Archives: Securities Litigation

Over the years that I have defended broker-dealers and investment advisors on customer-initiated claims, I have seen many things that would make any compliance officer cringe. One spine tingling (not in the good way) type of conduct is when an advisor engages his/her client when the client makes an informal complaint, instead of routing the complaint to compliance/supervision.whistle

So why is engagement against the rules of engagement? The most important reason is that engagement (aka arguing) may only make a simple customer service issues into a formal complaint. Rather than engage, my experience suggests that it is better to get the complaint (assuming it is in writing) to the proper person in compliance/supervision.

Dealing with an oral complaint is a little trickier because you are put on the spot. Nevertheless, the best course, as hard as it may be, is to try to defuse the situation by expressing that you understand the issue that is being raised, you will look into the issue and, finally, will respond further as soon as possible.

By defusing instead of engaging, you give all sides the opportunity to let cooler heads prevail. Many times a customer service issue can be easily addressed by taking a little time to consider the issues and formulate a response/course of action instead of blurting out the first thing that comes to mind; that is invariably the worst thing to say.

If you get a complaint; don’t jump to respond. Use your resources and formulate a well-reasoned response. Sometimes the client is wrong, but arguing with the client gets you nowhere except guaranteeing litigation.

When faced with a customer complaining through a letter or email, it is human nature to try to appease the customer with a conciliatory response or no response at all. I have seen this “human nature” all too often when defending brokers and advisor from customer complaints.

In almost all instances, the complaining customer now claims that the conciliatory comment or non-response is the functional equivalent of an admission by the broker/advisor that he/she did something wrong. In turn, the broker denies that he/she made any admissions by being conciliatory or silent. While I generally agree with the advisors, it is always an issue that must be overcome.whistleblower

So what should an advisor do when confronted with a nasty/accusatory email/letter? Most important, forward the communication to the person/persons who are designated in your company to handle customer complaints regardless if you “think” this person is just blowing smoke.

Someone should always respond to such a communications. The responding communication does not have to be the functional equivalent of beating up baby seals with a bat. Instead, it should be nice, but be firm at the same time.

If a client claims that you misrepresented an investment that you recommended, the response should remind the client in detail what was discussed, and why the investment falls within the client’s overall investment objectives, goals and tolerance for risk. Ideally, prior written communications on the subject will be sent back to the customer as part of this “reminder.”

Although nothing will ultimately keep a client from suing you if he/she is really inclined to do so, avoid potentially making it worse by not responding or being too conciliatory to a complaining email/letter. The last thing you want to have do is explain away the poor response (or absence of any response) to an arbitrator or jury who may not really understand you were just trying to be nice.

Anyone in a professional service business, like being a stock broker, have been faced with a client who decides to make a stupid decision. But the issue we all face is when that decision results in the client losing money; who is to be held accountable.whistleblower

Fortunately, the law does not require you to stop a client from making a stupid decision with their investments. As long as a broker-dealer’s advice was suitable and the investment advisor’s advice is in keeping with the fiduciary duty, you should not be held accountable.

But this does not mean a client who has now lost money won’t try to hold you accountable for letting them make a stupid business decision. So how do you protect yourself?

The best way to protection yourself is to send the client a letter or email at the time that the client makes the bad decision. The communication should detail why you think it is a bad decision and the potential ramifications associated with that decision.

At a minimum, you should make a note in your file, either electronic or in hard copy, that the client made the bad decision and that you (presumably) advised against it.

The law should protect you from stupid clients, but make sure you protect yourself. Contemporaneous communication to the client and notation to the file may save you millions of dollars in the future.

It was great speaking at the May 17 New York NSCP regional conference on risk issues facing firms where Ernie Badway and I discussed cyber-security, risk issues, regulatory matters, issues involving elder clients and ways compliance personnel can protect themselves.  For those of you who could not make the conference, these topics are frequently discussed in our various publications.  Feel free to access them here and use them as you see fit.  Core Values

Unlike lawyers, especially litigators, the business model of a financial advisor is not dependent upon clients being stupid. Instead, financial advisors depend on their clients making smart decisions after full disclosure and consideration after speaking with their financial advisor. So what do you do when clients make stupid decisions?whistle

In defending brokers over the years, I have seen multiple instances where clients made stupid decisions. From a legal standpoint, there is generally no duty to prevent a client from making a stupid investment decision. It is what the advisor does in response that is the most important lesson to learn.

The mistake is when the advisor ignores his client’s stupid decision in light of an advisor having provided proper advice in the first place. The key thing is to document any instance where your client ignores your advice and does something stupid. A brief story solidifies this point.

