Posts tagged with "interest"

Five Things You Need to Know About Connecticut Separation Agreements

As a result of the state of the economy, in general, and in Fairfield County, in particular, we in the Westport, Connecticut office of Maya Murphy, P.C. have seen a spate of Separation Agreements brought to us by recently terminated employees.  Our experienced employment-law attorneys review and critique these Agreements, and often advocate on behalf of our clients to enhance a separation package.

Here are five things you need to know about Separation Agreements:

They are here and more may be on the way. 

Companies are scrutinizing their bottom lines to try to increase profits, decrease expenses, and improve share value or owner’s equity.  If sales can’t be increased or cost-of-goods-sold decreased, one alternative is to cut personnel.  Often senior (and more highly paid) employees are let go in favor of younger (i.e., “cheaper”) employees, thereby also raising the specter of an age discrimination claim (a topic deserving of its own post).

They are complex. 

For an employee over the age of 40, a federal statute known as the “Older Workers Benefit Protection Act” requires that your Separation Agreement contain certain provisions, including a comprehensive release of all claims that you might have against your employer.  The statute also gives you specific time periods to review the Agreement prior to signing, and even to rescind your approval after you have signed.  It is not uncommon to have Separation Agreements exceed 10 pages in length.  All of the language is important.

They are a minefield. 

Separation Agreements frequently contain “restrictive covenants,” usually in the form of confidentiality, non-solicitation, and non-competition provisions.  These can have a profound effect on your ability to relocate to another position and have to be carefully reviewed and analyzed to avoid potentially devastating long-term consequences after the Agreement has been signed and the revocation period has expired.

They are not “carved in stone.”

Although many companies ascribe to a “one size fits all” and a “take it or leave it” policy with regard to Separation Agreements, such is not necessarily the case.  Often, Maya Murphy employment attorneys can find an “exposed nerve” and leverage that point to obtain for a client more severance pay, longer health benefits, or some other perquisite to ease the client’s transition into a new job with a new employer.  Every case is factually (and perhaps legally) different and you should not assume that your severance package should be determined by those that have gone before you.

You need an advocate.

You need an experienced attorney to elevate discussion of your Separation Agreement above the HR level.  HR directors have limited discretion and are tasked with keeping severance benefits to an absolute minimum.  Maya Murphy’s goal is to generate a dialogue with more senior management to drive home the point that a particular client under certain circumstances is equitably entitled to greater benefits than initially offered.

If you find yourself in the unfortunate position of having been presented with a Separation Agreement, you should contact Joseph Maya and the other experienced employment law attorneys in our Westport, Connecticut office by phone at (203) 221-3100 or via e-mail at JMaya@Mayalaw.com.

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

Expunging a Dirty U-5

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 a financial firm retrenches, there will be a dirty U-5 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.

The Original Language

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 Post-Arbitration Language

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 contact Joseph Maya and the other experienced attorneys at (203) 221-3100 or via e-mail at JMaya@Mayalaw.com to schedule a consultation today.

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 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.

What is FINRA?

“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.

Codes for Industry Disputes and Customer Disputes

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.

Code Requirements

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).

Interfering with Productive Arbitration

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 us at the Maya Murphy, P.C. office located in Westport, Connecticut, at (203) 221-3100.

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.


[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.

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.

If you have any question relating to FINRA or arbitration, please do not hesitate to contact Joseph Maya and the other experienced employment law attorneys at Maya Murphy, P.C. at (203) 221-3100 or JMaya@Mayalaw.com to schedule a free initial consultation.

Federal Court Found Form U-4 and FINRA Rules to Constitute a Sufficient Basis for an Arbitration Agreement Between the Parties

Lawrence R. Gilmore v. Scott T. Brandt, 2011 WL 5240421 (D. Colo. Oct. 31, 2011).

In a case before the United States District Court for the District of Colorado, Lawrence Gilmore (“Gilmore”) filed a motion to confirm the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (“FINRA”) arbitration award in his favor, pursuant to the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”), 9 U.S.C. § 9.  Scott Brandt (“Brandt”) responded by filing a motion to vacate the FINRA award pursuant to the FAA, 9 U.S.C. § 10.  The court granted Gilmore’s motion to confirm the award, entered judgment for the award, and denied Brandt’s motion to vacate the award.

