First Circuit: Private Equity Sponsor Liable for Portfolio Company Pension Underfunding

by K&L Gates LLP

In a decision that could have significant implications for private equity investors, the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit has determined that a private equity fund may be liable under ERISA for an underfunded pension plan in which its bankrupt portfolio company had participated. Citing the active role played by the fund’s general partner in the management of the portfolio company, the court found that the fund was not a mere investor, but rather was a “trade or business” that may be included within the portfolio company’s control group for purposes of assessing withdrawal liability for the company’s underfunded pension plan.

Acknowledging that a “fine line” exists between managing one’s investments in a business and managing a business in which one invests, the First Circuit decided in Sun Capital Partners III, LP et al. v. New England Teamsters & Trucking Industry Pension Fund that a private equity fund was sufficiently involved in the affairs of a portfolio company to potentially incur liability for the company’s unfunded pension obligations. However, the court directed that further proceedings be conducted to determine whether the private equity funds at issue were under common control with the portfolio company as is required to incur liability under ERISA. Given the significant potential exposure for private equity sponsors of companies with underfunded defined benefit pension plans, this case will be closely watched over the coming months.

Multiemployer Pension Plan Withdrawal Liability
The Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”)[1] as amended by the Multiemployer Pension Plan Amendment Act of 1980 (“MPPAA”),[2] and for years before ERISA was adopted, the Taft Hartley Act, authorize the formation of a “multiemployer plan.” Multiemployer plans are typically run by unions for the benefit of union members within a particular industry and bargained over with unrelated unionized employers within such industry. Multiemployer plans can become underfunded for a number of reasons, including investment experience and insufficient contributions from employers. ERISA defers recognizing employer liability for funding shortfalls in multiemployer pension plans until an employer ceases contributing to the plan, for example, by bargaining out of the plan, entering into an asset sale, or filing for bankruptcy. These events create a “withdrawal” and the withdrawing employer is assessed liability using one of the four ERISA-specified methods of determining the employer’s proportionate share of the liability. In general, these methods create a fraction in which the amount of the withdrawing employer’s contributions is the numerator and the aggregate of all contributing employers’ contributions is the denominator. The fraction is multiplied by the amount of the pension plan’s underfunding and the result is the withdrawing employer’s liability. 

ERISA imposes the pension liability, jointly and severally, on each trade and business that is under common control with the withdrawing employer. Thus, to impose withdrawal liability on an organization other than one directly obligated to the pension plan, two conditions must be satisfied: (i) the organization must be a “trade or business”; under (2) “common control” with the obligated entity.

The threshold issue in the Sun Capital case was whether the funds, individually or in the aggregate, were a “trade or business” for purposes of ERISA. ERISA does not define the phrase “trade or business”. Instead, the statute defers to the Secretary of the Treasury’s use of these terms in the regulations implementing the Internal Revenue Code.[3] Unfortunately, the Treasury regulations do not define “trade or business” either. 

Private Equity Investor Exposure to Pension Withdrawal Liability
In 2006, several investment funds (“Sun Fund III” and “Sun Fund IV,” and collectively, the “Sun Funds” or the “Funds”) controlled by Sun Capital Advisors, Inc. (“Sun Capital”) decided to invest in Scott Brass, Inc. (“SBI” or the “Company”), a Rhode Island based manufacturer of metal products including brass and copper coil. At the time, the Company participated in the New England Teamsters and Trucking Industry Pension Fund, a multiemployer pension plan (the “Pension Fund”). The Sun Funds invested in the Company indirectly through multiple holding companies. Mindful of the 80% test for the purpose of establishing “common control” under the ERISA/MPPAA, each Fund limited its investment in the Company; Sun Fund IV acquired 70%, and Sun Fund III acquired 30%.

Like many private equity funds, Sun Capital is not a passive investor. Rather, its business model involves purchasing struggling companies at discounted valuations, turning them around, and selling them for a profit in 2-5 years. The private placement memoranda Sun Capital circulated to its investors explained that the Sun Funds would be actively involved in the management and operation of the companies in which they invested. To this end, each Fund was owned by a limited partnership whose general partners were authorized to make decisions about hiring, terminating, and compensating agents and employees of the Sun Funds and their portfolio company investments. Each general partner formed a management company, which provided employees and consultants to the Company in exchange for consulting and management fees (paid by the Company through the holding company). In return for managing their investments, each Fund was obligated to pay the general partners a fee based on a percentage of the annual aggregate commitments to the Fund. Accordingly, Sun Capital was able to acquire the Company (through the Sun Funds) and control it (through affiliated management companies).

