Yesterday’s article in Investment News confirms my opinion about the disadvantages of pursuing mass-arbitration claims before the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), which I try to avoid in my California securities law practice. On the heals of the Medical Capital class action lawsuits, law firms have begun filing mass-arbitration claims against broker-dealers such as Securities America and Capital Financial Services, often grouping as many as 15 individual Medical Capital investors into a single arbitration case in what almost amounts to a “mini-class action.” In response, broker-dealers have vowed to vigorously defend these claims.
Mass-arbitrations can be very profitable for law firms hoping to earn large contingent fees by aggregating as many clients as possible into a single arbitration. Unfortunately, the best interest of the individual investor/client may suffer as a result. The challenge of taking a mass-arbitration claim to hearing and proving that each client is independently entitled to an award can be great. As part of their defense strategy, broker-dealers are filing motions to sever these claims into separate individual arbitrations which will undoubtedly delay and disrupt the entire process. When clients start getting separated from the herd, will mass-arbitration attorneys still be interested in representing those clients who had marginal claims to begin with? Undertaking a mass-arbitration raises a number of ethical issues for attorneys attempting to jointly represent a diverse group of unrelated clients who may have varying levels of commitment to pursue their claims. A client recently showed me a proposed contingent fee agreement given to them by a mass-arbitration law firm that would essentially force them to accept a settlement if 60% of the other clients agreed to settle.
Combining customer claims into a single arbitration often makes sense from a practical and economic standpoint, such as when the clients are related or are customers of the same financial advisor. However, individuals with strong cases may be better off going it alone rather than joining a mass-arbitration and being lumped together with other investors who may have weaker facts. Before deciding to become part of a mass-arbitration claim, clients should explore their options with a great deal of care.