Posts tagged with "contractual arbitration agreements"

Court confirms FINRA Arbitration Award for Employee in the amount of $150,000 with interest

Scoble v. Blaylock & Partners, L.P., 2012 U.S. LEXIS 13706 (S.D.N.Y. 2012)

Matthew W. Scoble (“Scoble”) filed a petition against his former employer, Blaylock & Partners, L.P., subsequently known as Blaylock & Company, Inc. (“Blaylock”), to confirm an arbitration award pursuant to § 9 of the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”), 9 U.S.C. § 9.  Scoble claimed that Blaylock breached a contract between the parties by failing to make a severance payment of $150,000 to him after Blaylock terminated his employment without cause.

The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (“FINRA”) appointed a panel of three arbitrators to hear the matter after both parties agreed to submit the dispute to arbitration for a decision and award.  Both parties participated in the arbitration hearing that lasted several days.  Thereafter, the Arbitration Panel issued an award to Scoble in the amount $150,000 in compensatory damages.  The responsible party, Blaylock, would be liable for post-judgment interest pursuant to FINRA’s Code of Arbitration Procedure if it did not pay the award within thirty days.

The Court found that Scoble’s petition was sufficiently supported and indicated that there was no question of material fact.  Blaylock did not move to modify, vacate or correct the arbitration award and did not submit an opposition to the petition.  The petition to confirm the arbitration award was granted and judgment was entered for Scoble in the amount of $150,000 with post-judgment interest.

Should you have any questions relating to FINRA, arbitration or employment issues generally, please feel free to contact Russell J. Sweeting, Esq. by telephone at (203) 221-3100 or by e-mail at rsweeting@mayalaw.com.

What is “FINRA” and What Does (Should) It Do?

Attorneys here at Maya Murphy frequently are called upon to represent individuals who are the subject of a FINRA inquiry, or a party to a FINRA arbitration. We routinely post to our website client alerts regarding FINRA-related decisions but it recently occurred to us that we should take a step back and issue a post about FINRA itself—what it is, what it does (or doesn’t do), and where it came from. Knowledge is power and because FINRA so pervades the financial industry to be forewarned is to be forearmed.

“FINRA” is an acronym for the “Financial Industry Regulatory Authority,” a so-called “Self Regulating Organization.” On July 30, 2007, the New York Stock Exchange and the National Association of Securities Dealers (“NASD”) combined to form FINRA. To be sure, FINRA is cloaked in official garments of the purest silk. It was established under § 15A of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, 15 U.S.C. § 78o-3, Karsner v. Lothian, 532 F.3d 876, 879 n.1 (D.C. Cir. 2008). It is authorized to exercise comprehensive oversight over “all securities firms that do business with the public.” Sacks v. SEC, 648 F.3d 945 (9th Cir. 2011) (quoting 72 Fed. Reg. 42170 (Aug. 1, 2007)). With respect to the creation of FINRA, the NASD, itself, made it clear that the new entity was directed at “the regulation of the financial markets.” Id. “By virtue of its statutory authority, NASD wears two institutional hats: it serves as a professional association, promoting the interests of its members; and it serves as a quasi-governmental agency, with express statutory authority to adjudicate actions against members who are accused of illegal securities practices and to sanction members found to have violated the Exchange Act or Securities and Exchange Commission . . . regulations issued pursuant thereto.” NASD v. SEC, 431 F.3d 803, 804 (D.C. Cir. 2005) (citations omitted).

FINRA is a private corporation and the largest “independent” regulator of securities firms in the United States, overseeing approximately 4,800 brokerage firms, 172,000 branch offices, and 646,000 registered securities representatives. It (not necessarily by claimant choice or mere happenstance) benefits from up to 9000 arbitration filings every year. FINRA has a staff of approximately 3,000 employees and in 2009, collected revenue of $775 Million. Senior FINRA management enjoys seven-figure annual salaries.

