Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Conflict Management for Terminated Financial Advisors

There is plenty of room for conflict when a financial advisor is leaving his or her broker-dealer. Although the departure may start off in an amicable fashion, tensions often flare once promissory notes and client retention issues arise. Moreover, an involuntary or “for-cause” termination may implicate defamation and regulatory issues. In other words, your broker-dealer may defame you on your U-5/U-4[1] providing you with an arbitration claim but also subjecting you to months of regulatory scrutiny from FINRA and state regulators. So here is my lecture: it is wise to retain independent counsel as soon as you are even contemplating leaving your current broker-dealer. Your legal counsel can help you achieve a smooth transition or at least advocate for you during the termination process. Our firm has represented countless departing brokers on a nearly endless array of issues. We have also recouped millions of dollars in defamations awards and settlements. Food for thought.


Please follow us on Twitter @CosLawGroup, on LinkedIn at Cosgrove Law Group, LLC, and on Facebook at Cosgrove Law Group, LLC.  


[1] In 2020, U5 defamation cases were the fourth most common intra-industry claim filed with FINRA, behind breach of contract, promissory notes, and compensation claims. (https://www.littler.com/publication-press/publication/form-u5-defamation-claims-rise-finra-be-prepared)

Thursday, October 14, 2021

The SEC Chair sets the Agency’s sights on Cryptocurrencies

 On October 5, 2021, Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Gary Gensler addressed the House Financial Services Committee regarding the agency’s role in regulating the cryptocurrency markets. His remarks regarding Congress’ need to fill the regulatory gaps in cryptocurrency markets have been criticized as confusing considering his past statements that most cryptocurrencies are securities and therefore already fall under the SEC’s regulatory scheme. Adding to the uncertainty is his refusal to stake out a clear position as to whether the two biggest cryptocurrencies, Bitcoin and Ethereum, are securities. 

The SEC and its state counterparts presently apply the Howey[1]/Forman[2] tests set down by the U.S. Supreme Court in analyzing whether cryptocurrencies are “investment contracts” within federal and state securities laws. This fact extensive analysis that is applied on a case-by-case basis may lead to different results from one cryptocurrency to another. Consequently, if faced with an enforcement action by either the SEC or the States of Missouri, you may wish to consult with experienced securities enforcement counsel at Cosgrove Law Group.

Author: Brian St. James


Please follow us on Twitter @CosLawGroup, on LinkedIn at Cosgrove Law Group, LLC, and on Facebook at Cosgrove Law Group, LLC


[1] S.E.C. v. W.J. Howey Co., 328 U.S. 293, 66 S. Ct. 1100, 90 L.Ed. 1244 (1946) and 293,

[2] United Housing Foundation, Inc. v. Forman, 421U.S. 837, 95 S. Ct. 2051, 44 L. Ed. 2d 621 (1975) 

Monday, September 27, 2021

State Regulators Focus on Precious Metals and Self-Directed IRA’s

The organization of North American securities regulators recently had their annual conference. The organization is known as NASAA.

During the conference presentation and panel discussion, it was reported that much attention was paid to self-directed IRA’s. The regulators believe that SDIRA’s are being used in conjunction with investment “scams.” It was reported that the regulators are anxious to work with federal legislators, but it was unclear as to what the proposed legislative solution to the alleged problem would be.

In conjunction with the discussions, the regulators referenced the precious metals industry. Our firm has worked with stakeholders in the precious metals industry for over a decade. Many of those industry players take compliance and ethical business practices very seriously. We also represent precious metals industry stakeholders when they are contacted by or receive a subpoena from a regulator. It was reported that state regulators opened more than 80 investigations of offerings related to SDRIA’s last year and brought 53 enforcement actions as well. The results of these investigations and actions were not, however, reported.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Court Strikes Non-Compete and Non-Solicitation Provisions

 In a financial services industry dispute, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals recently reversed a district court's enforcement of a non-compete agreement and non-solicitation agreement in employment contracts. The appellants were a financial advisor and her new financial services firm. The appellee that lost on appeal was the financial advisor's former employer.

The financial advisor was Cara Miller. When she worked for Honkamp Krueger Financial Services, she signed an employment agreement that included a non-compete and non-solicitation agreement and then an Agreement Ancillary to Employment that failed to include a non-compete provision. Miller voluntarily terminated her employment when Honkamp Krueger was purchased by another firm. She wisely sent a letter terminating her employment agreement rather than just her employment. She sought a declaratory judgment in the district court. Honkamp Kruger counterclaimed, seeking a preliminary injunction against her, and prevailed.  

