FINRA litigants and arbitrators alike should take note of a federal court’s decision rejecting an unexplained FINRA award when it was unable to discern its basis, notwithstanding that FINRA rules did not require an “explained” decision, and later vacating the explained award once it demonstrated the panel’s manifest disregard of the law. This decision has potentially far-reaching tactical and practical implications, and suggests that arbitrators must be prepared to support their awards whether or not the parties request an explained decision.

Under FINRA dispute resolution rules, arbitrators are not required to issue an explanation of their decision unless requested by both parties. Code of Arbitration Procedure Rules 12904(g) (Customer Code), 13904(g) (Industry Code). Therefore, these “unexplained” awards are customarily devoid of any fact-based explanation, and even explained decisions need not contain legal analysis or damages calculations. Id.

This can present a problem when federal courts are called upon to either confirm or vacate arbitration awards, as was the case in Interactive Brokers LLC v. Saroop, 279 F.Supp.3d 699 (E.D. Va. 2017). There, customers initiated arbitration alleging an array of claims against their online brokerage firm. An arbitration panel entered a substantial monetary award in favor of the customers. However, because the parties had not requested an explained decision under FINRA rules, the panel included little-to-no factual application, legal authorities, or damages analysis. The brokerage moved to vacate and the customers cross-moved to confirm the award.  Although recognizing the “extreme deference” due to arbitrators, the federal court was unable to discern the basis for the panel’s damages award and remanded to the panel for an explanation, noting bluntly that “[j]udges…are not wallflowers or potted plants.” Id. at *708.

Following an unsuccessful appeal to the Fourth Circuit, the panel issued a second award, adding some further text that the federal court found “not very helpful.” Interactive Brokers LLC v. Saroop, Case No. 3:17-cv-127, E.D. Va. (Dec. 18, 2018), Dkt. 95 at 12. The additional explanation, however, showed that the panel based both its damages award and its dismissal of the brokerage’s counterclaims on the brokerage’s alleged violation of FINRA Rule 4210. However, because a violation of FINRA rules does not provide a private right of action, the court vacated the award for manifest disregard of the law, and ordered that the brokerage’s reinstated counterclaims be heard by a new panel of arbitrators. Id. at 19.

There are at least three important takeaways from Interactive Brokers.

First, whether litigants request an explained decision is usually a tactical choice.  Litigants who are concerned about the likelihood that arbitrators will appropriately apply the facts to the law sometimes request explained decisions to force arbitrators into making more reasoned decisions and to provide a basis to seek vacatur of adverse decisions. Interactive Brokers shows, however, that an unexplained decision may also lead to vacatur.

Second, for their part, arbitrators may wish to exercise their discretionary authority to issue explained decisions even where the parties do not request them. See Rules 12904(f); 13904(f). This is especially true where the issues and damages calculations are particularly complex. Issuing explained decisions will not only minimize the uncertainty around post-arbitration proceedings but will enhance the credibility of arbitrator decision-making.

Third, whether or not an explained decision is requested or issued as a matter of arbitrator discretion, an unexplained decision may conflict with the requirement that federal courts have an appropriate record on which to base their post-arbitration decisions. In Interactive Brokers, that conflict resulted in significant delay, extra expense, a new hearing, and a drastic shift in the outcome of the matter—none of which serve the purposes of arbitration, in FINRA or otherwise.

FINRA has published cybersecurity guidance for all its member firms.  See https://www.finra.org/sites/default/files/p602363%20Report%20on%20Cybersecurity%20Practices_0.pdf.

In particular, FINRA is indicating that it wants its member firms to bolster their cybersecurity regimes, and limit both internal and external threats.  The FINRA report also provides a number of resources for firms in applying this guidance.

Please make no mistake about this report.  FINRA is not doing it out of the “goodness of its heart;” instead, member firms should assume FINRA will use this report to bludgeon member firms, who have cybersecurity issues in the future.  That is, member firms should work with counsel to ensure that they have the appropriate cybersecurity policies and procedures in place before FINRA “comes a knockin!”

A year in the making, FINRA announced in late July 2018, that it had completed the reorganization of its enforcement program.  See the FINRA website.  Coupled with the consolidation was the creation of 2 new units: the Office of the Counsel to the Head of Enforcement and the Investigations Unit.  FINRA’s stated goal was to ensure consistency in its enforcement program while maintaining expertise in a number of areas.

In particular, over 150 attorneys will be placed in teams within groups.  These groups will be Main Enforcement, generalists, who will prosecute and investigate any disciplinary issue; Sales Practice Enforcement, specialists in sales practice investigations and prosecutions; and Market Regulation Enforcement, who will assist the Market Regulation staff in examinations and investigations as well as prosecuting any resulting offenders.

Not surprisingly, many of the changes FINRA appears to be implementing seem to mirror changes the SEC has made in the past.  It will be interesting to see if FINRA achieves its stated goals with this new structure.  However, we do not believe it will have much effect on how investigations and prosecutions will be conducted, that is, this seems more of an internal bureaucratic change as opposed to any goal of significantly increasing enforcement investigations and prosecutions.