Case Details

The dispute underlying the FINRA arbitration began when Brandt, a representative of Lighthouse Capital Corporation, suggested that Gilmore invest $92,000 in Diversified Lending Group, Inc. (“DLG”).  Gilmore made the investment, which was quickly decimated.  Gilmore alleged that DLG was a Ponzi scheme and filed a Statement of Claim with FINRA.  Rather than seek a stay of arbitration, Brandt contested the issue of arbitrability by appending a statement of jurisdictional objection to his FINRA Arbitration Submission Agreement and raising jurisdictional objections throughout the arbitration proceedings.

FINRA appointed a panel of arbitrators to hear the matter, however, the arbitration panel did not directly address Brandt’s jurisdictional challenge.  In December 2010, the panel issued an arbitration award in Gilmore’s favor for compensatory damages of $106,024.68, post-judgment interest, and attorneys’ fees.

Arbitrability of a Dispute

In his motion for vacatur, Brandt argued that he never entered into an arbitration agreement with Gilmore; therefore, their dispute should not have been subjected to arbitration. The district court found that Brandt had sufficiently preserved his objection to arbitrability, and that it fell to the court to decide whether the dispute was in fact arbitrable.

Because arbitration is entirely a matter of contract, a party cannot be required to arbitrate a dispute that it has not agreed to submit to arbitration. See Mastrobuono v. Shearson Lehman Hutton, Inc., 514 U.S. 52, 57 (1995).  When Brandt first sought to be licensed to sell securities, he executed a Uniform Application for Securities Industry Registration or Transfer (“Form U-4”), which contained a section agreeing “to arbitrate any dispute, claim or controversy that may arise between me and my firm, or a customer, or any other person, that is required to be arbitrated under the rules, constitutions, or by-laws of [FINRA].”

The court determined that the agreement embodied in Brandt’s Form U-4 would constitute an agreement to arbitrate the dispute with Gilmore only if FINRA rules required this dispute to be arbitrated.

FINRA Rule 12200

FINRA Rule 12200 is a broad provision that generally applies to any customer dispute arising in connection with the business activities of a FINRA member.  Specifically, FINRA Rule 12200 requires that a dispute must be arbitrated under the FINRA Code of Arbitration Procedure if: (1) arbitration is required by written agreement or requested by a customer; (2) the dispute is between a customer and a FINRA member or associated person; and (3) the dispute arises in connection with the business activities of the FINRA member or associated person.

By submitting his Statement of Claim to FINRA for arbitration, Gilmore was clearly requesting arbitration of the dispute.  The district court found that Gilmore was in a customer relationship with Brandt because Brandt had induced him to invest in DLG.

The Court’s Decision

Additionally, the district court found that Gilmore’s claims related to Brandt’s recommendation of an investment in particular securities fell within the class of disputes reasonably regulated by FINRA.  Therefore, the district court determined that FINRA Rule 12200 required the dispute between Gilmore and Brandt be submitted to arbitration.  Because of this result, Brandt’s U-4 Form was determined to be his agreement to submit to arbitration of the dispute.

Because the arbitration panel had jurisdiction to decide the dispute, the award decision is entitled to deference by the federal court.  9 U.S.C. § 9-11.  Because Brandt provided no argument that satisfied the statutory grounds for vacatur of an arbitration award, 9 U.S.C. § 10(a), the court granted Gilmore’s motion for confirmation of the arbitration award of compensatory damages of $106,024.68, with interest, and attorneys’ fees.


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

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.

Case Background

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.

The Arbitration Award

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.

Sheedy’s Arguments

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 non-discretionary 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.

The Court’s Decision

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.

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)
Case Background

In a case before the 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.

The Arbitration

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 handbook 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.

Vacating an Arbitration Award

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)).

The Court’s Decision

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.