After acquiring SBI, the Sun Funds installed Sun Capital employees in two of the three director positions at the Company. In exchange for providing management services, the Company paid the general partner of Sun Fund IV $186,368.33, which offset the fees Sun Fund IV would otherwise be obligated to pay the general partner for managing the Funds’ investment in the Company.

In 2008, as the price of copper declined, the Company began to experience severe financial difficulties. It withdrew from the Pension Fund in the fall of 2008, went out of business, and was forced into bankruptcy by its creditors. The Pension Fund assessed $4.5 million in withdrawal liability and suggested that both Sun Funds and the Company were jointly and severally liable for this amount as a single “employer.” The Pension Fund argued that, under ERISA, the Sun Funds’ “controlling interest” in the Company put all three under “common control.” In 2010, the Sun Funds sued the Pension Fund in the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts seeking a declaratory judgment that they were not liable for the Company’s withdrawal liability.[4]

The District Court Decision
The district court entered summary judgment for the Sun Funds finding that they were not “trades or businesses” and, therefore, not liable under ERISA/MPPAA for SBI’s withdrawal liability.[5] In so holding, the court did not address the second requirement for withdrawal liability, that is whether the Funds were in “common control” with the Company.

Historically, the Supreme Court has not considered investing to be a trade or business.[6] In Commissioner v. Groetzinger, the Court established a two-prong test for when an activity constitutes a trade or business: (1) the primary purpose of the activity must be for income or profit; and (2) the activity must be performed with continuity and regularity.[7] The Pension Fund, however, urged the district court to follow a 2007 opinion by the PBGC Appeals Board ruling that a private equity fund, structured very much like the Sun Funds, qualified as a “trade or business” under Groetzinger. In its letter ruling, the PBGC developed an “investment plus” test for determining whether a private equity investor was a “trade or business.” The PBGC concluded that private equity funds meet the “investment plus” criteria because they are typically involved in running the businesses they acquire.[8]

The district court declined to follow the PBGC opinion, finding it unpersuasive.[9] First, the district court noted that the Sun Funds had no employees or office space, nor did they make or sell any goods.[10] The district court analogized the Funds’ stake in the Company to that of a shareholder, concluding that the size of their investments and their involvement in electing directors and officers did not make them actively involved in management of the business.[11] Since their tax returns indicated income from only capital gains and dividends, the district court found the Sun Funds’ income to be purely investment-based.  Furthermore, it refused to attribute the management fees of the general partners to the Funds, noting that income generated by an agent through an ancillary activity will not be imputed on the principal.[12]

Having concluded the Sun Funds were neither a trade nor a business, the district court nevertheless suggested liability may be found if the primary purpose of the decision to keep each Fund’s stake in the Company under 80% was to “evade or avoid” withdrawal liability, in which case 29 U.S.C. § 1392(c) would require the court to disregard the transaction.[13] The Sun Funds conceded that onepurpose of structuring their investment in SBI as a 70/30 split between them was to minimize the risk of withdrawal liability. The district court did not find, however, that this was the principal purpose because the Funds cited diversification of their investment portfolios and different life-cycles of the two Funds as additional purposes.[14] Moreover, the court noted that were it to ignore the Sun Funds’ investment, the Funds would be entirely severed from the Company, making it logically impossible for liability to attach. 

The First Circuit Decision
On appeal, the First Circuit took a “very fact-specific approach” in concluding that at least one of the Funds—Sun Fund IV—was a “trade or business” for the purposes of analyzing withdrawal liability under ERISA/MPPAA.[15]

Although it agreed with the district court that the PBGC decision was not binding, the First Circuit nevertheless found persuasive and adopted the “investment plus” approach to decide whether a private equity fund is a “trade or business” under ERISA/MPPAA.[16] The First Circuit saw “no need to set forth general guidelines for what the ‘plus’ is,” but concluded that Sun Fund IV was sufficiently involved in and derived economic benefits from the management of SBI to be more than a passive investor.[17] Not only did the Sun Funds place Sun Capital employees on the Company’s board, they were able to “funnel management and consulting fees” to Sun Fund IV’s general partner, which fees would offset what Sun Fund IV would otherwise owe its general partner in the form of investment fees. Accordingly, the First Circuit concluded that, unlike the taxpayers in the previous Supreme Court opinions, Sun Fund IV derived meaningful economic benefit from its control over the Company above and beyond the benefits ordinarily enjoyed by a passive investor.[18] The First Circuit could not decide whether Sun Fund III was a trade or business, however, because the record did not indicate whether it had received similar offsetting management fees.

