Friday, February 24, 2017

Get Your Own Lawyer, Darn It!

Financial advisors facing an arbitration claim or regulatory inquiry often count on their broker-dealer or registered investment advisor for legal counsel. These “employers” will frequently provide them with an ostensibly independent “conflict counsel” after they retain their own counsel. Unfortunately, however, it is arguably little more than a charade when the “independent” attorney either has, or one day hopes to represent the broker-dealer or registered investment advisor.

Consider viewing the situation in the context of an attorney's ethical duty of loyalty, her fiduciary duty to put the client's interests first, and her obligation to avoid even the appearance of failing to do so. If you (the attorney) have been hired and paid by a large client that you covet to represent an individual financial advisor that you will never see again, would you not be hesitant to suggest the financial advisor save herself – even if it injures the interests of the large corporate client? Would you really warn the advisor if you caught wind of the broker-dealer's or registered investment advisor's intention to throw him or her under the bus, or even put their interests before your client's in just a small way? And these are not mere hypotheticals. I have seen these situations, and even been caught up in them.

Loyalty and independent judgment are essential elements in the lawyer's relationship to a client. Concurrent conflicts of interest can arise from the lawyer's responsibilities to another client, a former client, or a third person or from the lawyer's own interests. For specific Rules regarding certain concurrent conflicts of interest, see Rule 4-1.8. For former client conflicts of interest, see Rule 4-1.9. For conflicts of interest involving prospective clients, see Rule 4-1.181.

Many years ago, I was in a fairly “steady relationship” with a large broker-dealer. But my firm was more like a second fiddle to a larger law firm they had used for years. Upon the advent of a large regulatory action, the broker-dealer hired me to represent some of their former advisors and executives. I became uncomfortable with this arrangement when it became apparent to me that many of my clients had a strong defense to the allegations, in that the broker-dealer was in large part responsible for my clients' alleged omissions. But before that day of reckoning arrived, something happened. The broker-dealer's primary attorney decided to file what appeared to me to be a frivolous motion that would not be in the best interests of my individual clients. I informed the primary attorney that my clients would not be joining the motion as he had directed. I received a major ass-chewing from him, and an order to get in line. Long story short is that I did not comply with that demand, and the broker-dealer got sanctioned for the motion. My individual clients were relieved, and ultimately dismissed from the case for zero fines or sanctions. But the broker-dealer never hired me again.

In another case, a financial advisor hired me to file a breach of fiduciary duty action against his former broker-dealer's attorney. That attorney initially represented both the broker-dealer and the advisor during a regulatory investigation. That same attorney then proceeded to play an instrumental role in throwing that financial advisor under the bus. When the dust had settled, no pun intended, the broker-dealer and attorney paid almost $4,000,000 to my client for their respective roles in the subsequent U-5 defamation and breach of fiduciary duty.

Finally, in a more recent situation, the attorneys for a broker-dealer's employee never even broached the subject of a resolution between my client and her individual client. Her firm covets their relationship with the broker-dealer far more than I had even dared to imagine. Things went south fast in our previously cordial relationship when I had the audacity to raise the “appearance” issue with her. Nothing changed in terms of proper legal representation, other than the tenor of the relationship.

The moral of these stories is this: if you are in hot water together with your employer, avoid the temptation of having your employer pay your legal bills and pick your lawyer for you. And if you are representing a broker-dealer and they ask you to serve as an unbiased loyal counsel for an employee or independent contractor, “just say no." Food for thought.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

In re Behrends: FINRA Arbitration Awards May Not Be Dischargeable In Bankruptcy But Make Sure To Register Them As Judgments.

11 U.S.C. §523(a)(19), which was part of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, states that a discharge [in bankruptcy] does not discharge an individual debtor from any debt that
            (A) is for:

(i) the violation of any of the Federal securities laws…, any of the State securities laws, or any regulation or order issued under such Federal or State securities laws; or

(ii) common law fraud, deceit, or manipulation in connection with the purchase or sale of any security; and

            (B) results before, on, or after the date on which the petition [in bankruptcy] was filed, from:
(i) any judgment, order, consent order, or decree entered in any Federal or State judicial or administrative proceeding;

                        (ii) any settlement agreement entered into by the debtor; or

(iii) any court or administrative order for any damages, fine, penalty, citation, restitutionary payment, disgorgement payment, attorney fee, cost, or other payment owed by the debtor. 

