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March 1, 2011

University of San Francisco's Investor Justice Clinic Helps Investor Recover $43,177 From Chase Investment Services LLC

school.jpgIt is a rare event when law students at the Investor Justice Clinic have the opportunity to participate in a securities arbitration case that goes all the way to hearing. The claim in question involved a Washington Mutual (WAMU) bank customer who was referred to the bank's on-site stockbroker. The stockbroker was not a bank employee, but an employee of the bank's stock broker affiliate. In this case, WAMU bank's broker affiliate was WAMU Investments Inc., which later became Chase Investment Services LLC.

The trouble started when a helpful WAMU bank teller noticed that the customer had a large amount of cash sitting in her account and recommended that she speak with a WAMU financial advisor who could get her a better return on her assets.

[See related blog posting: Investor Alert: Beware of Stockbrokers That Prey on Bank Customers]

After meeting with the customer, the broker understood that she planned to use the funds to purchase a condominium in the next year or so. Unfortunately for the customer, the broker recommended that she invest all of her money in the Franklin Income Fund (FCISX). Despite the fund's benign name, it is a fairly risky fund that seeks returns than are higher than a typical income fund. In the award, the arbitrator found that the broker's recommendation to invest in the Franklin Income Fund was unsuitable "based on the facts of her financial situation and objectives" and that the fund was "too volatile due to its concentration of low-rated bonds and sector risks." The arbitrator awarded the customer $43,773.41, which represented all of her losses in the fund. Congratulations to everyone at the USF Investor Justice Clinic who volunteered their time and energy on this matter!

About the USF Investor Justice Clinic

I am proud to have been associated with the University of San Francisco law school's Investor Justice Clinic as an adjunct professor and supervising attorney for over 5 years now. The clinic was established by Professor Robert Talbot as a way for law students to gain practical legal skills while, at the same time, helping small investors resolve stockbroker disputes through the securities arbitration program administered by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA). The clinic typically accepts small cases involving damages that are less than $25,000 and qualify for FINRA's "simplified arbitration" process. However, the clinic may accept larger cases if the investor is unable to find an attorney who will accept the case. After the recent market meltdown, the students at the clinic have been busy helping investors on a wide variety of interesting and sometimes challenging cases.

October 5, 2009

FINRA Dispute Resolution Expands Pilot Program for Securities Arbitration Panels

Here is a bit of good news for investors with securities arbitration claims against 14 of the largest brokerage firms, including Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley Smith Barney and Wells Fargo. The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) has agreed to extend its year-old pilot program established to give investors the option to request an arbitration panel composed entirely of arbitrators that are not affiliated with the securities industry. Currently, a 3-person arbitration panel must include one industry arbitrator and two public arbitrators. The pilot program was created in response to criticism over whether an industry arbitrator, such as a stockbroker or branch manager, can act impartially when a customer is complaining about securities fraud or account mismanagement by their broker. I've participated in arbitrations with both good and bad industry arbitrators. The trouble is, allowing an industry arbitrator to sit on a panel gives the appearance of bias and takes away from the legitimacy of the proceedings. That should be reason enough to dump the industry arbitrator. My California securities law firm is in favor of the pilot program and we have been actively encouraging clients to participate whenever possible.

The brokerage firms who have agreed to participate in the pilot program are:

Ameriprise Financial Services
Charles Schwab
Chase Investment Services
Citigroup Global Markets
Edward Jones
Fidelity Brokerage Services
LPL Financial
Merrill Lynch
Morgan Stanley Smith Barney
Oppenheimer
Raymond James
TD Ameritrade
UBS Financial Services
Wells Fargo Advisors / Wachovia Securities

Each of the above firms has committed to participate in a limited number of cases under the program on a first come, first served basis. The pilot program will end on October 5, 2010. Since the average arbitration hearing takes 14 ½ months to conclude, most cases in the pilot program have not gone to hearing yet. FINRA plans to compare the results of the pilot program cases with non-pilot cases. Of the 396 arbitration cases that have been decided this year, only 139 (45%) recovered anything at all. Hopefully, the arbitration award results for cases in the pilot program will be much better. If the pilot program results in more awards in favor of customers, will the brokerage industry lobby to keep the industry arbitrator? Let's hope not.

July 24, 2009

FINRA Sanctions Brokerage Firms Affiliated with Wells Fargo and Washington Mutual Banks for Variable Annuity Sales Violations

Broker-dealers affiliated with Wells Fargo and Washington Mutual, two large banks with close ties to the San Francisco Bay Area, have entered into a settlement with the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) agreeing to pay fines of $275,000 and $250,000, respectively, and consenting to the entry of findings regarding their inadequate supervision of variable annuity, mutual fund and unit investment trust (UIT) transactions with customers. The two bank's sell securities through Wells Fargo Investments and WM Financial Services, which is now doing business as Chase Investment Services. The other firms sanctioned by FINRA are IFMG Securities, PNC Investments and McDonald Investments (now KeyBanc Capital Markets, Inc.). Collectively, the five firms will pay fines to FINRA totalling $1.65 million.

These firms are referred to as "bank broker dealers" because of their close affiliation with a retail bank. A large percentage of a bank broker dealer's business comes directly from referrals by employees of the bank. This arrangement can be misleading to bank customers who are often unaware that they have been referred to a stockbroker who often has a desk or office inside the bank branch.

According to FINRA, the sanctioned firms failed to properly supervise the sales practices of their brokers and did not conduct necessary suitability reviews or investigate questionable variable annuity, mutual fund and UIT sales to its customers, many of whom were elderly. The $1.65 million dollar fine was part of a settlement with FINRA in which the firms consent to the entry of FINRA's findings, but do not actually admit or deny FINRA's findings. Customers affected by these sales practice violations are not entitled to any restitution as a result of the settlement. In order to recoup any losses, affected customers are advised to consult with a securities lawyer.

Click here for all blog postings about variable annuities.