FINRA maintains two separate but similar “Codes of Arbitration Procedure”: one for “customer disputes” and another for “industry disputes.” In drafting its Industry Code, FINRA has apparently chosen to “trim some of the fat” off of the controlling law. For example, Rule 13209 (amended December 15, 2008) states: “During an arbitration, no party may bring any suit, legal action, or proceeding against any other party that concerns or that would resolve any of the matters raised in the arbitration.” In Arnold Chase Family, LLC v. UBS AG, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 58697 (D. Conn. Aug. 4, 2008), Judge Kravitz (in analyzing the analogous FINRA “customer” Rule 12209) demonstrated remarkable restraint in reminding UBS that within the Second Circuit (which includes Connecticut and New York) since at least 1998, United States District Courts have had not only the right, but also the duty to entertain requests for preliminary injunctions during the pendency of arbitration. See Am. Express Fin. Advisors, Inc. v. Thorley, 147 F.3d 229, 231 (2d Cir. 1998). But FINRA’s arbitral disdain for the twin plinths of fundamental fairness and the opportunity to confront one’s accusers does not stop there.

The Code’s §§ 13400-13402 require that at least one “non-public arbitrator” (i.e., one who within the last five years was associated with, or registered through, a broker or a dealer) serve on every three-person arbitration panel. Given the state of the economy, in general, and the sudden appearance, disappearance, and consolidation of Wall Street firms, in particular, it is not unreasonable for a “non-public arbitrator” to have past connections or future aspirations with respect to a corporate party to the arbitration.[1] This ethical tar pit is bottomless, as evinced by Rule 13410, which vests in the “Director of FINRA Arbitration” discretion to retain an arbitrator who fails to make a required disclosure, notwithstanding a timely notice of disqualification by one of the parties. See, generally, Credit Suisse First Boston Corp. v. Grunwald, 400 F.3d 1119 (9th Cir. 2005).

FINRA also makes it clear that it will not permit its Code to let the discoverable truth get in the way of an otherwise productive arbitration. Rule 13506(a) ostensibly permits pre-arbitration requests for documents or information, provided such requests do “not require narrative answers or fact finding,” thereby rendering such requests virtually useless. Rule 13510 states outright that depositions are “strongly discouraged” and permitted “only under very limited circumstances.” The absence of meaningful pre-arbitration discovery makes the proceeding something akin to “trial by ambush.” Rule 13604(a) states: “The panel will decide what evidence to admit. The panel is not required to follow state or federal rules of evidence.” Finally, Rule 13904 permits rendition by the panel of a skeletal or elliptical award devoid of underlying factual findings or legal reasoning. Even if the parties jointly request an “explained decision” (requiring an additional $400.00 “honorarium” to the FINRA chairperson), only “general reasons” for the award are required, and inclusion of legal authorities and damage calculations is specifically not required. Under these circumstances, mere comprehension of the basis for the award, much less meaningful judicial review of the award even under the most stringent “manifest disregard” standard (assuming such standard of review still exists, see Stmicroelectronics, N.V. v. Credit Suisse Securities (USA) LLC 648 F.3d 68, 78 (2d Cir. 2011), is rendered impossible.

The take-away from this is that for financial industry professionals, FINRA rules, investigations, and arbitrations (however unsatisfying) are often the only game in town. If you find yourself trying to negotiate the FINRA minefield and need help, contact Bob Keepnews, Esq. at the Maya Murphy, P.C. office located in Westport at (203) 221-3100 or rkeepnews@mayalaw.com.

[1] In Arnold Chase Family, LLC v. UBS AG, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 58697 (D. Conn. Aug. 4, 2008), Judge Kravitz made pointed reference to both the sudden demise of Bear Stearns and the fact that securities customers do not have much say in the writing of FINRA’s rules. Id. at *8-9, *13-14.

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Federal Court Confirms FINRA Arbitration Award that Refuses to Classify a Forgivable Loan as Employee Compensation Subject to the Wage Act

Federal Court Confirms FINRA Arbitration Award that Refuses to Classify a Forgivable Loan as Employee Compensation Subject to the Wage Act

Pauline Sheedy v. Lehman Brothers Holdings, Inc., 2011 WL 5519909 (D. Mass. Nov. 14, 2011)

In a recent Massachusetts case, Pauline Sheedy (“Sheedy”), a former managing director at Lehman Brothers, Inc., filed an action in state court seeking to vacate a Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (“FINRA”) arbitration award entered in favor of Lehman Brothers Holdings, Inc. (“LBHI”). LBHI removed the case from state to federal court, and filed a motion to dismiss Sheedy’s complaint, confirm the FINRA arbitration award and award “collection expenses.” The United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts allowed LBHI’s motion.