In re: Behrends, No. 15-1420, (10th Cir. Nov. 14, 2016)(appeal from In re: Behrends, No. 14-cv-03247 (D. Colo. September 30, 2015), involved a proceeding in a Chapter 7 bankruptcy whereby a creditor had obtained a FINRA arbitration award against the debtor for selling “$623,560.53 worth of five highly speculative securities offerings which [they] represented as suitable for retirees like Claimants who were looking for safe income producing investments.”  Claimants also maintained in the arbitration that the offerings were “’non-exempt public securities offerings conducted in violation of state and federal securities laws’ which were ‘the subject of SEC enforcement actions for fraud in the sale of securities.”  Id.  Their FINRA statement of claim asserted breach of fiduciary duty, fraud, violation of the Colorado Securities Act, violation of the Texas Securities Act, and negligence.  Behrends filed an answer to the FINRA arbitration, but did not appear at the scheduled hearing even though he had notice.  The FINRA panel concluded that the claimants had proved both liability and damages and issued a written Award stating that there were “multiple violations of Colorado state and federal securities law…” and finding Behrends jointly and severally liable for compensatory damages, as well as solely liable for a portion of compensatory damages. 

            Behrends thereafter filed his Chapter 7 bankruptcy case.  The bankruptcy court granted claimants relief from the automatic stay, and plaintiffs confirmed the judgment in Colorado state district court.  Behrends did not oppose confirmation of the award.  Claimants then filed an adversary proceeding in the bankruptcy court seeking to have the debt declared non-dischargeable under 11 U.S.C. § 523(a)(19). 

            The bankruptcy court found both requirements of (a)(19) to be met, and that collateral estoppel barred it from reconsidering the merits of the plaintiffs’ FINRA claim.  Behrends appealed.  The Tenth Circuit affirmed that the debt was non-dischargeable in bankruptcy.   Among the Tenth Circuit’s findings was that (a)(19) does not require the securities violation to be “actually litigated,” as Congress departed from the common-law understanding of collateral estoppel and issue preclusion principles.  Section 523(a)(19) “permits a determination of nondischargability based on ‘any judgment,’ (emphasis added).”  Id.; See also, Tripodi v. Welch, 810 F.3d 761, 766-67 (10th Cir. 2016). 

            Behrends also challenged the finding because he claimed the FINRA arbitration award was not sufficient to show a securities law violation, including which securities law he violated, the acts or omissions on which the violations are based, which facts support the damages awarded, and what standard of proof the panel applied.  The Tenth Circuit again disagreed, holding “all that is required is a determination that the award satisfied the requirements for nondischargeability described in § 523(a)(19)." 

            Behrends also conceded that the Denver County District Court order confirming the award and entering judgment thereon “qualifies as a judicial order memorializing the debt.” 

            The implications herein are significant, but at this point largely unpublicized.  According to a PIABA report, as much as $62.1 million in customer awards issued in 2013 alone were unpaid, and an many as $1 of every $4 awarded is unpaid.,%202016).pdf.  

           To the extent these FINRA arbitration awards are unpaid because the Respondent declared bankruptcy, and the judgment is properly registered, In re Behrends indicates that pursuant to 11 U.S.C.  § 523(a)(19), such awards would not be discharged in bankruptcy.  

Monday, February 6, 2017

Sentinel Growth Fund Management and Mark Varacchi: Even Rich People Should Stick With Registered Financial Advisors.

On Thursday, February 2, 2017, the SEC filed a civil complaint in Connecticut federal court against Mark J. Varacchi and Sentinel Growth Fund Management, alleging that the defendants misappropriated at least $3.95 million of investor assets at two private funds the defendants advised/managed.  According to the complaint, the defendants used investor money for personal and business expenses, and to pay prior investors, which would be a Ponzi scheme.  This violated defendants’ fiduciary duty to their clients.

Sentinel’s purported business model was to provide a platform for investors to “invest with up-and-coming hedge fund managers.”  The defendants claimed to have a “master fund that included multiple series managed by the [designated hedge fund managers].  Investor funds either were never invested in the designated hedge funds, or redeemed without authorization. 

