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Employment Law: an ERISA Primer for Non-Lawyers

Posted on in Employment

If you work for a private company that sponsors an employee retirement plan, or if you are a plan sponsor or administrator of such a plan, you should know that the federal government has an established framework of rules under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, or ERISA, to protect retirement plan assets.

ERISA Employment Law matters are enforced by the U.S. Department of Labor. ERISA dictates what, and when, information must be provided to plan participants, and sets minimum standards that private employers must adhere to when offering retirement plans to employees, including who may participate in the plan, when assets are vested, and funding provisions.

Plan fiduciaries (generally anyone with control or discretionary authority for assets within the plan) are accountable to participants, and may be held liable for failing to act in the best interests of the plan, its participants and their beneficiaries when making decisions about investments or other matters affecting the plan. Additionally, fiduciaries are required to carry out their responsibilities prudently, and with diligence and skill. ERISA also requires that plan administration expenses must be reasonable, and that fiduciaries must avoid conflicts of interest.

ERISA also gives plan participants the right to sue the plan and its fiduciaries for several potential causes of action including breaches of fiduciary duties, to recover benefits due but not paid, or to appeal a claim for benefits that was previously denied.

It is important to note that employee retirement plans offered by federal, state and local governments are not covered by ERISA. Some plans offered by churches are also outside of ERISA's scope.

If you are an ERISA fiduciary needing legal assistance, or if you are an employee plan participant concerned that your rights may have been violated under ERISA, contact us. You may also be interested in reading the U.S. Department of Labor's FAQs about Retirement Plans and ERISA page.

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