Fourth Circuit Confirms District Court Decision that FINRA Arbitration Panel is Not Bound to Apply State Procedural Law

Wachovia Securities, LLC, v. Frank J. Brand, et al, 671 F.3d 472 (4th Cir. 2012)

In a case before the Fourth Circuit, Wachovia Securities, LLC (“Wachovia”) appealed a decision by the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina in which the court denied Wachovia’s motion to vacate a Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (“FINRA”) arbitration award that denied the firm’s claims in the arbitration of an employment dispute with Frank Brand and three other former employees (“the former employees”).  The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling that denied vacatur and confirmed the arbitration award.

Case Background

The underlying dispute in this case began when Wachovia filed a Statement of Claim with FINRA against four former employees alleging that the former employees had violated contractual and common law obligations.  The former employees were employed as individual financial advisors by A.G. Edwards & Sons, Inc. until its merger with Wachovia in October 2007.  After the merger, the former employees were employed by Wachovia until their termination in June 2008.

All four former employees later found employment with a competing brokerage firm in the same geographic area.  Wachovia alleged that the former employees had conspired with the competing brokerage firm to open an office in the area, that they had misappropriated confidential and proprietary information, and that they were soliciting current Wachovia clients and employees to join the new firm.

Arbitration

In its Statement of Claims, Wachovia requested a permanent injunction, the return of records and attorneys’ fees associated with the arbitration.  In their answer, the former employees described the dispute as “meritless” and requested the arbitration panel award them attorneys’ fees and costs incurred in defending themselves.  FINRA appointed a panel of three arbitrators to hear the matter, and requested that the parties submit proposals regarding requested attorneys’ fees and other costs during the final two days of hearings.  Wachovia was unprepared to submit its brief on the penultimate date of hearings and requested a one-day extension, which the arbitration panel granted.

On the last day of arbitration hearings, both parties submitted their briefs, each of which contained new arguments.  Wachovia argued that, under the South Carolina Arbitration Act, neither party was entitled to attorneys’ fees.   The former employees argued that they were entitled to attorneys’ fees under the  Frivolous Civil Proceeding Act (“FCPA”), codified at S.C. Code Ann. § 15-36-10.  In South Carolina, the FCPA provides both a mechanism for litigants to seek sanctions against attorneys filing frivolous claims and safeguards for attorneys facing such sanctions. These safeguards include a notice period affording the accused 30 days to respond to a request for FCPA sanctions and a separate hearing on sanctions after the verdict.

Wachovia expressed its concern that it was not being afforded either of these procedural safeguards. The arbitration panel neither held additional hearings nor requested additional briefings.  On December 18, 2009, the FINRA panel entered an award in favor of the former employees, awarding them $1.1 million for attorneys’ fees and costs under the FCPA only and denying all of Wachovia’s claims.

Review of the Arbitration Award

Following arbitration, the former employees filed a motion in federal court to confirm the arbitration award pursuant to the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”), 9 U.S.C. § 9.  Wachovia filed its own motion to vacate the portion of the arbitration award granting relief to the former employees.  Wachovia contended that the arbitration panel exceeded its authority and manifestly disregarded the law in violation of the FAA, 9 U.S.C. § 10(a)(4) and that the arbitration panel also deprived Wachovia of a fundamentally fair hearing in violation of FAA, 9 U.S.C. § 10(a)(3).

The district court considered these claims in turn and rejected both claims.  Wachovia appealed the district court’s holding that the arbitrators neither deprived Wachovia a fundamentally fair hearing nor manifestly disregarded the law.

In general, judicial review of an arbitration award in federal court is severely circumscribed, 9 U.S.C. § 9-11.  When the district court denies vacatur of an arbitration award, the appellate court reviews the district court’s legal findings de novo and reviews the district court’s factual findings for clear error.

Misconduct and Misbehavior

Vacating an arbitration award on the basis of FAA §10(a)(3) requires the court to find “the arbitrators were guilty of misconduct in refusing to postpone the hearing, upon sufficient cause shown, or in refusing to  hear evidence pertinent and material to the controversy; or of any other misbehavior by which the rights of any party have been prejudiced.”  “Misconduct” and “misbehavior” are different from “mistake” in this context.  The first two imply that the arbitrators intentionally contradicted the law.  Mistakes lack the requisite intentionality to fall within FAA § 10(a)(3).

