Posts tagged with "partiality"

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 recent 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.

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.

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).

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.

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.

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.

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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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