The underlying dispute in this case involves LBHI’s efforts to collect the unpaid principal balance, plus interest and fees, for a forgivable loan that was extended to Sheedy when she began her employment with Lehman Brothers, Inc. Sheedy alleged that her compensation package included a “one-time incentive signing bonus” of $1 million; however, Lehman’s offer letter characterized the $1 million payment a loan to be forgiven in five equal installments of $200,000 on the first through fifth anniversary of her employment start date. The offer letter further stated that if Sheedy separated from Lehman Brothers, Inc. for “any reason” prior to full forgiveness of the loan, she would be required to repay the remaining principal balance, plus interest accrued through her separation date. In 2008, Lehman Brothers, Inc. was forced to file for bankruptcy protection and ceased doing business in Massachusetts. As a result, Sheedy was separated from Lehman Brothers, Inc. in September 2008, approximately two months prior to the second anniversary of her employment start date. During the marshaling of assets for the bankruptcy estate, Lehman Brothers, Inc. assigned Sheedy’s promissory note for the loan to LBHI.

LBHI initiated FINRA arbitration proceedings against Sheedy, claiming the principal balance due of $800,000, plus interest and fees. A single FINRA arbitrator was appointed to hear the case. In June 2011, the arbitrator entered an award ordering Sheedy to repay LBHI the outstanding balance of $800,000, plus interest and attorneys’ fees.
After the arbitration award, Sheedy filed an action in Massachusetts state court to vacate the FINRA arbitration award pursuant to the state Uniform Arbitration Act for Commercial Disputes. Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 251, §§ 1-19. LBHI timely removed the case from state to federal court. Sheedy sought vacatur on two grounds: (1) that the arbitrator exceeded her authority because the award requires her to “forfeit earned compensation” in violation of the Massachusetts Weekly Wage Act (“Wage Act”), Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 149, § 148; and (2) that the award violated the Massachusetts public policy prohibiting the unlawful restraint of trade and competition.

Both the Massachusetts Uniform Arbitration Act for Commercial Disputes and the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”) provide statutory grounds for vacating an arbitration award where an arbitrator exceeds his authority. Compare Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 251, §§ 12(a)(3) with 9 U.S.C. § 10(a)(3). Sheedy argued that the FINRA arbitrator exceeded her authority by issuing an award that required Sheedy to forfeit earned compensation in violation of the Wage Act. The Wage Act defines the requirements for payment of employee wages and commissions, and prohibits the use of “special contract…or other means” to create exemptions from these requirements. Citing Massachusetts case law, Sheedy argued that the provisions of the Wage Act cover any payment that an employer is obligated to pay an employee; therefore, once she signed Lehman’s offer letter and Lehman was bound to make the $1 million payment to her, that payment became a nondiscretionary deed subject to the Wage Act. The court disagreed with this characterization of the payment. The court determined that the accepted offer clearly made forgiveness of the full amount of the loan contingent upon completing five years of employment at Lehman Brothers, Inc.; therefore, the portion of the payment which remained outstanding at the time of Sheedy’s termination was never “earned” within the meaning of the Wage Act. The court denied vacatur on the grounds that the arbitrator exceeded her authority because the award was not in violation of the Wage Act.

An arbitration award may also be challenged by reference to a “well-defined and dominant” public policy. United Paperworkers Int’l Union v. Misco, Inc., 484 U.S. 28, 43 (1987). Arbitrators may not award relief that offends public policy or requires a result contrary to statutory provisions. Plymouth–Carver Reg’l Sch. Dist. v. J. Farmer & Co., 553 N.E.2d 1284 (1985). Sheedy argued that the FINRA arbitration award should be vacated because forfeiture of the payment is an unlawful penalty to punish her if she chose to leave Lehman and freely compete in the market place. The court determined that the structure of the forgivable loan in the offer letter was not equivalent to a non-compete agreement that restricted an employee’s ability to work in the same field within a given geographic area. Therefore, the arbitration award did not violate the state public policy against unlawful restraint of trade and competition and the court denied vacatur on these grounds.