Wachovia did not allege that the FINRA arbitration panel acted with an intention to contradict the law, only that the arbitrators made a mistake in handling the former employees’ FCPA claim. Because Wachovia did not allege intentional misconduct, § 10(a)(3) cannot be grounds for vacatur.  Furthermore, the appellate court did not find that the arbitration panel made a mistake in not following the procedural safeguards of the FCPA.  A U.S. Supreme Court case held that the FAA pre-empted state law.  See AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, 131 S.Ct. 1740 (2011).

Although parties may consent to particular arbitration procedures in advance, it is inconsistent with the FAA for one party to demand particular state law procedural requirements after the fact.  Id. at 1750.  Therefore, the FINRA arbitration panel was not compelled to follow FCPA procedural mandates and their failure to do so does not satisfy the requirements of § 10(a)(3).

Manifest Disregard 

The Fourth Circuit adopted the position that manifest disregard continues to exist either as an independent grounds for judicial review of arbitration awards or as a judicial gloss on arbitration awards.  A court may vacate an arbitration award for manifest disregard of the law if: (1) the applicable legal principle is clearly defined and not subject to reasonable debate; and (2) the arbitrator refused to heed that legal principle.  Long John Silver’s Rests., Inc. v. Cole, 514 F.3d 345, 349 (4th Cir. 2008).  In this case, the appellate court found that whether the Panel erred by not applying the FCPA’s procedural requirements was a question that was itself not clearly defined and was certainly subject to debate. Therefore, the court held that the arbitrators did not manifestly disregard the law when they awarded the former employees $1.1 million in attorneys’ fees and costs under the FCPA.

The appellate court affirmed the decision of the district court denying Wachovia vacatur of the FINRA 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.

Colorado Court Confirms FINRA Arbitration Award Denying Relief for Service Member’s USERRA Claims

Michael H. Ohlfs v. Charles Schwab & Co., Inc., 2012 WL 202776 (D. Colo. Jan. 24, 2012)

In a case before the Colorado federal district court, Michael Ohlfs (“Ohlfs”), an investment professional employed by Charles Schwab & Co., Inc., (“Charles Schwab”), filed a motion to vacate a Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (“FINRA”) arbitration award decided in favor of Charles Schwab in August 2011.  Charles Schwab petitioned the court to confirm the arbitration award and enter judgment pursuant to the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”), 9 U.S.C. § 9.  The court dismissed Ohlfs claims with prejudice and entered judgment for Charles Schwab.

Case Background

The underlying dispute in this case arose when Ohlfs returned from post 9/11 active duty military service to a Grade 56 Investment Representative position with Charles Schwab, which was lower than the Grade 57 Senior Investment Specialist he held prior to his military service.  The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act, 38 U.S.C. § 4301, et seq., (“USERRA”) prohibits employment discrimination against military personnel deployed for active duty.  Ohlfs initially filed his USERRA claims in federal district court; however, the court ordered the parties to FINRA arbitration pursuant to the agreement that Ohlfs executed when he registered as a securities broker.

FINRA appointed an arbitration panel of three arbitrators to hear the matter after Ohlfs executed a FINRA Arbitration Submission Agreement, which included an agreement to be bound by the award.  Ohlfs’s claims against Charles Schwab included allegations that his re-employment in 2003 and 2004 were both in violation of USERRA § 4312, that he was discriminated against by failure to promote in violation of USERRA § 4311, and that he was discriminated against for filing a Department of Labor complaint. After ten days of hearings, the FINRA arbitration panel denied all Ohlfs’s statutory claims and all relief requested with prejudice.

Ohlfs filed a motion in federal court to vacate the FINRA arbitration award on several grounds, including unfair treatment by the FINRA arbitration panel, violation of the well-established USERRA public policy, and manifest disregard of the law.

