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. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
 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.