The court allowed LBHI’s motion to dismiss Sheedy’s complaint, confirm the arbitration decision and award collection expenses. The court gave LBHI fourteen days from the date of its order to submit a request for attorneys’ fees and a proposed form of judgment.

Should you have any questions relating to FINRA, arbitration or employment issues, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya in the firm’s Westport office in Fairfield County, Connecticut at 203-221-3100 or at JMaya@Mayalaw.com.

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The “Manifest Disregard of the Law” Standard for Judicial Review of a FINRA Arbitration Award Excludes Questions of Fact

The “Manifest Disregard of the Law” Standard for Judicial Review of a FINRA Arbitration Award Excludes Questions of Fact

Patrick R. Murray v. Citigroup Global Markets, Inc., 2011 WL 5523680 (N.D. Ohio Nov. 14, 2011)

In a recent case before United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio, Patrick R. Murray (“Murray”) filed motions to vacate, modify or correct portions of a Financial Industry Regulatory (“FINRA”) arbitration award. Citigroup Global Markets, Inc., (“CGMI”) filed a cross-motion to confirm the arbitration award and to award costs and fees incurred while seeking confirmation. The court denied Murray’s motions to vacate, modify or correct the arbitration award and granted CGMI’s motion to confirm the arbitration award. CGMI’s request for costs and fees was denied.

In July 2000, Murray was hired as a financial advisor in a local Smith Barney office, which was later acquired by CGMI. As required by FINRA rules, Murray executed a Uniform Application for Securities Industry Registration or Transfer (“Form U–4”). He also executed a promissory note for a $1,508,401 forgivable loan, and an addendum to the promissory note that extended the length of the repayment period from seven years to nine years. The instruments provided that the loan was to be repaid in nine equal annual installments commencing on the first anniversary date of its execution and that, if Murray terminated his employment prior to full repayment, the outstanding balance would be immediately payable with interest accruing from the date of termination. In April 2009, Murray resigned after having made eight annual payments on the loan.

In May 2009, Murray sued CGMI in state court alleging that CGMI fraudulently induced him to sign the addendum to the promissory note and illegally confiscated his assets related to a capital accumulation plan account. CGMI removed the case to federal court, where it filed a motion to compel arbitration. The court found that the arbitration clauses in the Form U-4, the promissory note, the addendum to the promissory note and a separate signed acknowledgment of the CGMI employee hand book were valid and enforceable; therefore, it granted CGMI’s motion to compel arbitration. FINRA appointed a panel of three neutral arbitrators to hear the matter. In April 2011, the FINRA panel awarded CGMI compensatory damages of $40,153.00 representing the unpaid balance on the promissory note and awarded Murray compensatory damages of $25,705.95.

Murray filed the instant motion to vacate, modify or correct portions of the arbitration award in federal court and CGMI filed its response and cross-motion to confirm the arbitration award. Murray challenged the arbitration award on the following grounds: (1) the award was irrational; (2) the award did not draw its essence from the contract between the parties; (3) the award violated public policy; and (4) the award manifestly disregarded the law.

The Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”), 9 U.S.C. §§ 1-16, defines four limited statutory grounds on which a court may vacate an arbitration award, including instances of fraud or corruption, evident partiality, misbehavior or misconduct and acts exceeding the arbitration panel’s authority. 9 U.S.C. § 10(a). The court found that none of Murray’s first three grounds for vacatur satisfied these statutory requirements.

Several federal circuits, including the Sixth Circuit, have held that an arbitration award can be vacated “if it displays ‘manifest disregard of the law.’ ” Jacada, Ltd. v. Int’l Mktg. Strategies, Inc., 401 F.3d 701, 712 (6th Cir. 2005), overruled on other grounds, (citing Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith, Inc. v. Jaros, 70 F.3d 718, 421 (6th Cir. 1995)). However, the court found that Murray’s assertions of manifest disregard of the law were based on questions of fact rather than questions of law. A federal court does not have the authority to re-litigate facts when reviewing an arbitration award to determine whether the arbitrators manifestly disregarded the law. See Bd. Of County Commis of Lawrence County, Ohio v. L. Robert Kimball & Assocs., 860 F.2d 683, 688 (6th Cir.1988). Therefore, the court denied Murray’s motion to vacate the arbitration award.