The Court of Appeals took different approaches to the non-compete and non-solicitation agreement[1]. The Court concluded that the non-compete agreement ended when Miller provided written notice that the employment contract had ended. The Court found that the District Court's application of the non-solicitation agreement was void against public policy in that it prohibited accepting clients as well as soliciting them. Two quotes from the opinion are worthy of repetition: 1) "…non-compete agreements are 'strictly' constructed against the one seeking to restrain another from pursuing his profession, business, or employment", and 2) "…a contract cannot prevent former employees from accepting clients of their former employers because clients are not parties to the contract and should be allowed to choose with whom they want to do business." Food for thought.

What to do about FINRA Customer Complaints

Trust is essential for a successful career as a securities broker. FINRA’s BrokerCheck website allows the public and employers to search a securities broker by name and discover any disciplinary actions that have been issued against that broker. A BrokerCheck report also lists any formal complaints by previous investors. This system helps prevent investors from getting involved with securities brokers with a history of fraudulent and/or negligent behavior. In some instances, however, BrokerCheck casts too wide a net, causing significant reputational harm to undeserving brokers.

When a customer complaint appears on a broker’s BrokerCheck report, it is originally listed as pending. This occurs whether or not the complaint actually has merit. Unfortunately, complaints can be listed as pending for years until settled or decided in an arbitration. If the Broker-Dealer or FINRA deny the complaint on its merits the status of the complaint changes from pending to denied; however, the complaint remains on the BrokerCheck report. Even though a complaint is listed as denied, investors may still find themselves weary of that broker when comparing them to a broker with a claim-free record.

Recognizing that BrokerCheck complaints can have a tremendous influence on a broker’s career, FINRA allows brokers to request expungement of claims on their BrokerCheck report.  Here at Cosgrove Law Group, LLC, we have experience helping securities brokers remove meritless complaints from their FINRA BrokerCheck report. If you are suffering under a meritless claim on your BrokerCheck report, please contact the Cosgrove Law Group, LLC for more information on how we can help. 

Authors: Alexander Oakes and Max Simpson


Please follow us on Twitter @CosLawGroup, on LinkedIn at Cosgrove Law Group, LLC, and on Facebook at Cosgrove Law Group, LLC

Friday, June 25, 2021

The Arbitration System

The premise that underlies the justification for the loss of rights in arbitration is simple: both parties knowingly agreed to binding arbitration. This presumption is based upon the presumptions that 1) signators read contracts before signing, 2) they have the time and knowledge to understand the implications of the arbitration provision, and 3) they have a viable ability to opt-out of agreeing to the provision. Arbitration's entire legitimacy is based upon these fairly specious presumptions. And there has been much written about these presumptions and whether or not binding arbitration is actually the product of an informed voluntary decision by both parties. See “Whimsy Little Contracts' with Unexpected Consequences: An Emperical Analyss of Consumer Understanding of Arbitration Agreements,” Jeff Sovern, Elayne Greenberg, Paul Kirgis, and Yuxiang Liu, St. John's Legal Studies Research Paper No. 14-0009, October 29, 2014 and “Arbitration Clauses Trap Consumers with Fine Print,” Jeff Sovern, AmericanBanker.com, December 2, 2014.

The position of the “Whimsy Little Contracts'...” study is that no one would voluntarily agree to have substantial rights resolved in a quasi-judicial system contaminated by bias. Take a look at this chart and decide for yourself if the system is fair and free of improper influence:


Finally, there is another false assumption that bolsters the presumption favoring arbitration: it is more efficient than the courts: Cheaper and quicker! Unfortunately, I could rattle off twenty examples demonstrating just how questionable this presumption is when presented as a general truth. I received an arbitration award from JAMS 7 years after the claim was filed. I just paid AAA over $20,000 before the Panel has ever convened, and the Respondent buried us in discovery. If I was in Federal Court, I would have a scheduling order protecting my client for approximately $200 in filing fees.

In sum, both the courts and the legislature need to take a hard and honest look at the jurisprudential legitimacy of binding arbitration. Food for thought.



Wednesday, June 23, 2021

The Harms and Indicators of Excessive Trading

 

Many securities brokers work for commissions. This means that they charge investors a fee whenever executing a trade on their behalf. This method of compensation has, in the past, enticed some nefarious brokers to increase their compensation by making more trades on a customer’s behalf than is in the customer’s best interest.

What is Excessive Trading?

