Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Ass'n v. Cal. Secure Choice Ret. Sav. Program

Decision Date06 May 2021
Docket NumberNo. 20-15591,20-15591
Citation997 F.3d 848
Parties HOWARD JARVIS TAXPAYERS ASSOCIATION; Jonathan Mark Coupal; Debra A. Desrosiers, Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. CALIFORNIA SECURE CHOICE RETIREMENT SAVINGS PROGRAM; John Chiang, California State Treasurer, Defendants-Appellees.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Ninth Circuit

Laura E. Dougherty (argued), Jonathan M. Coupal, and Timothy A. Bittle, Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Foundation, Sacramento, California, for Plaintiffs-Appellants.

Sharon L. O'Grady (argued), Deputy Attorney General; Paul Stein, Supervising Deputy Attorney General; Thomas S. Patterson, Senior Assistant Attorney General; Office of the Attorney General, San Francisco, California; R. Bradford Huss, Joseph C. Faucher, and Angel L. Garrett, Trucker Huss APC, San Francisco, California; for Defendants-Appellees.

Peter K. Stris, Rachana A. Pathak, Douglas D. Geyser, and John Stokes, Stris & Maher LLP, Los Angeles, California; Barbara R. Van Zomeren, Ascensus LLC, Brainerd, Minnesota; for Amicus Curiae Ascensus LLC.

Dara S. Smith and William Alvarado Rivera, AARP Foundation Washington, D.C.; Jeffrey Lewis, Erin Riley, and Rachel E. Morowitz, Keller Rohrback LLP, Seattle, Washington; for Amici Curiae AARP, AARP Foundation, California Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Small Business California, Small Business Majority, Unidosus, United Ways of California, and Western Center on Law and Poverty.

Ellen F. Rosenblum, Attorney General, Office of the Attorney General, Salem, Oregon; Kwame Raoul, Attorney General; Jane Elinor Notz, Solicitor General; Sarah A. Hunger, Deputy Solicitor General; Office of the Attorney General, Chicago, Illinois; for Amici Curiae States of Illinois and Oregon.

Before: Andrew D. Hurwitz and Daniel A. Bress, Circuit Judges, and Clifton L. Corker,* District Judge.

BRESS, Circuit Judge:

This case presents a novel and important question in the law governing retirement benefits: whether the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), 29 U.S.C. § 1001, et seq. , preempts a California law that creates a state-managed individual retirement account (IRA) program. The program, CalSavers, applies to eligible employees of certain private employers in California that do not provide their employees with a tax-qualified retirement savings plan. Eligible employees are automatically enrolled in CalSavers, but may opt out. If they do not, their employer must remit certain payroll deductions to CalSavers, which funds the employees’ IRAs. California manages and administers the IRAs and acts as the program fiduciary. Citing a need to encourage greater savings among future retirees, other States have enacted similar state-managed IRA programs in recent years. To our knowledge, this is the first case challenging such a program on ERISA preemption grounds.

We hold that the preemption challenge fails. CalSavers is not an ERISA plan because it is established and maintained by the State, not employers; it does not require employers to operate their own ERISA plans; and it does not have an impermissible reference to or connection with ERISA. Nor does CalSavers interfere with ERISA's core purposes. ERISA thus does not preclude California's endeavor to encourage personal retirement savings by requiring employers who do not offer retirement plans to participate in CalSavers. We therefore affirm the judgment of the district court.


In 2017, the California Legislature enacted the CalSavers Retirement Savings Trust Act, which implemented the CalSavers program (previously known as "California Secure Choice"). See Cal. Gov't Code § 100000, et seq . CalSavers is a state-run IRA savings program for certain private employees. See id. §§ 100002, 100004, 100008. Its objective is to encourage greater retirement savings among employees whose employers do not offer retirement plans. See Savings Arrangements Established by States for Non-Governmental Employees, 81 Fed. Reg. 59464, 59464–65 (Aug. 30, 2016) (describing how California and other states have enacted "automatic enrollment" programs to "encourage employees to establish tax-favored IRAs funded by payroll deductions").

CalSavers's automatic enrollment requirement applies only to an "Eligible employee" of an "Eligible employer." Cal. Gov't Code §§ 100000(c)(d), 100032. Eligible employees are defined as California employees who are at least eighteen years old and employed by an eligible employer. Id. § 100000(c) ; Cal. Code Regs. tit. 10, § 10000(l), (n). Eligible employers are defined as non-governmental employers with five or more employees in California. Cal. Gov't Code § 100000(d) ; Cal. Code Regs. tit. 10, § 10000(m). The sole exclusion is for an "Exempt Employer," Cal. Code Regs. tit. 10, § 10000(q), that provides either an "employer-sponsored retirement plan" or an "automatic enrollment payroll deduction IRA" that "qualifies for favorable federal income tax treatment." Cal. Gov't Code § 100032(g)(1).