A number of years ago, an advisor told his client not to sell his life insurance policy to take the cash out until the client cleared underwriting on a new policy. Of course, the client ignored the advice, went over the advisor’s head and cashed out the policy without clearing underwriting on the new policy. Turns out the client was “deathly” allergic of bee stings.

We were able to successfully defend because of something that the advisor did. He documented his recommendation not to cash out the old policy without underwriting being completed on the new policy.

But for the smart actions of the advisor, this situation would have turned out much differently. It is just as if not more important to document when a client ignores your advice as it is when you give advice to your clients. Doing nothing is never an option.

With the exception of those of you who have literally been asleep for the last few years, you are well-versed in the attention FINRA and the SEC are giving to issues surrounding elder investors. Among other things, there is a real focus on elder abuse.

Some commentators believe that all of this attention may inevitably lead to additional regulations regarding how you handle older investors. Like most things from a regulatory/legislative standpoint, the loudest wheel will get the most oil.confusion.jpg

With the graying of the baby boomers, this section of society will undoubtedly have a large voice in whatever regulations or laws may come to pass. It seems as though most of the claims I have defended over the last 20 years have involved investors over the age of 60 such that I can say there is a real issue with how firms handle older clients.

Is there anything that can be done to avoid this potential regulatory headache? I think that there are things that can be done on both a macro and micro level.

The macro solution requires firms to take a big picture view of its customer composition. Assuming that there is a graying component to your customer base, you should have specific firm-wide policies and procedures that address elder issues; i.e., heightened supervision, alternate decision-makers, a committee that addresses elder issues, etc.

The micro solution is tied to the macro and can be addressed by a simple question. What are you as a firm doing to ensure your policies and procedures pertaining to elder investors are being carried through as written by your advisors/representatives? If you cannot answer this question, you might as well be signing off on those regulations.

Avoiding elder client regulations may still be in your hands. Are you doing enough to address the issue at your firm? Only time will tell.

  • photo from freedigitalphotos.net

Most people say that New Year resolutions are only as good as the paper on which they are written. Notwithstanding that ringing endorsement, I will give it a shot.

Here are some things that you should be resolved to doing in the New Year:

  1. Read the SEC and FINRA exam priority letters that each issue shortly after the New Year.
  2. Reevaluate your data security policies and procedures by testing it with internal and external threats.confusion.jpg
  3. Reevaluate your policies and procedures regarding the client relationships you maintain with anyone over the age of 65.
  4. Communicate (in either writing or telephonically) with all of your clients at least once a quarter.
  5. Only communicate with your clients through a form of communication that is approved and monitored by your firm.
  6. Have a written follow-up communications after you speak with your clients.
  7. Put in writing to your clients those instances where your clients ignore your advice.
  8. Never put anything in an email that you are unwilling to see blown up 1000 times as an exhibit in a trial or disciplinary proceeding.
  9. Hold on tight for the roller-coaster ride that we may see in the markets next year; your clients will expect you to be the voice and reason and calm.
  10. If a client makes a complaint, immediately report it up the chain, and do not try to resolve it yourself.

I am sure each of you could think of more thinks to resolve yourself to doing. So have it and best wishes for a healthy, happy and prosperous New Year.

* photo from freedigitalphotos.net

Ernie Badway and I have prepared a series of podcasts dealing with the relationships between broker-dealer, investment advisors and their customers.  BoardHere is the third part of that series focused on risk avoidance techniques.  Here is the link: https://soundcloud.com/fox-rothschild-llp/securities-best-practices.

One area of focus for FINRA has been on recidivist registered representatives. A recidivist is an associated person who has repeated rule violations or customer complaints of a specific nature.

FINRA has used a risk-based approach in order to be proactive to identify the bad behavior that these undesirable registered representatives tend to display. In doing so, FINRA has developed systematic way to review data for repeated patterns of certain bad conduct.pointing.jpg

Once FINRA identifies these individuals, FINRA will focus on them and their supervisors. There is a particular focus on branch offices for those individuals who act in a manner inconsistent with firm practices.

FINRA then undertakes to remove the repeat offenders from the industry. If you follow FINRA disciplinary matters, it is apparent that FINRA is seeing this process through and removing repeat offenders from the industry.

Why should you care? For one, it should give you the impetus to review your own ranks. Is there someone who has had repeat issues? If so, what are you doing about it; nothing, heightened supervision, termination, etc.

Firms have a choice. They can help flush out bad seeds in their firms, or have FINRA do it for them. If you take the later course, you are likely to be the focus of FINRA as well. Be proactive; remove recidivists from your ranks.

* Photo from freedigitalphotos.com