The First Circuit rejected the argument that the Funds were not engaged in trade or business because affiliates of the Funds’ general partners, and not the Funds themselves, performed management services for the Company. The First Circuit noted that the general partners were acting as agents of the Funds under the terms of the limited partnership agreement.[19] The general partner of Sun Fund IV performed management services on behalf of and for the benefit of the Sun Funds. Agency principles thus bound Sun Fund IV to the acts of its general partner, making the Fund actively involved in the management of the Company for the purposes of assessing withdrawal liability.

Finally, the First Circuit agreed with the district court that § 1392(c) could not serve as a basis to impose liability on the Sun Funds. Even if the decision to split ownership in the Company 70/30 - thereby coming under the 80% control-threshold - could be seen as an impermissible attempt to “evade or avoid” liability, the remedy called for by § 1392(c)—ignoring the transaction that created the 70/30 division—would sever the Sun Funds’ relationship with the Company entirely.[20] By invoking § 1392(c), the Pension Fund was essentially asking the district court to rewrite the investment such that Sun Fund IV would have 100% control of the Company. The First Circuit noted that § 1392(c) does not authorize a court to create a “fictitious transaction” like this.[21]

Having decided that at least one of the Sun Funds operated as a “trade or business” with respect to its investment in SBI, the First Circuit directed the district court on remand to decide the status of Sun Fund III and, perhaps more importantly, determine whether the Funds were in “common control” with the Company such that they may be considered a single “employer” under the MPPAA.

In the wake of Sun Capital, courts in the First Circuit will apply the “investment plus” analysis to decide whether a private equity investor is a “trade or business” which may be liable under ERISA for a portfolio company’s withdrawal liability. The First Circuit acknowledged the “fine lines” it was drawing and concluded:

We recognize that Congress may wish to encourage investment in distressed companies by curtailing the risk to investors in such employers of acquiring ERISA withdrawal liability. If so, Congress has not been explicit, and it may prefer instead to rely on the usual pricing mechanism in the private market for assumption of risk.[22]

Many (if not most) multiemployer plans are presently underfunded due to a combination of investment performance, low discount rates used to calculate liabilities, and union bargaining tactics. In addition, with private-sector union membership declining, many multiemployer defined benefit pension plans have a smaller base of active workers from which to keep the plan funded. These pension liabilities continue as significant potential liabilities for entities that previously thought of themselves only as investors that limited their risk to the equity investment.

This case was decided specifically under the multiemployer rules of ERISA. However, the district court’s determination of the “common control” question may well have ramifications for the exposure of private equity funds to liability for underfunded single employer pension plans, particularly following the bankruptcy of a portfolio company.


[1]  29 U.S.C. §§ 1001-1461.

[2]  29 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1461.

[3]  29 U.S.C. § 1301(b)(1).

[4]  See Sun Capital Partners III, LP, et al., v. New England Teamsters and Trucking Industry Pension Fund, 2012 WL 5197117, at *1 (D. Mass. Oct. 18, 2012).

[5]  See id. at *10.

[6]  See Whipple v. Comm’r., 373 U.S. 193, 202 (1963) (“When the only return is that of an investor, the taxpayer has not satisfied his burden of demonstrating that he is engaged in a trade or business since investing is not a trade or business and the return to the taxpayer, though substantially the product of his services, legally arises not from his own trade or business but from that of the corporation.”).

[7]  480 U.S. 23, 35 (1987).

[8]  See Sun Capital, 2012 WL 5197117, at *6-7.

[9]  Id. at *8.

[10]  Id. at *9.

[11]  Id. at *9-10.

[12]  Id. at *8, 10 (“The trade or business of an agent does not transfer to the principal.”).

[13]  Id. at *12.

[14]  Id. at *16.

[15]  Sun Capital Partners III, LP et al. v. New England Teamsters & Trucking Induss. Pension Fund, No. 12-2312, 2013 WL 3814984, at * 8 (1st Cir. July 24, 2013).

[16]  See id. at *8.

[17]  See id.

[18]  See id. at * 13 (“The services paid for by [the Company] were the same services that the Sun Funds would otherwise have paid for themselves to implement and oversee an operating strategy at [the Company].”).

[19]  See id.

[20]  See id. at *15.

[21]  See id.

[22]  See id. at * 13.


DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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