In recent years, the Department of Labor (DOL) has had a laser-like focus on valuation issues when privately held companies establish employee stock ownership plans (ESOP). In particular, the DOL is concerned with valuations that rely upon unrealistic growth projections, which lead to the ESOP paying too much (in the DOL’s view) for the shares of employer stock. The DOL has raised this issue in litigation, and in 2014, it entered into a settlement agreement with GreatBanc Trust Company (GreatBanc). While the GreatBanc settlement is legally binding only on GreatBanc, the DOL promoted it as a set of best practices for trustees to demonstrate that they satisfied their fiduciary duties in an ESOP transaction. The trustee community largely followed suit, and the due diligence process for ESOP transactions typically follows procedures outlined in the GreatBanc settlement.
The DOL has since updated these procedures. Towards the end of 2017, the DOL entered into new settlement agreements with trustees—one set of settlement agreements with the institutional trustee First Bankers Trust Services Inc. (First Bankers) and one with an individual trustee named Joyner (1).