FINRA recently issued a report regarding its examination findings. FINRA issued this report so that firms can gain insight from the work of FINRA’s examination of other firms.

Among the FINRA’s findings are the following areas that need additional attention:

  1. Cybersecurity, including access management, risk assessments, vendor management, branch office security, segregation on internal duties and data loss prevention.
  2. Outside business activities and private securities transactions, including failure to provide notice to firms, notice reviews and post private securities transaction approval conduct.
  3. Anti-money laundering compliance programs, including maintaining adequate policies and procedures for suspicious activities, responsibility for AML monitoring, exclusions from data feeds used for AML monitoring, resources for AML monitoring and independent testing for AML monitoring.
  4. Product suitability, including unit investment trusts, multi-share class and complex products and training.
  5. Best execution.
  6. Market access controls, including establishing pre-trade financial thresholds, implementing and monitoring aggregate financial exposures, tailoring erroneous or duplicative order controls, implementing effective fixed income financial controls, reliance on vendors for fixed income financial controls, and effective testing for fixed income financial controls.

This list and the items in it should provide other firms with the benefit of hindsight. Review the report and then self-critique your firm. Do you have any of these issues? If so, implement modifications and adjustments to address them.

 

The SEC recently upheld a statutory disqualification that FINRA imposed where the representative filed a false U-4 and falsely answered compliance questionnaires. It appears as though the registered representative failed to disclose tax liens and a bankruptcy on his U-4. So is statutory disqualification the proper punishment for this misdeed.

According to FINRA and the SEC, the answer is a resounding yes and, unfortunately for the registered representative, this makes sense. After all, the U-4 is the lynchpin of what must be disclosed to FINRA and members firms. The answers serve as the basis for whether a registered representative will be hired, retained and supervised.

24752961 – grunge rubber stamp with text disclosure,vector illustration

Similarly, firms use compliance questionnaires to determine if there are compliance issues that need to be addressed. The firm cannot satisfy that purpose when the responses are a lie.

The moral of the story, do not lie on your U-4 and compliance questionnaires. It is only a matter of time before you are caught, and you will be caught. Why throw away your career when the true answers may not have had any impact on the person’s career or position with the member firm.

The CEO of FINRA recently announced that FINRA plans to provide firms with additional resources to deal with recidivist brokers. So what does this mean?

For years, FINRA’s exam priorities have focused on, among other things, brokers who are repeat violators of FINRA rules. FINRA has made this a priority as a way to weed out brokers who do not deserve to be in the industry because they are likely causing more harm than good.

FINRA is effectively asking the firms to do their part in cleansing the industry of bad brokers. What can a firm do in this regard?

First, firms must take more care in the hiring process. Your due diligence cannot begin and end by pulling the registered representative’s CRD. You should run a Google (or similar) style search on the broker. There are also services you can use to find out if there are judgments, liens or lawsuits against the broker. This way, you can find red flags that may not appear on CRD.

Second, once you hire the broker, you have to make sure he/she is coming under a robust supervisory and compliance overview. Be proactive if you sense there is a problem. By doing do, even if there is a problem, you may be able to cut it off before it gets worse.

There is no easy solution. From FINRA’s perspective, however, you are either part of the solution or part of the problem. The choice is yours.

 

One certainty in the brokerage world is that registered representatives often switch from one member firm to another. There is nothing wrong with the switch, but there is a word of caution to be shared.

Before you leave, make sure you only have in your possession, if anything, only those things that the firm you are leaving lets you keep. If you take something you are not allowed to have, you can rest assured that your former employer will come looking for you.Core Values

Similarly, you should determine whether the old or new firms are members of the broker-dealer protocol. If so, you should check the protocol for what you are allowed to take and what notice you have to give to your former employer about the information you are taking with you.

If one or neither firm is a member of the protocol, it still makes sense to follow the protocol. By doing so, you can demonstrate, if ever challenged, that you tried to do the right by following an objective standard that many in the industry have accepted.

Another thing you should verify is whether you are under contract with your old firm to delay your formal commencement with the new firm; otherwise known as a garden leave policy. If so, you had better follow it. If you opt not to follow it, you should expect a disgruntled former employer coming after you.

So change firms if you like. Just be certain you know what you are doing before you do it. A couple missteps here and there could get you in front of FINRA on an enforcement case.

 

In Notice to Members 17-13, FINRA announced changes to its sanction guidelines. In other words, FINRA has listed its new top hits that it is pursuing. Two items bear particular attention.

First, FINRA has introduced a “new principal consideration that examines whether a respondent has exercised undue influence over a customer.” This guideline reinforces FINRA heightened focus on senior investors and those who may be otherwise vulnerable, such as those with diminished capacity.Core Values

Second, FINRA has introduced a “guideline related to borrowing and lending arrangements between representatives and customers.”   This guideline is particularly alarming in as much as it suggests that associated persons are actively engaging in such transactions even though firms uniformly ban them.

Notice to Members 17-13 is a strong guidepost for your supervision and compliance teams. The guidelines highlight growing problems in FINRA’s eyes. This is a cue that you should be ever vigilant for the same conduct. Otherwise, you may be the focus of the new sanction guideline that addresses systemic supervisory failures.