Judge Says “Segal Blend” Method To Calculate Multiemployer Pension Withdrawal Liability Was a Mistake

A federal judge in New York has just ruled that using the “Segal Blend” interest assumption to calculate a withdrawing company’s multiemployer pension liability was a “mistake” and unsupported by the record.

This decision may have broad consequences for multiemployer pension plans and contributing employers because the Segal Blend method is used by many of the largest multiemployer plans in the United States.

The Segal Blend Method

The Segal Company is a well-known and distinguished actuarial firm which provides services to multiemployer plans.  The Segal Blend method is a proprietary method of valuing a plan’s unfunded vested benefits to calculate withdrawal liability by blending the plan’s investment-return interest rate assumption with the lower risk-free rates published by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC).

Use of the Segal Blend method currently may result in a greater withdrawal liability number for the pension plan to collect, because the blending of the two rates (the investment-rate of return with the PBGC rate) results in a lower interest rate for calculating withdrawal liability.  A lower interest rate assumption in calculating withdrawal liability will result in higher withdrawal liability calculations.

The case involved a series of alleged partial withdrawals by The New York Times Company (NYT) from the Newspapers and Mail Deliverers’ Publishers Pension Fund.  The Fund assessed withdrawal liability in excess of $33 million, which was calculated using the Segal Blend.

An arbitrator generally upheld the Fund’s assessment of partial withdrawal liability.  The Fund and the NYT each then sued in federal court to enforce and vacate the arbitrator’s award, respectively.

Segal Blend Was Impermissible Because It Was Not the Actuary’s “Best Estimate”

The NYT argued that the Segal Blend method was impermissible as a matter of law, relying upon a 1993 U.S. Supreme Court decision and the requirements of §4213(a) of ERISA.  The district court rejected this argument finding that § 4213(a)’s requirement that a withdrawal liability actuarial assumption be reasonable “in the aggregate” meant that a different assumption may possibly be used for determining withdrawal liability.

Section 4213(a) of ERISA also requires, however, that the actuarial assumption used to calculate withdrawal liability “offer the actuary’s best estimate of anticipated experience under the plan.”  The evidence established that the Segal Blend was not the actuary’s “best estimate” for withdrawal liability, because the actuary stated in her testimony that the investment-return assumption of 7.5% was her “best estimate of how the Pension Fund’s assets . . . will on average perform over the long term.”  This contradicted the use of the lower Segal Blend 6.5% rate derived by blending the 7.5% “best estimate” assumption with the lower, no-risk PBGC bond rates.

The district court found that “the actuary’s testimony, combined with the untethered composition of the Segal Blend …create ‘a definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been made’ in accepting the Segal Blend…”  The district court reversed the Arbitrator’s decision, and indicated the withdrawal liability should be recalculated using the 7.5% assumption, unless additional evidence established a more appropriate rate.

Other Important Conclusions 

Other notable aspects of this decision included:

There is construction of the CBA to establish the proper definition of “Contribution Base Unit” for purposes of calculating withdrawal liability.  (The court adopted the Fund’s position.  The CBU was a shift-period, as opposed to wages.)

The calculation of successive partial withdrawals is also discussed.  The NYT’s arguments were adopted, resulting in a larger offset in successive partial withdrawals.

Bottom Line

For pension funds that use the Segal Blend method for calculating withdrawal liability – or any method with rates that differ from investment-return rate, such as using PBGC rates – an examination as to whether this approach is the actuary’s “best estimate” may be in order.  If the assumptions and rates are not the actuary’s “best estimate,” the investment-return rate may govern.

This case also provides guidance in calculating partial withdrawal liability and in construing CBAs for determination of “contribution base unit” standards.