The SEC seeks disgorgement and penalties against Varacchi and Sentinel, and also named two hedge funds in an attempt to recover investor assets allegedly in those funds’ possession. 

Neither Sentinel Growth Fund Management, nor Mark Varacchi are registered representatives in the Central Registration Depository, which is the database FINRA maintains of all individuals who are financial advisors (either broker-dealer agents or investment adviser representatives).  As a result, neither appear when search on FINRA’s broker-check website:  Nor do either appear on SEC’s Investment Adviser Public Disclosure website:

It is easy to post a website claiming your firm as the “Best Emerging Manager Managed Account Platform 2016.”  It is much more difficult to take the FINRA Series tests required in order to become a registered financial advisor.  While investing with any given registered persons is no guarantee as to honesty or market returns, placing investor funds with unregistered persons is the single easiest way to lose money in investing.  This is true whether you are investing a modest nest egg, or chasing yield in a supposedly curated hedge fund strategy.  

Thursday, December 22, 2016

FINRA Statutory Disqualifications and the MC-400 Process

Under the Securities Exchange Commission’s authority FINRA promulgates rules of its own as a self regulatory organization (“SRO”). Pursuant to FINRA’s By-Laws (and the By-Laws of the NASD and the NYSE before it) a person may be disqualified from membership. A person disqualified from membership would be prohibited from participation in the securities industry. In July 2007 FINRA adopted a revised version of the NASD’s definition of disqualification contained in its By-Laws such that any person subject to a statutory disqualification under the Securities Exchange Act Section 3(a)(39) also is subject to disqualification under FINRA’s By-Laws.

Prior to the amendment, the NASD’s By-Laws listed some, but not all, of the grounds for statutory disqualification contained in Exchange Act Section 3(a)(39). However, after the amendment to the NASD’s then existing By-Laws, FINRA’s By-Laws provided that: “A person is subject to a ‘disqualification’ with respect to membership, or association with a member, if such person is subject to any ‘statutory disqualification’ as such term is defined in Section 3(a)(39) of the [Securities Exchange Act of 1934].”

The revised definition of disqualification incorporated three additional categories of statutory disqualification which previously did not exist. One of those additional categories of disqualification comes from the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. Section 604 of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act expanded the definition of statutory disqualification under the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 by creating Exchange Act Section 15(b)(4)(H) and then incorporating it into Exchange Act Section 3(a)(39). As a result of this change, statutory disqualification under Exchange Act Section 15(b)(4)(H) includes a person that:
is subject to any final order of a State securities commission (or any agency or officer performing like functions), State authority that supervises or examines banks, savings associations, or credit unions, State insurance commission (or any agency or office performing like functions), an appropriate Federal banking agency (as defined in section 3 of the Federal Deposit Insurance Act (12 U.S.C. 1813(q))), or the National Credit Union Administration, that --
1. bars such person from association with an entity regulated by such commission, authority, agency, or officer, or from engaging in the business of securities, insurance, banking, savings association activities, or credit union activities; or
2. constitutes a final order based on violations of any laws or regulations that prohibit fraudulent, manipulative, or deceptive conduct.
This revised definition of statutory disqualification became effective as of July 2007. The effect of the revised definition would have been the immediate disqualification of a large number of individuals subject to the new categories of disqualification. In order to remain in the securities industry, these individuals would have had to utilize the then existing NASD eligibility proceedings for persons subject to disqualification; i.e. NASD Rule 9520.

In order to avoid this result, the NASD requested that the Securities Exchange Commission Staff not recommend enforcement action to the Commission under Exchange Act Section 15A(g)(2) or Rule 19h-1(a) for those persons subject to the new definition of disqualification until the NASD could update and improve its eligibility proceedings to address the changes to the definition of statutory disqualification. As a result, the SEC, by Chief Counsel Catherine McGuire, issued a No Action Letter on July 27, 2007, informing the NASD that it would not seek enforcement against the individuals subject to the new categories of statutory disqualification if NASD did not file notice with the Commission for enforcement between the time the amended By-Laws containing the revised definition of statutory disqualification became effective and the effective date of the revised eligibility procedures. This would mean that those persons subject to the revised definition could continue membership in FINRA without going through the application process for eligibility pending the adoption of the revised eligibility procedures.

