ERISA contemplated so-called top-hat plans. In fact, it spelled out exactly what was contemplated in providing this opportunity for nonqualified deferred compensation so clearly that the legislative intent could never be misconstrued.
No, it didn't.
As is often the case when bills go from staffer to staffer and then to the floors of the houses of Congress, the bills tend to emerge with run-on sentences often punctuated by a myriad of commas making Congressional intent something upon which otherwise knowing people cannot agree.
Perhaps, some day they will learn.
No they won't, not in my lifetime anyway.
In any event, in a case (Bond v Marriott) concerning top-hat plans in front of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, the Department of Labor (DOL) wrote an amicus brief providing its opinion on the statutory wording around top-hat plans.
So, I know that those not familiar are just itching to find out. What does the statute say?
Congress gave us an exception to certain provisions of ERISA for a "[p]lan which is unfunded and is maintained by an employer primarily for the purpose of providing deferred compensation for a select group of management or highly compensated employees."
What is the primary purpose of a top-hat plan? Is it to be primarily for providing deferred compensation to a select group that is composed of management or highly compensated employees? Or, is it to be for providing deferred compensation to select group that is composed primarily of management or highly compensated employees?
It's one of those great questions that has confounded us through the ages. No, actually, it's a question that has confounded a select group of us since the passage of ERISA in 1974. To add to that confounding just a bit, everyone who practices in this field knows what a highly compensated employee is. The term is well defined in Code Section 414(q). But wait, Section 414(q), as written, has only been around since 1986 (added by Tax Reform) meaning that perhaps for these purposes, we don't even know what a highly compensated employee really is.
In its amicus brief, the DOL gives us its opinion, one that it claims to have held at least since 1985 and perhaps longer. The DOL tells the court that the primary purpose should be the provision of deferred compensation [for this select group] and that other purposes might include retaining top talent, allowing highly compensated individuals to defer taxation to years with lower marginal tax rates, or avoiding certain limitations applicable to qualified plans in the Internal Revenue Code. DOL further tells us that it does not mean that the select group may be composed primarily [emphasis added] of management or highly compensated employees or that the plan may have some other secondary purpose which is not consistent with its primary purpose.
The brief goes on to give us the judicial history around the provision and of course informs us which case law got it right and which did not. But, the DOL is clear in its claims and steadfastly denies that exceptions should be allowed.
I may be missing something here regarding the DOL. I think that the DOL has regulatory purview over ERISA. While the DOL has ceded that purview most of the time to the IRS where the Internal Revenue Code has a conforming section, that does not seem to be the case here. Could the DOL not have written regulations in 1975 or 1985 or 1995, or 2005 clarifying who, in fact, is eligible for participation in a top-hat plan? Or did they think it so clear that it was not worth their effort, despite being befuddled by decision after decision handed down by federal courts?
I know that when I got into this business, coincidentally in 1985, the more experienced people who taught me instructed that top-hat plans were to be for a group that was primarily management or highly compensated. In fact, it is difficult, in my experience to find practitioners who learned otherwise.
Perhaps that's wishful thinking. Perhaps, on the other hand, it's wishful thinking on the DOL's part. Perhaps the case will go to the US Supreme Court eventually so that nine wise jurists can put their own spin on it and settle this argument once and for all.
Until then, ...