Posts tagged with "stay of proceedings"

Employer May Not Compel FINRA Arbitration of Gender Discrimination and Retaliation Claims

Joni D. Ffrench, v.PricewaterhouseCoopers Corporate Finance, LLC, et al., 2012 WL 1900930 (S.D. Tex. May 24, 2012)
Case Background

In a case before the Southern District of Texas, PricewaterhouseCoopers Corporate Finance LLC (“PwCCF”) filed a motion to compel Joni Ffrench (“Ffrench”), a former employee, to arbitrate gender discrimination and retaliation claims pending before the federal court.  PwCCF also filed a motion to stay in federal court proceedings until arbitration by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (“FINRA”) was complete.  The court denied both motions.

Ffrench was employed by PwCCF from 1999 until her termination in 2009.  She alleged that she was terminated in retaliation for complaints about the substantial compensation disparities between her and her male counterparts.  In accordance with FINRA rules, PwCCF filed a Uniform Termination Notice for Securities Industry Registration (“Form U-5”) stating the basis for her termination.

Ffrench alleged that the U-5 filed by PwCCF in October 2009 contained improper disparaging remarks and filed a claim with FINRA for “Libel and Slander on Form U-5.” The parties agreed to hold the FINRA arbitration in late October 2011; however, Ffrench later moved for a continuance of the arbitration hearing, which was granted.

Motion to Compel Arbitration

In addition to the FINRA arbitration hearing, Ffrench filed a charge of gender discrimination and retaliation against PwCC with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Texas Workforce Commission Civil Rights Division.  After receiving her “right to sue” letter, Ffrench filed a lawsuit against PwCCF and its parent company in state court, which PwCCF removed to federal district court.  PwCCF moved to compel arbitration and stay federal court proceedings, asserting that the same claims are at issue in both the FINRA arbitration case and the federal court case.

Courts follow a two-step inquiry to determine whether parties should be compelled to arbitrate.  First, the court must determine whether the parties agreed to arbitrate the dispute.  The party seeking to compel arbitration must establish by a preponderance of the evidence that such an agreement exists.  Once the court has determined that such agreement exists, the burden shifts to the party opposing arbitration to show either that the agreement is not enforceable or that the subject dispute does not come within the scope of the agreement.

The Court’s Decision

The Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”) provides a mandatory stay of proceedings in federal district courts when the issue can be referred to arbitration.  9 U.S.C. § 3.  However, pursuant to FINRA Rule 13201, claims alleging employment discrimination in violation of a statute are not required to be arbitrated, and may be arbitrated only if the parties have agreed.

The court found Ffrench’s signature on her Uniform Application for Securities Industry Registration or Transfer (“U-4 Form”) to be insufficient to constitute such an agreement because this agreement only encompassed “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 also found Ffrench’s initiation of FINRA proceedings to be insufficient to constitute an agreement to submit her gender discrimination and retaliation claims to arbitration.  Based on Ffrench’s Statement of Claim and the composition of the arbitration panel, the court determined that she only agreed to submit her defamation claim regarding Form U-5 to FINRA arbitration.

Because the court determined that the parties did not agree to arbitrate Ffrench’s gender discrimination and retaliation claims, the PwCCF motion to compel arbitration and stay proceedings in federal court was denied.

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

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.

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.

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

Federal Court Narrows the Definition of “Customer” to Limit Compelled Arbitration Under the FINRA Code of Arbitration Procedure for Customer Disputes

Herschel and Mona Zarecor, et al, v. Morgan Keegan & Company, Inc., 2011 WL 5508860 (E.D. Ark. Nov. 10, 2011)

In a case before the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas, Herschel and Mona Zarecor (“the Zarecors”) filed a petition to confirm a Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (“FINRA”) arbitration award entered in their favor in October 2010.  Morgan Keegan & Company, Inc., (“Morgan Keegan”) filed a counterclaim to vacate the award.  The court granted Morgan Keegan’s motion for vacatur.  In a later action before the same court, the Zarecors filed a motion for reconsideration.  The court denied the motion for reconsideration.

Case background

The underlying dispute in this case is based on a Statement of Claims that the Zarecors filed with FINRA to institute an arbitration proceeding against Morgan Keegan.  The Zarecors alleged that Morgan Keegan violated state laws by failing to disclose risks associated with the Regions Morgan Keegan funds (“RMK Funds”) that the Zarecors purchased for their individual retirement accounts.  The Zarecors alleged that the prospectus and written sales materials for the RMK funds represented these funds as traditional income or bond funds, when these funds were invested instead in risky structured financial products and derivatives.  The Zarecors lost over ninety-percent of their original investment in the RMK funds.

The Arguments

In their Statement of Claims, the Zarecors asserted that FINRA had jurisdiction to arbitrate the dispute in absence of a written arbitration agreement because Morgan Keegan was a FINRA member and the Zarecors were public customers.  Pursuant to FINRA Rule 12200, a member firm must arbitrate a dispute if:  (a) arbitration is required by written agreement or requested by the customer; (b) the dispute is between a FINRA member or associated person of a FINRA member and its customer; and (c) the dispute arises in connection with the business activities of the member or the associated person.

Morgan Keegan alleged that the Zarecors did not qualify as their customers because the Zarecors never sought advice from or held accounts with Morgan Keegan; the Zarecors purchased the RMK funds from competitor brokerage firms, held accounts at competitor brokerage firms and had no direct dealings with Morgan Keegan. Morgan Keegan also filed a motion to dismiss under FINRA Rule 12504(a)(6)(B), which the arbitration panel denied after hearing oral arguments from the parties.  After three days of arbitration hearings, the FINRA arbitration panel issued an award finding Morgan Keegan liable to the Zarecors for $541,000 in compensatory damages.  In November 2010, the Zarecors commenced an action to confirm the award and Morgan Keegan filed a counterclaim to vacate the award.

