Friday, November 2, 2012

FINRA Panel Awards Expungement in Unlikely Case

 A FINRA hearing Panel in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania recently made an uncommon move when it expunged an arbitration from a broker’s CRD records despite finding the broker jointly liable to the customer. 

In Bordas v. Wells Fargo, FINRA ID # 11-00484, the Claimants, James and Linda Bordas filed an arbitration claim against Wells Fargo Advisors, LLC and Ernest Coffindaffer for unsuitability, unauthorized trading, forgery, misrepresentation, fraud, negligence, breach of fiduciary duty, violations of the Securities and Exchange Act of 1934 and Rule 10b-5, respondeat superior, failure to supervise, and breach of contract.  The causes of action relate to the alleged recommendation and purchase of municipal bonds and variable annuities against the Claimants’ express wishes. 

The Respondents asserted counterclaims for defamation per se, tortious interference with business relationships, and tortious interference with prospective business relationships. 

At the close of hearing, Claimants’ requested a total award of $10 million: $754,765.00 in lost capital; $707,200.00 in lost gain; and the balance in non-economic and punitive damages.  Respondents’ requested $2,000,000.00 in compensatory damages, plus attorneys’ fees of $381,561.60 and $65,564.63 in disbursements. 

The Panel found Wells Fargo and Coffindaffer jointly and severally liable to the Claimants in the amount of $97,250.00.  Since arbitration awards rarely discuss findings of fact, it is unclear which claim(s) the award relates to.  James Bordas was found liable to Coffindaffer for defamation in the amount of $1,000.00.  All other claims against Claimants were dismissed with prejudice. 

Despite finding Coffindaffer jointly and severally liable with Wells Fargo, the Panel made a specific finding of fact that Coffindaffer was not involved in the alleged investment-related sales practice violation, forgery, theft, misappropriation, or conversion of customer funds.  Even though it is uncertain what claim(s) the award was based on, one can assume that Coffindaffer was probably not found liable for fraud or any claims involving an element of willful intent especially since the Panel found that Coffindaffer’s conduct was “not so egregarious as to warrant a permanent stigma on his CRD.”  

The Central Registration Depository (CRD) is a database used by FINRA and NASAA to store and maintain information on registered securities and broker firms.  CRDs contain qualification, employment, and disclosure histories of registered individuals and can be used like a background check on brokers.  FINRA also pulls information from CRDs for its BrokerCheck program, which provides background information on brokers and firms to investors. 

When a broker is named as a respondent in a customer-initiated arbitration, the claim and any alleged wrongdoing are required to be reported on the borker’s Form U4, which will eventually get recorded in the CRD system and become available to the public through BrokerCheck. Therefore, some information that can be disclosed on one’s CRD could be damaging to a broker’s reputation.   

Brokers may seek to expunge any reference to the allegations or involvement in the arbitration from the CRD system.  However, FINRA provides rules that arbitrators must follow before awarding expungement to a broker. 

FINRA Rule 2080 requires that a court of competent jurisdiction confirm an arbitration award granting expungement.  FINRA must be named as an additional party to these court proceedings.  In most cases, FINRA generally opposes the confirmation of an award to expunge.  However, upon request, FINRA may waive the requirement to be named as an additional party in these proceedings if the award directing expungement contains one of the following findings: (1) the claim, allegation or information is factually impossible or clearly erroneous; (2) the registered person was not involved in the alleged investment-related sales practice violation, forgery, theft, misappropriation or conversion of funds; or (3) the claim, allegation or information is false.

FINRA Rules 12805 and 13805 provide that in order to grant expungement, an arbitration panel must hold a recorded hearing session regarding the appropriateness of the expungement.  If the case involves a settlement, the panel must review the settlement documents and conditions of the settlement to determine whether concerns exist about the broker’s involvement in the alleged misconduct. The panel must also indicate which grounds exist under FINRA Rule 2080 to support expungement.  Finally, all hearing session fees must be assessed against the party requesting expungement for any hearings in which the sole topic is expungement. 

Therefore, although the panel awarded expungement, Coffindaffer will still have to obtain a confirmation of the expungement award by the courts.  While the Panel made a specific finding under FINRA Rule 2080, FINRA may still oppose the expungement since he was sheld jointly and severally liable to the customer.  The Panel’s finding that Coffindaffer’s conduct was “not so egregarious as to warrant a permanent stigma on his CRD” may not be enough.

If you are a broker named in a customer-initiated arbitration and would like to seek expungement of the allegations or involvement in the arbitration from your CRD, contact the experienced attorneys at Cosgrove Law Group, LLC.   

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