Excessive trading, also known as churning, occurs when a securities broker executes trades in a customer’s account at an unsuitable frequency in an effort to increase their own commissions. Make no mistake, excessive trading is illegal. Unfortunately, in all but the most egregious circumstances, you may need to consult a professional to determine whether you are a victim of excessive trading. There is no “one size fits all” test to determine whether a broker is churning a customer’s account. Instead, courts and regulators balance several factors to determine whether a broker’s trading would be deemed excessive. It is determined by the volume at which trades are being executed, the type of security being traded, the investor’s stated investment objectives and the investor’s risk tolerance (including their age, net worth, and investment experience). For instance, the same number of trades may be suitable for an investor with more speculative objectives but unsuitable for an investor with more conservative objectives. Moreover, one type of product traded a certain number of times may be suitable; whereas, a different type of product—not meant for that volume of trading—traded just as many times may be unsuitable.

The Harms of Excessive Trading 

            Excessive trading can cause significant and irreparable harm to investors beyond simply loss of principal. It will almost always prevent the desired growth due both to excessive fees that accompany it and the excessive switching of investment products that will only yield growth if they are held onto for certain periods of time. Even if an investor’s principal investment remains intact after a ten year period, the fact that an account achieved no, or minimal, growth over that period—when a properly traded account would have seen the growth the investor desired—can cause damage to an investor’s financial health which cannot be undone. 

The Evolution of Excessive Trading           

Excessive trading primarily occurs when securities brokers engage in unnecessarily frequent switching of equities sold on public securities exchanges. When this occurs, the broker “earns” a commission for each trade. Over time, these charges compound and cause substantial harm. In recent years, more and more securities brokers are starting to engage in excessive trading of more long term investment products not sold on public exchanges such as mutual funds, unit investment trusts, private equity funds, closed-end funds, and, most notably, variable annuities. Long-term product switching, especially when it involves variable annuities, does not need to occur at the same volume as equity switching in order to be deemed excessive. For example, annuities are specifically designed to be held onto long term and are often marketed to elderly vulnerable investors with very low risk tolerance. Investors placed in products such as variable annuities may be charged inordinately high[1] fees when they are both placed in and exit the product. That means that the fees investors incur as a result of excessive trading will rack up even more when the trading involves individually tailored private investment products like annuities.

The Indicators of Excessive Trading 

            Regulatory agencies such as FINRA have two main tools to identify excessive trading. One is by looking at the Turn-Over Rate. This is the number of times the securities in the account turn into new securities. The second is called the Cost-Equity Ratio. This is the amount the account would need to appreciate in order for the customer to simply cover the fees they are being charged. A turn-over rate of 6 and a cost-equity ratio of 20 percent are the prime indicators that excessive trading is most likely occurring. However, as noted above, these are just two indicators of many. Excessive trading still may exist where these indicators are not met.

Who Can Stop Excessive Trading? 

More so than both FINRA and the customers themselves, it is actually the broker-dealer who is in the best position to both spot and put a stop to excessive trading. Many securities firms have alert systems in place where they will be automatically be notified if an investor’s turn-over rate reaches 6 and their cost-equity ratio reaches 20 percent; however, case-law dictates that these two numbers are not necessary to make someone liable for excessive trading. Many brokers engaging in this practice know how to effectively skirt these alerts and avoid raising red flags by engaging in trading that falls just shy of reaching the numbers necessary to trigger the alerts. For this reason, FINRA has called on all broker-dealers to be more vigilant in broker supervision beyond merely “checking in on things” once an alert has gone off.

            Unfortunately, it is incredibly difficult for investors to recognize when excessive trading is actually occurring. The investor is not trained in this industry and may only receive quarterly or annual statements from their broker. In some of the most egregious violations, brokers will skirt supervision mechanisms by fraudulently changing an investor’s preferences to allow for more frequent and speculative trading, essentially banking on investors not noticing the change in preferences on their account statements.

            The best thing that investors can do is make sure that their investment objectives and risk tolerance are listed correctly on account statements, actively communicate with their broker, and take thorough notes of their conversations. If investors do have any suspicions, they should never be afraid to call the broker-dealer and speak to a supervising manager. Legitimate brokers are not offended by this action and it will have no affect on your working relationship.

            Here at Cosgrove Law Group, LLC, we have substantial experience dealing with fraud related to brokers and financial professionals. If you suspect that you are a victim of excessive trading, contact the experienced attorneys at Cosgrove Law Group, LLC.

Author: Alexander Oakes, J.D. Candidate 2023, St. Louis University School of Law

[1] It is not uncommon to see an investor charged 25 percent of their principal investment if they exit an annuity early.