The court additionally determined that, although Murray was incorrect on the merits of his case, he did not engage in the degree of bad faith or vexatious behavior that would compel the court to award CGMI fees and costs for the instant litigation. Therefore, the court confirmed the arbitration award in its entirety without awarding CGMI additional fees and costs.

Should you have any questions relating to FINRA, arbitration or employment issues, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya in the firm’s Westport office in Fairfield County, Connecticut at 203-221-3100 or at JMaya@Mayalaw.com.

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California Court Does Not Compel FINRA Arbitration of Statutory Discrimination Claims

California Court Does Not Compel FINRA Arbitration of Statutory Discrimination Claims

John Simmons v. Morgan Stanley Smith Barney, LLC, et al, 2012 WL 1900110 (S.D. Cal. May 24, 2012)

In January 2008, John Simmons (“Simmons”) was offered employment by Morgan Stanley Smith Barney, LLC (“Morgan Stanley”) as the Executive Director and District Manager in the Global Wealth Management Department. The offer letter stated that Simmons would be entitled to a $1 million forgivable loan, relocation benefits and a stock award. Simmons accepted the employment offer by signing the Morgan Stanley offer letter. In February 2008, Simmons and Morgan Stanley entered into bonus agreement and a promissory note that each contained a clause agreeing to arbitrate disputes related to these instruments in accordance with the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (“FINRA”) rules. In March 2008, Simmons signed a Uniform Application for Securities Industry Registration or Transfer (“Form U-4”) which also contained an arbitration clause citing FINRA rules. In May 2009, Simmons and Morgan Stanley entered into a second bonus agreement and a second promissory note, each of which contained the same arbitration clauses as the previous instruments. In March 2011, Simmons’s employment with Morgan Stanley was terminated. In September 2011, Morgan Stanley initiated a Statement of Claim with FINRA seeking to arbitrate its claim against Simmons for violation of the bonus agreements and promissory notes.

In December 2011, Simmons initiated an action in California state court asserting statutory claims for discrimination pursuant to Cal. Govt.Code section 12940(a) and for violation of 42 U.S.C. § 2000e (“Title VII”). Simmons claimed that Morgan Stanley employees made disparaging remarks to him regarding his religious beliefs because he was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Simmons also alleged that, despite his high level of performance, he was not paid in accordance with the terms of his employment agreement. Finally, the complaint also alleged that, in February 2011, shortly before his termination, Simmons informed his supervisor that he was aware of the fact that he was paid less than other co-workers who performed similar duties but who did not share his religious beliefs. Simmons’s complaint stated that these discrimination claims were “inextricably related” to Morgan Stanley’s allegations that he violated the two promissory notes because he was “illegally terminated before he was able to fully perform his obligations thereunder.” In addition to the two statutory discrimination claims, Simmons’s complaint also asserted non-statutory claims of wrongful termination in violation of public policy, fraud, and breach of contract.

Morgan Stanley removed the matter to the United States District Court for the Southern District of California and filed motions to compel arbitration and stay litigation. Simmons filed a motion for a preliminary injunction asserting that he should not be compelled to arbitrate the claims that Morgan Stanley filed with FINRA in September 2011. Simmons presented five distinct legal arguments for why he should not be compelled to arbitrate with Morgan Stanley. The federal court dedicated the most discussion to Simmons’s argument that the arbitration agreements which he allegedly entered into did not encompass his statutory discrimination claims.

The Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”), 9 U.S.C. §§ 1-16, embodies both a fundamental principle that arbitration is based in contract and a federal policy favoring arbitration. A written arbitration agreement “shall be valid, irrevocable and enforceable,” unless the arbitration agreement can be invalidated by a generally applicable contract defense, such as fraud, duress and unconsionability. 9 U.S.C. §2. Therefore, federal courts deciding motions to compel or stay arbitration examine (1) whether a valid arbitration agreement exists; and (2) whether the agreement encompasses the dispute at issue. Cox v. Ocean View Hotel Corp., 533 F.3d 1114, 1119 (9th Cir. 2008). Courts apply state contract law to determine whether an arbitration agreement exists and whether such agreement is enforceable. Only if both findings are affirmative can a federal court enforce an arbitration agreement in accordance with its terms.

Causes of action premised on statutory rights are just as subject to contractual arbitration agreements as non-statutory common law claims. However, Congress may pass federal legislation that removes certain claims from the purview of the FAA. Precedent within the Ninth Circuit is that “a Title VII plaintiff may only be forced to forego her statutory remedies and arbitrate her claims if she has knowingly agreed to submit such disputes to arbitration.” Renteria v. Prudential Ins. Co. of Am., 113 F.3d 1104, 1105-06 (9th Cir. 1997)(citing Prudential Ins. Co. of America v. Lai, 42 F.3d 1299, 1305 (9th Cir.1994)). Both the public policy of protecting victims of sexual discrimination and the Congressional intent motivating Title VII legislation required that there be a knowing waiver of statutory remedies for civil rights violations, including employment discrimination based on gender. Id. at 1108. An earlier case within the Ninth Circuit held that parallel state anti-discrimination laws were made part of the Title VII enforcement scheme. Lai, 42 F.3d at 1301 n.1. Because the agreements to arbitrate in the February 2008 and May 2009 promissory notes and bonus agreements did not explicitly state that Simmons waived his right to a jury trial on claims of statutory employment discrimination, the court refused to find that Simmons knowingly waived his statutory remedies on these claims. Therefore, the court concluded that these arbitration provisions did not encompass Simmons’s first claim for violation of Cal. Govt. Code section 12940(a) and his second claim for Title VII violation. However, the court determined that Simmons’s remaining non-statutory claims were encompassed by the existing arbitration agreements.

An arbitration provision may be challenged “upon such grounds as exist at law or in equity for the revocation of any contract.” 9 U.S.C. § 2. Under California law, a contract clause is unenforceable only if it is both procedurally and substantively unconscionable. Davis v. O’Melveny & Myers, 485 F.3d 1066, 1072 (9th Cir.2007) Procedural unconscionability analysis focuses on the oppression or surprise of a contract clause. The court found that the arbitration provisions at issue contain a minimal element of procedural unconscionability because they were standard FINRA agreements and clearly visible. Substantive unconscionability considers the effect of the contract clause, specifically whether the clause is so one-sided as to shock the conscience. Id. at 1075. The court found that the arbitration provisions were substantively unconscionable because the rules of FINRA may require Simmons to pay hearing session fees in excess of what he would pay in court. However, the single substantively unconscionable provision can be severed from the arbitration agreements; therefore, the court held that the arbitration agreements in the February 2008 and May 2009 promissory note and bonus agreements were enforceable once the unconscionable provision was severed.

The court granted Morgan Stanley’s motion to compel arbitration on Simmons’s non-statutory claims pursuant to the arbitration provisions set out in the February 2008 and May 2009 promissory note and bonus agreements. Likewise, pursuant to 9 U.S.C. § 3, the court granted Morgan Stanley’s motion to stay litigation on these claims pending arbitration. Because the court found that valid arbitration provisions exist, it denied Simmons’s motion for a preliminary injunction.

With respect to Simmons’s first two claims of employment discrimination under California and federal statutes, the court denied Morgan Stanley’s motions to compel arbitration and stay litigation. Simmons was permitted to litigate these claims in federal district court.

Should you have any questions relating to FINRA, arbitration or employment issues, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya in the firm’s Westport office in Fairfield County, Connecticut at 203-221-3100 or at JMaya@Mayalaw.com.

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Expunging a Dirty U-5—Be Careful What You Ask For!

Expunging a Dirty U-5—Be Careful What You Ask For!