In April 2009, FINRA released Regulatory Notice 09-19 which set forth the amendments to FINRA Rule 9520 Series to become effective June 15, 2009. The revised FINRA Rule 9520 Series established procedures applicable to firms and associated persons subject to the additional statutory disqualifications as a result of the adoption of the revised definition of disqualification. Under this new construct of the Rule 9520 Series, individuals subject to one of the additional categories of disqualification would need to seek FINRA’s approval to enter or remain in the securities industry by way of an application with FINRA’s Department of Registration and Disclosure (“RAD”) only under certain circumstances. The need to file an application depends on 1) the type of disqualification; 2) the date of the disqualification; and 3) whether the firm or individual was seeking admission, readmission or continuance in the securities industry.

There are likely four different ways that a member of FINRA would know that they are required to file an application with RAD as a result of the application of revised Rule 9520 Series to an order of a state securities commission. First, Regulatory Notice 09-19 states that as of June 15, 2009, FINRA began reviewing its records to identify persons that met any of the additional conditions that would require the filing of an application under the revised Rule 9520 Series. In what manner FINRA has undertaken this review is unknown. Second, an individual could identify on their own that they are subject to an existing order which would require an application with RAD.

Third, if someone is seeking to transfer their registration to a new broker-dealer, then any existing state orders which would require an application with RAD as a result of the revised Rule 9520 Series would be disclosed by the CRD (the central licensing and registration system for the U.S. securities industry and its regulators) when it is reviewed by FINRA. Fourth, if an individual is subject to a new order of a state regulator, then an alert is sent out to all other state regulators as well as FINRA through the CRD. Whether FINRA reviews each alert it receives in order to decide to take action against an individual subject to an order of a state securities commission is unknown.

For those subject to a statutory disqualification arising from orders specified in Exchange Act Section 15(b)(4)(H)(i) and Exchange Act Section 15(b)(4)(H)(ii), find below an outline of the circumstances under which the person must file an application with RAD under FINRA’s revised Rule 9520 Series:

A. If the person is seeking admission or re-admission to the industry; and
1. the person is subject to an order under Exchange Act Section 15(b)(4)(H)(i), then the person must file an application unless the order imposing a bar on the person is time-limited and the time period is expired. However, if the bar is related to Fraudulent, Manipulative or Deceptive (“FMD”) conduct, then the person must submit an application under the circumstances described in section I.B.
2. the person is subject to an order under Exchange Act Section 15(b)(4)(H)(ii), then the person must submit an application unless:
i. the sanctions do not involve licensing or registration revocation or suspension (or analogous sanctions) and the sanctions are no longer in effect; or

ii. the sanctions do involve licensing or registration revocation or suspension (or analogous sanctions), the sanctions are no longer in effect, and the order was entered 10 or more years ago.

B. If the person was, as of March 17, 2009, a member of, or an associated person of a member of FINRA or another SRO, and was subject to a statutory disqualification as of that same date and is seeking to continue in the industry; and

1. the person is subject to an order under Exchange Act Section 15(b)(4)(H)(i); and
i. the bar is no longer in effect and is not related to FMD conduct, then no application is required.

ii. the bar is still in effect and is not related to FMD conduct then no application is required unless there is a “triggering event” - which occurs when the person subject to the statutory disqualification either changes employers or the member firm makes an application for the registration of such person as a principal pursuant to FINRA rules.

iii. the bar is still in effect and is related to FMD conduct, then an application is required.

2. the person is subject to an order under Exchange Act Section 15(b)(4)(H)(ii), then an application is required unless:

i. the sanctions do not involve licensing or registration revocation or suspension (or analogous sanctions), and the sanctions are no longer in effect; or

ii. the sanctions do not involve licensing or registration revocation or suspension (or analogous sanctions), and the sanctions are still in effect, in which event an application is required only if there is a triggering event; or

iii. the sanctions do involve licensing or registration revocation or suspension (or analogous sanctions), and the sanctions are no longer in effect, and the order was entered 10 or more years ago. However, if the order was issued less than 10 years ago, then an application is required if there is a triggering event.

C. If the person was, as of March 17, 2009, a member of, or an associated person of a member of FINRA or another SRO, and is subject to a statutory disqualification that arose after March 17, 2009, and is seeking to continue in the industry; and

1. the person is subject to an order under Exchange Act Section 15(b)(4)(H)(i), then the person must file an application unless the order imposing a bar on the person is time-limited and the time period is expired. However, if the bar is related to FMD conduct, then the person must submit an application under the circumstances described in section III.B.

