, but we cannot guarantee an uninterrupted and fault free service.

Mondaq reserves the right to make changes to the services and/or the Website or part thereof, from time to time, and we may add, remove, modify and/or vary any elements of features and functionalities of the Website or the services.

Mondaq also reserves the right from time to time to monitor your Use of the Website and/or services.


The Content is general information only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice or seek to be the complete and comprehensive statement of the law, nor is it intended to address your specific requirements or provide advice on which reliance should be placed. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the Content for any purpose. All Content provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers hereby exclude and disclaim all representations, warranties or guarantees with regard to the Content, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. To the maximum extent permitted by law, Mondaq expressly excludes all representations, warranties, obligations, and liabilities arising out of or in connection with all Content. In no event shall Mondaq and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use of the Content or performance of Mondaq’s Services.


Mondaq may alter or amend these Terms by amending them on the Website. By continuing to Use the Services and/or the Website after such amendment, you will be deemed to have accepted any amendment to these Terms.

These Terms shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of England and Wales and you irrevocably submit to the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales to settle any dispute which may arise out of or in connection with these Terms. If you live outside the United Kingdom, English law shall apply only to the extent that English law shall not deprive you of any legal protection accorded in accordance with the law of the place where you are habitually resident ("Local Law"). In the event English law deprives you of any legal protection which is accorded to you under Local Law, then these terms shall be governed by Local Law and any dispute or claim arising out of or in connection with these Terms shall be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts where you are habitually resident.

You may print and keep a copy of these Terms, which form the entire agreement between you and Mondaq and supersede any other communications or advertising in respect of the Service and/or the Website.

No delay in exercising or non-exercise by you and/or Mondaq of any of its rights under or in connection with these Terms shall operate as a waiver or release of each of your or Mondaq’s right. Rather, any such waiver or release must be specifically granted in writing signed by the party granting it.

If any part of these Terms is held unenforceable, that part shall be enforced to the maximum extent permissible so as to give effect to the intent of the parties, and the Terms shall continue in full force and effect.

Mondaq shall not incur any liability to you on account of any loss or damage resulting from any delay or failure to perform all or any part of these Terms if such delay or failure is caused, in whole or in part, by events, occurrences, or causes beyond the control of Mondaq. Such events, occurrences or causes will include, without limitation, acts of God, strikes, lockouts, server and network failure, riots, acts of war, earthquakes, fire and explosions.

By clicking Register you state you have read and agree to our Terms and Conditions