Friday, June 17, 2011

Second Circuit Weighs in on Scope of Broker Fiduciary Duty

On June 7, 2011, the Second Circuit rendered a decision in United States v. Allen Wolfson, Docket Nos. 10-2786-cr(L) and 10-2878-cr(CON), which weighs in on the scope of the fiduciary duty in the broker-customer context. In the case, the defendant appealed from two judgments of conviction entered on a number of different grounds, including securities fraud, relating to the defendant's involvement in a "pump and dump" stock scheme. The evidence at trial showed that the defendant artificially inflated the prices of certain thinly-traded securities in which he had amassed a substantial interest, and then unloaded those holdings on unsuspecting investors. The scheme relied on corrupt stock brokers who sold the securities for prices far above their actual value. In exchange, the defendant rewarded the brokers with exorbitant commissions. Some of the brokers failed to disclose the fact of the commissions to their customers. Others made affirmative misrepresentations about the size of these commissions.

On appeal, the defendant argued that the brokers had no duty to disclose their commissions, and that his fraud convictions, which relied on the breach of that duty to establish a scheme to defraud, must therefore be overturned. The defendant also argued that, even if a duty to disclose might arise in some contexts, the district court gave an improper fiduciary duty instruction.

The court noted that although it had long held that "there is no general fiduciary duty inherent in an ordinary broker/customer relationship," it had also recognized that "a relationship of trust and confidence does exist between a broker and a customer with respect to those matters that have been entrusted to the broker. United States v. Szur, 289 F.3d 200(2d Cir. 2002). The court noted that the fiduciary duty most commonly arises in the broker-customer relationship in situations in which a broker has discretionary authority over a customer's account. However, the court recognized that "particular factual circumstances may serve to create a fiduciary duty between a broker and his customer even in the absence of a discretionary account." United States v. Skelly, 442 F.3d 94 (2d Cir. 2006).

For example, the court noted that in Szur the owner and president of J.S. Securities had convinced brokers to market stock in exchange for unusually large commissions, sometimes as much as 50 percent of the proceeds of the sale. 289 F.3d at 212. The brokers failed to disclose the size of the commissions to their customers. The court held that, although the brokers owed no general fiduciary duty arising from discretionary authority, they were under a duty to disclose the exorbitant commissions because the information would have been relevant to a customer's decision to purchase the stock. Id. This holding was an outgrowth the court's pronouncement in SEC v. First Jersey Securities, Inc., 101 F.3d 1450, 1469 (2d Cir. 1996), where the court explained that "[s]ales of securities by broker-dealers to their customers carry with them an implied representation that the prices charged in those transactions are reasonably related to the prices charged in an open and competitive market."

In other words, the presence of a discretionary account automatically implies a general fiduciary duty, but the absence of a discretionary account does not mean that no fiduciary duty exists. For that reason, the controlling question in the case before the court was whether the jury was properly instructed on the fiduciary duty. The instructions were as follows:

Whether a fiduciary relationship exists is a matter of fact for you, the jury, to determine. At the heart of the fiduciary relationship lies reliance and de facto control and dominance. The relationship exists when confidence is reposed on one side and there is resulting superiority and influence on the other. One acts in a fiduciary capacity when the business which he or she transacts or the money or property which he or she handles is not his own or for his or her own benefit but for the benefit of another person, as to whom he or she stands in a relation implying and necessitating great confidence and trust on the one part and a high degree of good faith on the other part.

If you find that the government has shown beyond a reasonable doubt that a fiduciary relationship existed, such as between any one of the brokers and the customers you next consider whether there was a breach of the duties incumbent upon the fiduciary in the fiduciary relationship and specifically whether the defendant caused the broker or brokers to breach their fiduciary duties to customers. I instruct you that a fiduciary owes a duty of honest services to his customer, including a duty to disclose all material facts concerning the transaction entrusted to him or her. The concealment by a fiduciary of material information which he or she is under a duty to disclose to another, under circumstances where the nondisclosure can or does result in harm to the other is a [b]reach of the fiduciary duty and can be a violation of the federal securities laws, if the government has proven beyond a reasonable doubt the other elements of this offense, as I explained them to you.

The court concluded that the instruction given was identical in all material respects to the charge given in Szur, 289 F.3d at 210. Because the court found no principled basis on which to distinguish the case before it from Szur, the court concluded that there was no error in the charge.

A complete copy of the Second Circuit's decision can be found here.

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