2. the person is subject to an order under Exchange Act Section 15(b)(4)(H)(ii), then an application is required unless:

i. the sanctions do not involve licensing or registration revocation or suspension (or analogous sanctions) and the sanctions are no longer in effect; or

ii. the sanctions do involve licensing or registration revocation or suspension (or analogous sanctions), the sanctions are no longer in effect, and the order was entered 10 or more years ago.
Some more recent articles touching upon this process include: “Stockbroker's DUI Puts Career in the FINRA Ditch” by Bill Singer, “Bankrupt Stockbroker Winds Up Statutorily Disqualified” by Bill Singer, “U-4 Omissions and Statutory Disqualification:Much Ado About Nothing” by Alan Wolper. Do not hesitate to call us if you or your broker-dealer need assistance with a potential MC-400 application.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

NASAA Releases Its 2016 Enforcement Report

The North American Securities Administrators Association (NASAA) recently released its Enforcement Report for 2016, an annual publication providing a general overview of the activities of the state securities agencies responsible for the protection of investors who purchase investment advice or securities. Admittedly, the information undercounts many statistics due to differences in fiscal year reporting and a lack of response or underreporting for each survey question posed. However, trends in the 52 U.S. jurisdictions are still apparent in the report.[i]

For the first time since NASAA began tracking enforcement statistics, more registered than unregistered individuals and firms were subject to respondent status.[ii] During 2015, state securities regulators conducted 5,000 investigations and brought 2,000 enforcement actions against 2,700 respondents, which often involved more than one individual or company.[iii]

Sanctions imposed upon those who were found in violation of securities law ranged from incarceration to monetary relief and bans on trading. The year witnessed a combined 849 years of imprisonment, 410 years of probation, and 23 years of deferred prosecution, as well as $538m paid in restitution and $238m in fines/penalties.[iv] In addition to criminal and monetary repercussions, revocation and disbarment from the industry occurred for more than 250 individuals, while another 475 licenses/registrations were denied, suspended or conditioned.[v]   

The five most common violations prompting these actions were, in order of frequency: Ponzi Schemes, Real Estate Investment Program Fraud, Oil & Gas Investment Program Fraud, Internet Fraud, and Affinity Fraud.[vi]

The NASAA report found that Ponzi scheme victims were often targeted through the internet or for identifiable attributes, such as race or religion. The report also found that vulnerable seniors were disproportionately victims; jurisdictions that reported on seniors found one-third of all investigations related to their victimization.[vii]

Prison terms have become more common for those conducting such schemes, such as Derek Nelson, found guilty of selling about $37m in promissory notes for property purchases that never took place. As a consequence, Mr. Nelson received 19 years in prison.[viii]

Real estate and oil and gas investment fraud was also a major concern for reporting NASAA members. Some states, such as Colorado, have sought judicial remedy and have secured investor protection by winning the right to have oil and gas interests subject to securities law.[ix]

The report clearly states that all fraud has been made easier to accomplish due to the internet, where only basic computer skills allow an individual from anywhere in the world to “enter” the homes of investors. Scott Campbell was sentenced to 20 years in prison for conducting a Ponzi scheme over the internet from Florida. Alabama garnered 18 convictions in an international bank scheme conducted through Craigslist.[x] Affinity frauds, in which an individual purports to be a member of a certain group, are much easier to accomplish given the anonymity of the internet.

The industry’s heightened attention to elder abuse has not shielded those responsible for supervision or oversight. Wells Fargo Advisors, LLC and Fulcrum Securities, LLC were ordered to pay $470,000 to investors for their failure to oversee Christopher Cunningham of Virginia, who defrauded elderly clients in a Ponzi scheme. For his part, Cunningham was disbarred and sentenced to 57 months in federal prison.[xi]

Attorneys are not immune to abusing their positions in order to perpetrate fraud. According to the report, Michael Kwasnik, an estate planning attorney, used his position of trust to perpetrate a $10m Ponzi scheme against elderly victims in New Jersey. The Court found that he had taken advantage of the attorney-client trust. Earlier in the year, Kwasnik also pled guilty to securities fraud in Delaware, utilizing the client trust account of his law firm to commingle monies from both frauds. Though Mr. Kwasnik received no jail time, he was ordered to repay millions in lost monies, amongst other judgments.[xii]