The view from the impending “fiscal cliff” takes in much of Fairfield County’s “Gold Coast”—Greenwich, Stamford, Darien, and Westport. We at Maya Murphy, P.C. represent many residents employed in the financial industry, both within and without the State of Connecticut. Some of their financial employers may be considering reductions in personnel depending upon the results of the upcoming Presidential election, Congressional action (or inaction) concerning “taxmaggedon” and “sequestration,” and their own Q4 and year-end results. If financial firms retrench, there will be dirty U-5’s on “the street.” We are often asked about the possibility of “scrubbing” a U-5 or expunging it altogether. The current economic climate and new proposed rules from FINRA warrant a warning that usually accompanies our advice.

The current FINRA Customer and Industry Codes do not afford “unnamed persons,” i.e., the subject of allegations but not named parties to the underlying arbitration, to seek expunging of allegations reported to the Central Registration Depository (“CRD”) on Form U-5 (and available to the public through such resources as “Broker Check”). To rectify that situation (recognizing that a dirty U-5 impacts one’s livelihood), FINRA has proposed In re expungement rules seeking to balance the respective interests of the registered professional and the investing public. Public comment on the proposed rules was closed on May 21, 2012. The purpose of this post is not to critique the new rules that, while not problem-free, at least address the issue of incorrect allegations remaining on CRD records in the absence of an evidentiary hearing to determine the accuracy of those allegations. The purpose of this post is to point out that the new rules, in whatever final form they may take, can be a cure worse than the disease.

There is no denying the injustice of having a registered representative’s U-5 amended to reflect a customer complaint without the representative being named as a respondent in subsequent arbitration. The net effect is to have the representative tried in absentia without the ability to present evidence or cross-examine witnesses by way of defense. The proposed In re expungement rules, however, may not be all they are cracked up to be. A recent FINRA arbitration decision points up the problem.

In the Matter of the FINRA Arbitration between Eduard Van Raay, Claimant v. Raymond James Financial Services, Inc., et al., Respondents (FINRA 11-04544, July 16, 2012), the underlying claim was settled and an arbitrator was appointed solely for the purpose of considering a request for U-5 expunging. The original offending, terminating language was: “Violation of firm policy. Failure to disclose an outside business activity (personal representative relationship with a client).” After the arbitration, the recommendation was for the language to be amended to read: “Permitted to resign. Advisor chose to continue unapproved outside business activity.” This was hardly an improvement to that which he sought to have expunged.

The original language was cryptic, susceptible to differing interpretations, and perhaps easily explained. The post-arbitration language, however, was clear, concise, damaging, and most importantly, the product of FINRA arbitration. Instead of vague allegations of a personal relationship with a client, the representative’s CRD will now be saddled with a finding that he chose to continue an unapproved outside business activity. The takeaway is that the outcome would not survive a rigorous pre-arbitration risk/reward analysis. Arbitrations, as with lawsuits, are a lot like wars—they are easier to start than to stop. They often bring with them unintended consequences.

The new In re expungement rules present registered representatives with an additional option that was previously unavailable. Assuming their future adoption, that does not mean that every offending CRD entry should be the subject of a FINRA arbitration. Whether, and when, to pursue expunging is a decision that should be discussed thoroughly with a seasoned litigator familiar with the FINRA Rules and decisions. We, here, in Maya Murphy’s Westport, Connecticut office stand ready to assist in that regard. Please call Robert Keepnews, Esq. at (203) 221-3100, or e-mail him at rkeepnews@mayalaw.com.

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Federal Appellate Court Affirms Lower Court Ruling Not to Vacate FINRA Award

Federal Appellate Court Affirms Lower Court Ruling Not to Vacate FINRA Award

Javier Aviles v. Charles Schwab & Co., Inc., 435 Fed.Appx. 824 (11th Cir. 2011) (per curiam)

In a case before the United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit, Javier Aviles (“Aviles”) appealed a decision by the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida that confirmed a Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (“FINRA”) arbitration award of $1.4 million in favor of Charles Schwab & Co., Inc. (“Charles Schwab”). The appellate court affirmed the district court ruling.