Compliance with CalSavers is mandatory for non-exempt eligible employers, who must register with the CalSavers program. Id. § 100032(b)(d) ; Cal. Code Regs. tit. 10, § 10002. Exempt employers may, but are not required to, inform the CalSavers Administrator of their exemption. Cal. Code Regs. tit. 10, § 10001(d). Eligible employers who later become ineligible (for example, those who later create their own ERISA plans) must inform the CalSavers Administrator within 30 days of their change in status. Id. § 10001(c). Exempt employers are "prohibited from participating in the Program." Id. § 10002(d).

CalSavers describes itself as "a state-administered program, not an employer-sponsored program." Cal. Gov't Code § 100034(b). To that end, CalSavers forbids employers from taking a variety of actions. Employers may not "[r]equire, endorse, encourage, prohibit, restrict, or discourage employee participation in" CalSavers. Cal. Code Regs. tit. 10, § 10003(d)(1). Nor may employers advise employees regarding CalSavers contribution rates or investment decisions or "[e]xercise any authority, control, or responsibility regarding" the program. Id. § 10003(d)(2), (4). Employers "are prohibited from contributing to a Participating Employee's Account." Id. § 10005(c)(1). Employers also "shall not have any liability for an employee's decision to participate in, or opt out of, the program"; "shall not be a fiduciary, or considered to be a fiduciary over the trust or the program"; "shall not be liable as plan sponsors"; and "shall not bear responsibility for the administration, investment, or investment performance of the program." Cal. Gov't Code § 100034(a), (b).

Anticipating the legal challenge we address here, the statute creating CalSavers maintains that "the roles and responsibilities of employers" have been defined "in a manner to keep the program from being classified as an employee benefit plan subject to the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act [(ERISA)]." Cal. Gov't Code § 100043(b)(1)(C). CalSavers imposes three basic duties on eligible employers. They must first register for CalSavers by providing their basic identification and contact information. Cal. Code Regs. tit. 10, § 10002(f). Within thirty days of registration, they must provide CalSavers with certain contact and identifying information for their eligible employees. Id. § 10003(a). They must also set up "a payroll deposit retirement savings arrangement," Cal. Gov't Code § 100032(b), through which they can remit employees’ contributions to the CalSavers Trust. Cal. Code Regs. tit. 10, § 10003(c). Regulations set a 5% default rate of contribution, though employees may adjust their rate. Id. § 10005(a)(1), (b)(1). An eligible employer that "fails to allow its eligible employees to participate" in CalSavers is subject to penalties. Cal. Gov't Code § 100033(b).

After an eligible employer registers with CalSavers, the CalSavers Administrator delivers to all eligible employees an information packet describing the program. Cal. Code Regs. tit. 10, § 10004(a). Upon receiving the information packet, employees have thirty days to opt out; otherwise, they are automatically enrolled in CalSavers. Id. § 10004(b). Employees may opt out electronically, by telephone, or by mail. Id. § 10004(d); see also Cal. Gov't Code § 100032(f)(1). Even after enrollment, employees may opt out of CalSavers at any time. Cal. Code Regs. tit. 10, § 10004(d). Employees’ contributions are made to a Roth IRA, id. § 10005(a)(3), but employees may choose to recharacterize all or some of their contributions to a traditional IRA, id. § 10005(c)(4). They may roll over or transfer funds into their CalSavers IRA at any time. Id. § 10007(b).1

The statute and regulations also describe how eligible employers can become ineligible for CalSavers, and how employees can make changes to their CalSavers accounts. For example, if an eligible employer later adopts its own "employer-sponsored retirement plan" or qualifying "automatic enrollment payroll deduction IRA," CalSavers no longer applies. Cal. Gov't Code § 100032(g)(1)(2). Eligible employees are also given guidance on how they may withdraw their CalSavers contributions. See id. § 100014(b)(4). Any individual who is over eighteen can also choose to participate in CalSavers "outside of an employment relationship with an Eligible Employer." Cal. Code Regs. tit. 10, § 10006(a).

The Act that implemented CalSavers also created a nine-member California Secure Choice Retirement Savings Board, a public body "within state government," that is charged with managing and administering the CalSavers Retirement Savings Trust. Cal. Gov't Code §§ 100002, 100004. The Board is authorized to fund the Trust with the contributions received from employers through employee payroll deductions, invest the Trust funds (or delegate investment to private money managers), and pay operating costs using Trust funds. See id. § 100004.

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