What may be the single worst case of elder victimization presented in NASAA’s annual report was perpetrated by Sean Meadows, owner of a financial planning and asset management firm, Meadows Financial Group LLC (MFG). Meadows perpetrated a $13m Ponzi scheme against 100 individuals, some disabled, poor, or terminally ill. He took the life savings of most, luring them into draining their retirement accounts. Many lost their homes, ability to care for their families, and even pay for cancer treatments.[xiii]

Meadows convinced his victims to pull money out of tax-deferred accounts to invest with MFG, promising these transactions would be tax-free rollovers. He then convinced these same individuals to allow him to do their taxes, in order to cover up the scheme. He either filed fraudulent tax returns or filed nothing at all. As a result, in addition to losing retirement savings, many incurred significant tax liabilities. For his crimes, Meadows received 25 years in prison.[xiv]

As the NASAA report makes clear, positive steps are being taken by its members to address the fraudulent and criminal activities of some individuals and firms. Laura Posner, NASAA Enforcement Section Chair, believes enhanced regulatory scrutiny is responsible for the increase in action documented by the report.[xv] However, it is still necessary to be on alert for promises that seem too good to be true. If you feel you may have fallen victim, please seek consultation from an attorney immediately.   

[i] North American Securities Administrators Association (2016) NASAA 2016 Enforcement Report (Based on 2015 Data) [Electronic Format]. Retrieved from: (pp. 11)
[ii] Ibid. pp. 5
[iii] Ibid. pp. 2
[iv] Ibid. pp. 3
[v] Ibid. pp. 4
[vi] Ibid. pp. 4
[vii] Ibid. pp. 5
[viii] Ibid. pp. 6-7
[ix] Ibid. pp. 4-5
[x] Ibid. pp. 7
[xi] Ibid. pp. 7
[xii] Ibid. pp. 9
[xiii] Ibid. pp. 9-10
[xiv]Ibid. pp.  9-10
[xv] NASAA Releases Annual Enforcement Report (9.13.2006) [Electronic Format]. Retrieved from:

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Financial Advisors Expunging Baseless Customer Complaints in State Court

The Internet is awash with articles about “bad brokers” with clean U-4s, and “rouge brokers” obtaining expungements of valid customer complaints.  Indeed, studies have been published ostensibly demonstrating that state regulators poses more valuable information on their system than what appears on FINRA’s public Broker-Check data base.  In sum, there is a consensus that too many complaints are being expunged.  But whether that consensus is based on fact is subject to debate.

Regardless, FINRA has repeatedly responded to the hue and cry by making it increasingly difficult for a financial adviser to obtain an expungement of a customer complaint published on his or her professional record.  But amidst all of this anguish and gnashing of teeth, a politically incorrect truth has been left in the shadows.  I feel compelled to share it with you.  Here it is:  some customer complaints are baseless.  There; I said it.

Another often-overlooked fact is that FA’s are able to go straight to a court of law, rather than a FINRA arbitration, to obtain an expungement.  Almost exactly one year ago, FINRA issued new guidance to its arbitrators raising ever higher the procedural bars for a panel to recommend expungement[1].  Should a FA surmount the procedural hurdles and slim avenues to success, the FA still has to go to court to get the Award confirmed.  And, in that state court action, he or she still needs to name FINRA as a party so that they can show up and oppose the FINRA arbitrator’s recommendation.

But FINRA Rule 2080 actually reads as follows:

2080. Obtaining an Order of Expungement of Customer Dispute Information from the Central Registration Depository (CRD) System
(a) Members or associated persons seeking to expunge information from the CRD system arising from disputes with customers must obtain an order from a court of competent jurisdiction directing such expungement or confirming an arbitration award containing expungement relief.
(b) Members or associated persons petitioning a court for expungement relief or seeking judicial confirmation of an arbitration award containing expungement relief must name FINRA as an additional party and serve FINRA with all appropriate documents unless this requirement is waived pursuant to subparagraph (1) or (2) below.
(1) Upon request, FINRA may waive the obligation to name FINRA as a party if FINRA determines that the expungement relief is based on affirmative judicial or arbitral findings that:
(A) the claim, allegation or information is factually impossible or clearly erroneous;
(B) the registered person was not involved in the alleged investment-related sales practice violation, forgery, theft, misappropriation or conversion of funds; or
(C) the claim, allegation or information is false.
(2) If the expungement relief is based on judicial or arbitral findings other than those described above, FINRA, in its sole discretion and under extraordinary circumstances, also may waive the obligation to name FINRA as a party if it determines that:
(A) the expungement relief and accompanying findings on which it is based are meritorious; and
(B) the expungement would have no material adverse effect on investor protection, the integrity of the CRD system or regulatory requirements.
(c) For purposes of this Rule, the terms "sales practice violation," "investment-related," and "involved" shall have the meanings set forth in the Uniform Application for Securities Industry Registration or Transfer ("Form U4") in effect at the time of issuance of the subject expungement order.

It seems as if very few have read the actual rule.  I recently read an attorney blog that makes no mention of the direct-to-court avenue whatsoever!  Well, our attorneys are very familiar with both the state court and arbitration options and procedures. 
There is actually some case law out there on a financial adviser’s right to go to court to seek an expungement.  In Lickiss v. FINRA, 208 Cal.App. 4th 1125 (2012), the California Court of Appeals reversed a lower court’s dismissal of the FA’s petition.  In fact, it held that the trial court abused its discretion by limiting itself to the criteria set forth in Rule 2080(b), rather than employing the court’s broad equitable power and discretion.  The Court of Appeals stated in part:

            FINRA has established BrokerCheck, an online application through which the public may obtain information on the background, business practices and conduct of FINRA member firms and their representatives.   Through BrokerCheck, FINRA releases to the public certain information maintained on the CRD, thereby enabling investors to make informed decisions about individuals and firms with which they may wish to conduct business.   This data includes historic customer complaints and information about investment-related, consumer-initiated litigation or arbitration….

            The issues surrounding Lickiss's sale of CET stock occurred more than 20 years ago, and the one regulatory matter against him resolved 15 years ago in 1997.   Since then, his record has been clear, yet Lickiss attested that he suffers professional and financial hardship relating to the prior sale of CET stock because current and potential clients increasingly use the Internet to obtain his BrokerCheck history.

Lickiss petitioned for expungement of his CRD records, asserting that the superior court had jurisdiction “pursuant to (1) FINRA Rule 2080(a);  [and] (2) the Court's equitable and inherent powers to effectuate expungements.”

FINRA removed the action to federal court.   Upon Lickiss's motion, the federal district court remanded the matter back to the state superior court, ruling that it did not have subject matter jurisdiction over the case because there is no statute, rule or regulation imposing a duty on FINRA to expunge….

Had Lickiss merely petitioned the court for expungement relief under rule 2080, without also invoking the court's equitable powers, that might be the end of the matter.   However, Lickiss explicitly invoked those powers….

Equity aims to do right and accomplish justice.  (Hirshfield v. Schwartz (2001) 91 Cal.App.4th 749, 770.)… 

The equitable powers of a court are not curbed by rigid rules of law, and thus wide play is reserved to the court's conscience in formulating its decrees… 

This basic principle of equity jurisprudence means that in any given context in which the court is prevailed upon to exercise its equitable powers, it should weigh the competing equities bearing on the issue at hand and then grant or deny relief based on the overall balance of these equities…

The choice of a very narrow, rigid legal rule to assess the legal sufficiency of Lickiss's petition—a choice that closed off all avenues to the court's conscience in formulating a decree and disregarded basic principles of equity—was nothing short of an end run around equity…

This is not, as FINRA contends, merely a request for a remedy.   Rule 2080(a) essentially recognizes the right of members and associated persons to seek expungement of information from the CRD system by obtaining an order from a court of competent jurisdiction directing such expungement. 

See also Lickiss v. FINRA, Fed.Sec. L. Rep. P.96, 345 (2011). Compare Updegrove v. Betancourt, 2016 WL 3442762 (2016).
If you are a FA who has a U-4 scarred by one or more clearly erroneous customer complaints, we would be happy to evaluate your prospects for success in seeking an expungement in state court or arbitration.  Your chances of erasing an unfair or unfounded complaint in a court of law at a reasonable cost might be better than you think.