In 2007, Aviles left his employment with Charles Schwab to join Banc of America Investment Services, Inc. (“BAI”). Later that year, Charles Schwab came to believe that Aviles was improperly soliciting its clients. Schwab filed a Statement of Claims with FINRA against both Aviles and BAI, alleging multiple claims arising from Aviles’s resignation from Charles Schwab and his subsequent employment with BAI: breach of contract, misappropriation and misuse of trade secrets, breach of duty of loyalty, breach of fiduciary duty, tortious interference with contractual and business relations and unfair competition. BAI was later dismissed from the arbitration proceedings. In April 2009, the arbitration panel entered an award finding Aviles liable to Charles Schwab for $1.4 million.

Aviles filed a timely motion to vacate the arbitration award in state court, and Charles Schwab removed to federal court. After removal, Aviles filed a motion to amend in order to add a new claim of arbitrator bias. The district court found that the grounds for vacating the award set out in the original motion were without merit. Additionally, the district court found that the amended motion was not filed in a timely manner and did not relate back to the original motion. Finally, the district court found that the claim of arbitrator bias contained in the proposed amended motion also failed to warrant vacatur of the arbitration award.

Appellate courts do not use a different legal standard to review arbitration related judicial decisions: district court findings of fact are reviewed for clear error and district court legal conclusions are reviewed de novo. The Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”), 9 U.S.C. § 10(a), provides limited statutory grounds for vacating an arbitration award, including where arbitrators refused to hear evidence pertinent and material to the controversy, or where there was “evident partiality” or corruption in the arbitrator.

When a party seeks vacatur by challenging an evidentiary decision of the arbitration panel, he must show that the arbitrator’s refusal to hear pertinent and material evidence prejudiced the rights of the parties to the arbitration’s proceedings. Rosensweig v. Morgan Stanley & Co., 494 F.3d 1328, 1333 (11th Cir. 2007). Aviles argued that the arbitrators refused to hear evidence material to the controversy because the arbitration panel excluded unsworn declarations completed by former Charles Schwab clients who had followed Aviles to BAI. Aviles asserted that these were material to the controversy because they demonstrated that the clients decided to transfer their accounts to BAI because it was in their personal best interest to maintain the relationship with Aviles. The chair of the arbitration panel stated that he would not allow documents that were not sworn or authenticated; however, he would sign subpoenas to allow Aviles to present this evidence in an acceptable manner and would also permit telephonic testimony if someone was out-of-town or otherwise unable to attend the hearings. The appellate court determined that the exclusion of the unsworn declarations did not prejudice Aviles’s right to present all evidence pertinent and material to the controversy. The chair of the arbitration panel offered Aviles alternate avenues to submit this evidence, and Aviles decided not to avail himself of those options. Therefore, the district court did not err in its ruling that the arbitration award could not be vacated on the grounds that arbitrators refused to hear evidence.

When a party seeks vacatur by challenging the impartiality of the arbitration panel, he must show that the alleged partiality is “direct, definite and capable of demonstration rather than remote, uncertain and speculative.” Gianelli Money Purchase Plan & Trust v. ADM Investor Servs., 146 F.3d 1309, 1312 (11th Cir. 1998). Aviles presented an affidavit from a FINRA arbitrator not serving on his panel indicating that the chair of the arbitration panel made statements illustrating a clear bias against him. Specifically, the affidavit alleges that the chair stated that when a court enters a preliminary injunction or a temporary restraining order against a financial advisor prior to arbitration, the arbitrator’s only remaining task is to quantify and award damages. Aviles had been served with a preliminary injunction prior to the arbitration proceedings. The court found that the statements in the affidavit did not indicate that the chair of the arbitration panel was biased against Aviles. According to the court, the affidavit at most illustrated that the chair of the arbitration panel had an incorrect understanding of a legal issue, which is not enough to demonstrate bias or hostility toward a party. Therefore, the district court did not err in its ruling that the arbitration award could not be vacated on grounds of arbitrator bias.

Because the district court did not err in ruling that there were insufficient grounds to vacate the arbitration award on the basis of refusal to hear evidence and arbitrator bias, the appellate court affirmed the district court ruling denying Aviles’s motion to vacate the arbitration award.

Should you have any questions relating to FINRA, arbitration or employment issues, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya in the firm’s Westport office in Fairfield County, Connecticut at 203-221-3100 or at JMaya@Mayalaw.com.

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