Grounds for Vacating Arbitration

The Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”), 9 U.S.C. §§ 9-11, provides statutory grounds for judicial review to confirm, vacate or modify an arbitration award.  Where there has been an arbitration agreement between the parties, judicial review is severely limited and the arbitration decision may be vacated on very narrowly defined statutory grounds.  See 9 U.S.C. § 10(a).

Morgan Keegan asked the court to vacate the arbitration award on two grounds:  (1) there was no such arbitration agreement between the parties; and (2) the underlying dispute is not subject to mandatory arbitration under FINRA Rule 12200 because the Zarecors were not customers entitled to request arbitration.  The Zarecors countered that, because Morgan Keegan had not sought to enjoin the arbitration proceedings and had participated in the arbitration hearings, they claimed that the firm had waived its right to contest whether the underlying dispute could be submitted for arbitration.

Morgan Keegan may Contest Arbitrability

A party opposed to arbitration has several alternatives to preserve the issue for judicial review:  (1) object to the arbitrator’s authority, refuse to argue the arbitrability issue, and proceed to the merits of the agreement; (2) seek declaratory or injunctive relief from a court prior to commencement of arbitration; (3) notify the arbitrators of a refusal to arbitrate altogether; or (4) file a timely motion to vacate in district court. See International Broth. of Elec. Workers, Local Union No. 545 v. Hope Elec. Corp., 380 F.3d 1084, 1101–02 (8th Cir. 2004).

The court determined that Morgan Keegan did not waive its right to contest arbitrability by failing to enjoin the arbitration proceedings; its motion to dismiss, its objections to the arbitration panel’s jurisdiction during the hearings and its timely motion to vacate the award supported the court’s finding that Morgan Keegan sufficiently preserved its right to contest that the underlying dispute was not subject to FINRA arbitration.

Definition of “Customer”

FINRA Rule 12100(i) provides the following definition of a “customer” to be used throughout the FINRA Code of Arbitration Procedure for Customer Disputes: “A customer shall not include a broker or dealer.”  The district court was concerned that the definition of a “customer” under this rule not be construed too narrowly, nor be interpreted in a manner that would ignore the reasonable expectations of FINRA members.

For the purposes of compelling a member firm to arbitrate a dispute, precedent within the Eighth Circuit limits the definition of a “customer” to “one involved in a business relationship with [a FINRA] member that is related directly to investment or brokerage related services.” Fleet Boston Robertson Stephens, Inc. v. Innovex, Inc., 264 F.3d 770, 772 (8th Cir. 2001).   This narrower definition excludes individuals who receive only financial advice, not investment or brokerage services, from the FINRA member.  Id.

Zarecors not Qualified as Customers

In the instant case, it is undisputed that the Zarecors purchased the RMK Funds from competitor brokers and did not have a direct transactional relationship with Morgan Keegan; however, the Zarecors asserted that they qualified as customers of Morgan Keegan based on phone conversations with Morgan Keegan representatives regarding the funds, including their liquidity and exposure to the sub-prime market.

Courts have found a customer relationship based on interactions between an investor and a FINRA member’s representative only where there is conduct on the part of the representative that indicates the existence of a business or investment relationship, such as soliciting a purchase, taking money from an investor, or facilitating investment transactions. See Oppenheimer & Co., Inc. v. Neidhardt, 56 F.3d 352 (2d Cir. 1995).  The Zarecors’ interaction with Morgan Keegan did not satisfy this standard.  Therefore, the district court determined that there were no connections or customer relations between the parties that would justify compelling arbitration under FINRA Rule 12200.

Because the district court found that the requirements for compelling arbitration under FINRA Rule 12200 were not satisfied, the court denied the Zarecors’ motion for judgment confirming the arbitration award and granted Morgan Keegan’s counterclaim to vacate the award.

Motion for Reconsideration Denied

In November 2011, the Zarecors filed a motion for reconsideration pursuant to Rule 59(e) of the Rules of Federal Civil Procedure, which permits a district court to correct its own mistakes in the time period immediately following entry of judgment.  Rule 59(e) cannot be used to introduce new evidence, tender new legal theories or raise arguments that could have been offered prior to entry of judgment.  In their motion for reconsideration, the Zarecors contended that the court overlooked the material fact that Morgan Keegan signed an agreement to submit to arbitration and that this submission agreement had been part of the record.

Although the submission agreement was part of the record, the Zarecors failed to reference it or discuss its relevance in briefs filed prior to judgment.  The court’s failure to notice the submission agreement, therefore, did not amount to manifest error of law or fact.  The Zarecors additionally contended that Morgan Keegan submitted the issue of arbitrability to the arbitration panel for decision.  The court considered this argument to be a new legal theory, contradictory to the Zarecors’ previous argument that Morgan Keegan had waived its right to object to arbitrability by failing to contest the issue before the arbitration panel. Therefore, the district court rejected both contentions as sufficient bases for reconsideration under Rule 59(e).

The district court determined that that the Zarecors were not entitled to relief under Rule 59(e) and, therefore, denied their motion for reconsideration.  The court’s previous order and judgment to vacate the FINRA arbitration award were undisturbed.

Should you have any questions relating to FINRA or arbitration 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