The Allegations

To support his allegation of evident partiality by the arbitration panel, Ohlfs cited nine deficiencies in the arbitration process. The court determined that these allegations, viewed both separately and cumulatively, were insufficient to satisfy Ohlfs’s burden of demonstrating that the panel was unfair to him or partial to Charles Schwab.

One of the key allegations was that two arbitrators were biased toward Charles Schwab because of their connections to the company.  Two members of the arbitration disclosed their connections to Charles Schwab prior to hearing and deciding Ohlfs’s claims.  Because he had knowledge of facts suggesting arbitrator bias or partiality but failed to object to their participation until after the entry of the award, the court determined that Ohlfs waived his right to claim arbitrator bias on these grounds.

Another key allegation was that the arbitration panel refused to consider, or otherwise disregarded evidence, that Ohlfs presented regarding having gone from a Grade 57 Senior Investment Specialist to a Grade 56 Investment Representative following his post–9/11 military service.  Without supporting transcripts from the arbitration hearing, the court determined it had no basis on which to find unfairness or partiality.

Vacating an Arbitration Award on Statutory Grounds

Federal courts may vacate an arbitration award under four narrowly defined statutory grounds, 9 U.S.C. § 10(a), including “evident partiality” on the part of the arbitrators.  An arbitration award may also be vacated for a limited number of judicially created reasons, such as violations of public policy, manifest disregard of the law, and denial of a fundamentally fair hearing. Sheldon v. Vermonty, 269 F.3d 1202, 1206 (10th Cir. 2001).   Errors in the arbitration panel’s findings of fact, interpretation of the law, or application of the law do not justify vacating an award unless such errors correlate to a manifest disregard for the law. See Hollern v. Wachovia Sec., Inc., 458 F.3d 1169, 1172 (10th Cir. 2006).

Vacating an Arbitration Award on Non-Statutory Grounds 

Courts have limited authority to vacate an arbitration award for non-statutory reasons.  An arbitration award may be set aside on public policy grounds if: (1) the award creates an explicit conflict with other laws and legal precedents as opposed to general considerations of supposed public interests; and (2) the violation of such public policy is clearly shown. United Paperworkers Int’l Union, AFL–CIO v. Misco, Inc., 484 U.S. 29, 43 (1987).

Ohlfs argued that the FINRA arbitration award in favor of his employer clearly violated USERRA’s well-defined public policy of protecting members of the armed forces from employment discrimination because the award absolved the employer of any wrongdoing without determining the merits of Ohlfs’s claims.  The court determined that this argument was an attempt to attack the arbitration award on the basis of the arbitration panel’s failure to issue a reasoned decision.  FINRA Rule 1304(g) provides for an “explained decision” that sets forth the general reasons for the arbitration award.

However, such a decision is provided only in the event that the parties jointly request such a decision twenty days prior to the first scheduled hearing.  FINRA Rule 13514(d).  An explained decision was not required in this case under FINRA’s rules because the parties did not jointly request such a decision.  Therefore, Ohlfs failed to carry his burden of proof on the matter.

Vacating an Arbitration Award Based on Disregard of the Law

In order to vacate an arbitration award based on the arbitrators’ manifest disregard of the law, “the record [must] show the arbitrator[s] knew the law and explicitly disregarded it.” Dominion Video Satellite, Inc. v. Echostar Satellite, L.L.C., 430 F.3d 1269, 1275 (10th Cir. 2005).  The court determined that, in the absence of an explanation for the award, Ohlfs cannot demonstrate that the panel manifestly disregarded the law under USERRA based on the fact that it found for Charles Schwab on his claims. The award itself provided no basis to find an “explicit” disregard of the law. Charles Schwab presented substantial evidence in its defense during the arbitration, and the court cannot second guess the panel’s factual findings.

The court denied Ohlfs’s motion for vacatur and entered judgment in favor of Charles Schwab as set forth in the FINRA arbitration award dated August 9, 2011.

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.

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)
Case Background

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 a 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.

During March in 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.  During March in 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.

Simmons’ Allegations

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.

Enforcing an Arbitration Agreement

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 unconscionability.  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.

Statutory Remedies

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.

Arbitration Provisions

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’s Decision

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.